The Radicalism of Difference: The Subtle Politics of Ethical Consumer Goods

By Brad Haylock.

Published by The Humanities Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

A concern with ethicality is becoming increasingly pronounced within commercial spheres. This is evidenced by the rise of such phenomena as corporate social responsibility, triple bottom line reporting and ethical consumerism. These are important developments; though the ethics of capitalism has long been an object of critical analysis, such developments bring the question of the social impact of commerce and industry into the public eye. Of course, the question of the ethics of capitalism poses a most curious dialectic: capitalism and social responsibility are strange bedfellows indeed. This awkward combination is perhaps most pronounced in the phenomenon of ethical commodities. Accordingly, this paper examines the contradictory character and the political significance of ethical products in consumer societies. Particular attention is given to the relationship between a product’s presentation as ethical, and those substantive qualities in relation to which a product might be deemed ethical. It is not enough to ask whether these products ‘practise what they preach’; such an inquiry does not capture the complexity of the situation. This paper contends that the pursuit of better practices—in respect of ecology, workers’ rights or the distribution of profits, for example—constitutes a radical challenge to the status quo. Perhaps less conventionally, however, the paper also argues that a certain political significance of ethical consumer goods issues from such products’ mere presentation as such, irrespective of any consideration of substantive practices.

Keywords: Corporate Social Responsibility, Commodities, Consumerism, Radical Commodities, Ethical Commodities

The International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 5, Issue 4, pp.239-244. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 485.552KB).

Dr. Brad Haylock

Lecturer, Department of Design, Faculty of Art & Design, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Brad Haylock is a Lecturer in Visual Communication, in the Faculty of Art & Design, Monash University. His principal research interest is the problematic of radical political action and critique in late-capitalist societies.


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