Posted inOpinion

Our Views on the Union Debate   

“This House Believes That There Can Be No Ethical Consumption Under Capitalism.”

Image Credit: Niamh Jones

Co-authored by Finn Walshe (Proposition) and Nidhi Bhaskar (Opposition)

Whenever we consume goods, markets inextricably tie our choices to the world around us. Our choices impact everything from the environment to the welfare of people halfway around the world. We accept that some of our choices create negative, “unethical”,  market outcomes, but to what extent do we need to take action? Can we make changes to consumption within our current capitalist system? Or do we need to think outside it and take a more revolutionary approach?

These are the questions that last week’s Oxford Union Society debate sought to answer. Below are our opinions on whether there can be ethical consumption under capitalism.

In favour of the proposition

We must look beyond capitalism to create environmentally ethical consumption. Those on the other side of this debate argued that carbon taxes are a good way forward, and that it is possible to limit climate change within current market systems by charging for the production of harmful emissions. The economy would adjust accordingly, they said, and those arguing for proposition made no attempt to counter it. However, I shall argue that carbon taxes are not feasible and do not provide an effective solution to climate change. We must look beyond capitalism to create environmentally-ethical consumption. 

While carbon taxes may be an economist’s dream, the reality of their implementation has significant limitations. For example, the issue of how to distribute the revenue created by the tax – on one side, it could be used to fund tax cuts for, allowing for an efficient and fair redistribution of wealth from corporate interests to the wider low-income population. On the other hand, climate activists argue that carbon tax revenue should be funneled into green technology.

This tension played out in the State of Washington’s attempts to introduce a carbon tax. The first attempt in 2016 failed after taking a more conservative path and proposing tax cuts. Another attempt in 2018 took the side of climate activists but again, it failed to gain broad support and fell through in a referendum. 

There’s also the issue of impacts that carbon taxes may have on trade in the absence of a global carbon market. With the relatively disparate introduction of carbon taxes across the globe, undesirable market outcomes are inevitable. For example, when one country has a strict carbon tax, and another country’s is non-existent or limited, the domestic industry of the former country may be undercut by cheaper carbon-dirty imports from the latter.

To avoid a situation where domestic industry is damaged and carbon taxes rendered useless, ‘border carbon adjustments’ have been suggested. However, in reality, the calculation of these effective carbon tax tariffs requires too much information to be practical. They also risk creating trade tensions and damaging cooperation between nations to fight climate change. 

With these fundamental issues, it’s hardly surprising that in May 2020, The Economist reported that only 20% of global emissions were covered by pricing schemes, while none of the prices imposed fell within the necessary range proposed by economists. 

Therefore, those who say that we can achieve environmentally sustainable and ethical consumption under capitalism using carbon taxes are telling no more than a fairytale. The longer we spend consumed by capitalist realism, telling ourselves that ‘the market can fix it!’, is less time that we may spend critically examining that market, and finding solutions outside of it. 

The carbon tax argument made by the proposition last Thursday only considers environmental externalities and does nothing to consider the exploitation of people and animals as well as the distortion of political institutions in developing states. And so, with the opposition’s keynote being so flawed and narrow, it’s easy to argue that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. 

Summary of Union Speakers 

Alex Fish

He provided an argument as to why capitalism is unethical and why attempts to fix it still fail. As he joked about his locally-bought tartan trousers, he argued that while such ethical options exist, consumers simply don’t make the necessary choices. Instead we need to organise ourselves, and vote like our lives depend on it. 

Noga Levy-Rapoport

As a climate activist and student of History and Politics at the University of Warwick, they argued that ethical consumption is a myth. Capitalism offers consumption to us as a solution to its own crisis, that being its constant need for growth rather than to prevent climate change and the exploitation of people. 

