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Janet Swim on Consumer Ethics

In her talk at the recent Sustainability Ethics Conference at Penn State University Park, Janet Swim presented psychological research she conducted with Brittany Bloodhart on the attitudes of consumers regarding the impacts of consumption on human beings and the biosphere. They found that individuals tend to have greater ethical concern about their consumption after being exposed to films that detail the environmental impacts of consumption. For example, such increased concern might manifest itself upon seeing the adverse effects that the disposal of consumer products can have on human communities in other countries.

Wednesday, March 23rd 2011

Dr. Janet Swim

"Ethical Consumerism: Bridging the Divide between Consumption and Its Impacts on Nature and People"

In her talk at the recent Sustainability Ethics Conference at Penn State University Park, Janet Swim presented psychological research she conducted with Brittany Bloodhart on the attitudes of consumers regarding the impacts of consumption on human beings and the biosphere. They found that individuals tend to have greater ethical concern about their consumption after being exposed to films that detail the environmental impacts of consumption. For example, such increased concern might manifest itself upon seeing the adverse effects that the disposal of consumer products can have on human communities in other countries.

Swim argued that watching films can have this effect by activating moral emotions that provide motivation for consumers to care about the impacts of their own consumption. She also argued that persons who are inclined to be "self-transcendent" tend to display more ethical concern regarding their own consumption than those who are inclined to avoid painful and unpleasant thoughts.

The question of moral motivation seems to be important for many of the environmental problems associated with consumerism. What moves consumers to care about the impacts of their consumptive choices on future generations, ecosystems, or humans in distant locations? Swim's and Bloodhart's research suggests both that some consumers already have moral emotions capable of motivating ethically informed choices and that watching pertinent films can activate such emotions.

But what should be done in the cases of consumers who are not inclined to "self-transcendence?" It seems possible for a consumer to be both informed about the impacts of his or her consumption (e.g., through viewing films) and yet lack moral emotions that would motivate ethical, consumptive choices. What reasons (if any) can be given to such a person regarding why she or he should care about how consumerism affects other persons and the environment?