This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 17 April 2015.
It is a fact of life that soulless multinational corporations do terrible things. It is another fact of life that those same soulless multinational corporations also sell their unethically-produced goods at tantalisingly low prices. It is a third fact, equally appalling and yet seemingly equally unavoidable, that life as a student involves being massively skint the vast majority of the time, and the occasional injection of student life doesn’t provide that much of a relief- it’s more debt to add to the pile we all seem to carry around with us in these days of the high consumption and cost-push inflation. This is particularly troublesome in Oxford, which is of course the most expensive place to live in the UK, a fact which I personally did not learn until the first time I went shopping in Freshers week. It was at that point that I simultaneously gained a newfound empathy with my friends who went to London universities, whom I had spent most of the previous months making fun of for moving to a ludicrously expensive place to live, and gained a serious sense of economic perspective. One can only imagine what those friends’ reaction would be if they could see me now. A gale of bitter laughter, probably. But the fact remains; student life is expensive, and, increasingly, life itself is expensive in modern Britain.
Red Ed and his Merry Men and Women aren’t wrong; Britain is facing a cost of living crisis. Wages have been stagnating for years now, but rising wholesale costs and good old-fashioned corporate greed are pushing prices higher and higher. Now, as a Keynesian economist and advocate for minimal state intervention for the prevention of destitution (or, as my Dad likes to call me, a Loony Lefty), I have a bit of a problem with this. And this issue becomes even more fraught when the issue of ethical consumption comes into it; simply put, scraping together the cash to maintain a decent lifestyle on a student budget is difficult enough, especially in an institution which prevents its students from working part-time for more than 8 hours a week, let alone doing so while holding yourself to any sort of respectable ethical standard. That organic milk might be better for the environment and for those poor cows, but the fistful of coppers which constitutes this week’s spending money dictates that you opt for the stuff most likely procured by feeding baby pixies into a threshing machine and collecting the runoff. Sometimes needs must, you know?
You should never feel bad about not being able to consume ‘ethically’. You should reserve your ill feeling for the capitalist system which simultaneously puts goods not produced under monstrous circumstances out of the reach of the majority of the populace, while simultaneously chastising them for not being able to afford them. That tuts at the cash-strapped consumer for not supporting ‘British farmers’ or ‘your local traders’, who are mysteriously forgotten about when our nation’s corporate overlords enter the equation and instant gratification is on the table.
Yet, that’s the cruelty of capitalism in the modern world; it is the only option, or at least it wants us to believe it is. And while there are a number of people seeking to redress this issue (and many of them operate student societies at Oxford, and seem like rather lovely people), in the meantime one must simply grin and bear it; it’s a basic tenet of Marxist theory that capitalism forces one to participate, willing or unwilling, so you can engage in the system of buying without being ‘part of the problem’.
If, however, you are lucky enough to be able to afford it, you’re pretty much out of excuses if you won’t at least consider shopping with a bit more of a conscience; if you’ve got a few quid, it might be best to go for those free range eggs, to maybe consider not buying those crocodile-skin shoes, and maybe to tip your waiters a bit more- little things. At the very least one should invest in a few bags for life. Cheaper in the long run anyway, if those mutterings about charging 5p a bag catch on. Not that they will. The supermarkets have far too much cash to let pesky things like ‘the environment’ and ‘human decency’ get in the way of their profits.
To conclude, ethical consumption is not only tricky on a student budget, it may well be outright impossible under the current economic system. Is ‘ethical consumerism’ an oxymoron? Maybe, but it is at least a laudable goal to strive towards. It may be impossible for me to consume in an ethical way, but I’ll be damned if I ain’t gonna try.