Tom Burgis

As an author and investigative journalist for The Financial Times, Burgis told the story of a five-year-old girl in the Democratic Republic of Congo, starving to death after a conflict between rival militias forced her family to flee from their farmstead. Behind such conflicts lies the exploitation of resources to feed consumption around the globe. Burgis’ closing remark, “Ethical consumption sells not emancipation but absolution”, powerfully summarised his argument that concepts such as ‘FairTrade’ are less about creating ethical processes and more about justifying the continued exploitation of people and resources. 

Bharti Patel

An international women’s rights advocate, Patel argued against the belief that capitalism can raise people out of poverty. Such views, she said, cover up Western capitalism’s true motive in entering developing countries – that being the exploitation of people and resources. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed this as large corporations cancelled orders from factories in the developing world and exploited the fall in demand by refusing to pay full prices.

In favour of the opposition

The argument that there can be no ethical consumption under capitalism stems from the assumption that fallacies within our current markets are the cause of harmful consumerism. However, with regulatory changes, I believe that a more ethical framework of consumption can be possible within the existing system.

Firstly, large capitalist corporations provide opportunities for employment – most notably to vulnerable individuals otherwise at risk of exploitation. Although corporations themselves are infamous for exploitative practices and minuscule living wages in developing countries, it can be argued that these ethical failures are due to defects in public policy, rather than capitalism itself.

Capitalism does, in fact, enable vulnerable populations such as women to assume a factory jobs, which is a significant step towards empowerment. Rather than falling prey to early marriages, women under capitalism have been given the capacity to earn living wages and provide for themselves.

The onus of unethical consumption, meanwhile, often falls on governmental bodies and can be ascribed to inadequate public policy in individual states. Throughout history, the enforcement of federal standards such as minimum wage, sick leave, labor unions, and child education laws has guided the shaping of workforces globally. Although these standards have become almost ubiquitous in the Western world, the difficulties in maintaining infrastructure in areas of the developing world parlay into looser restrictions.

The absence of adequate policy, governance, and protective measures in place regarding corporate structures clearly leads to the exploitation of workers.  Consequently, evolving public policy and regulatory standards around the globe should be seen as most responsible for the ethicals of capitalistic practices.

In arguing against the proposition, it is crucial to consider alternatives to the deeply entrenched structures of capitalism that we are susceptible to today. As the closing speaker in the opposition argued, the revolution has frequently been attempted, but has rarely been successful or yielded a better quality of life in the post-revolutionary years. Although both the proposition and opposition can agree on the fact that the current model of capitalism is both exploitative and unsustainable, it must not believe that this model is beyond improvement or reform.

With systematic reform in place to address corrupt and exploitative practices globally – especially among vulnerable populations – infrastructure can be bolstered to afford a higher quality of life under capitalism worldwide. Therefore, capitalism and ethical consumption cannot be portrayed as a binary, but must be seen as a gradient, the balance of which has the capacity to be shifted with changes in global public policy and structural reform.

Summary of Union Speakers

Israr Khan

The opposition spoke about capitalism as a necessary evil that may, admittedly, warrant reform, but which still holds merit when compared with alternative systems. Among the points mentioned were institutional reforms within China, which provided work for millions of individuals who were otherwise impoverished.

Sam Hall

Hall built on Khan’s argument with the example of North Korea, a communist state whose stripping of individual rights in the absence of capitalism has led to a poor quality of life. He then explored the capitalist trends of South Korea and that pushed the nation to flourish following a period of economic strife.

Simon Mundy

Mundy argued that capitalism is the best available standard for raising living conditions. Although the current model of capitalism was not necessarily ethical, he said, the debate was not surrounding the ethics of the current model. Instead, current political structures and the absence of regulations are what preclude ethical standards from being achieved.

Larissa Koerber

Koerber maintained that it would be unwise to fully dissuade capitalism, because a complete upheaval of the systems in place today would be impractical for an economy based on consumption. She suggested a future of capitalism that could better serve climate equity and the potential to acknowledge flaws of the existing system while working to improve it.