Notes on Ethical Consumption

In one of the interviews from our Young Ambition series, Melbourne-based writer Maggie Zhou talks about how she takes deliberate care to work with brands whose practices align with her personal values. As Maggie champions both sustainability and sex-positivity, she found herself in a conundrum when a sex toy brand reached out in hopes of collaborating since electronic sex toys are typically not environmentally friendly. 

As with most battery-operated devices, the disposal of electronic sex toys at the end of their product lives can be tricky. In a white paper prepared by Modality Group, the sex product market research and business intelligence firm explains the factors that hinder sustainable practices in sex tech. There is presently no industry standard to ensure safety and sustainability when it comes to electronic sex toys. Since they are typically classified as biohazards, the options for recycling are also sorely limited. Consequently, electronic sex toys contribute to e-waste, a fast-growing waste stream across the globe.

The Dilemmas of Ethical Consumption

Consumers who prefer to minimize the environmental impact of their purchases often find themselves in one dilemma or another. In Maggie’s case, she had to choose between two beliefs — the importance of destigmatizing the right to sexual pleasure and making eco-friendly decisions — and she ultimately went with the former. As someone who strives to be mindful about my consumption practices, I am well-acquainted with the pressure to abstain from buying non-necessities as well as the resultant guilt that surfaces if I end up making the purchase anyway. 

Another common scenario would be having to decide between two products that differ significantly in terms of monetary and environmental/social cost. At a run-of-the-mill personal care store in Singapore, you may find Womanizer’s Premium Eco, which is marketed as the first biodegradable and recyclable sex toy in the market. Made of a bioplastic named Biolene and crafted with a modular design, the individual parts — such as the rechargeable battery — can be disposed of and replaced after they wear out. 

While value-driven customers may be more inclined towards voting with their dollar by supporting such responsibly-made products, surveys and studies have shown that the price tag remains the greatest determining factor when it comes to our actual purchases. Since the Premium Eco is priced at SGD280, customers may be swayed to opt for the lowest-priced offerings at the same store — sex toys from Smile Makers Collection that cost SGD69.95. More often than not, products that are more sustainable and ethical come with a heftier price tag, which effectively excludes consumers who are less financially privileged. It is, thus, worth noting that in this scenario, customers who are only considering clitoral massagers by Womanizer will not have to pay more for the more eco-friendly option since they are also priced at SGD280.

In any case, those who wish to shop ethically have to do so conscientiously and commit to reducing their consumption in order to pay a higher price for the environmentally sustainable and equitable goods that they do purchase. Given that the ability to afford such products rests on our disposable income, moral philosopher Matt Beard posits that the cheapest product ought to be produced as responsibly as possible to ensure that ethical consumption is within reach for all. His argument is a sound reminder that ethical consumption does not simply rest on consumers, that concrete action has to be taken across the value chain. 

As such, leading players in the sexual wellness industry have to take concerted action in order to work towards a circular economy as well as address the calls for the use of body-safe materials, fair labor practices, and inclusivity when it comes to product designs. Notable brands that have taken steps to be more eco-friendly include NobEssence (with their exotic sculptural hardwoods), Love Honey (with their sustainable lingerie range, sex toy collection with Love Not War, and recycling program), and Rosewell (with a collection program that covers the cost of carbon-neutral shipping). Recognizing that trade-in programs would require consumers to spend money on a new product in order to recycle an old one, Rosewell accepts any branded sex toy, at no cost or obligation to the consumer. Apart from measures taken by independent retailers, the presence of an impartial third party is also crucial in order to standardize safety and sustainability practices across the industry.

Sustainable Living: Just a Phase?

Apart from reading up on the issues that are plaguing the sex toy industry, Maggie’s dilemma also prompted me to reflect on the shifts in my consumption patterns across the years. During my semester abroad in 2018, I cultivated the habit of recycling (thanks to my host) and using reusable shopping bags (thanks to the surcharge in France). Upon my return to Singapore, I regained easy access to single-use plastic. Suddenly confronted with the reality that I was accustomed to using disposables without any qualms, moving back home also opened my eyes to the other aspects of my life that were not eco-friendly. 

Resolving to reduce my waste and consumption, I stopped ordering takeout and only did so if I could bring my own container, tried to cut my meat intake, and bought a menstrual cup (that I regretfully never did manage to learn how to use). I wanted to compensate for falling short in so many other ways — I am no stranger to air travel, use air-conditioning at home, eat meat more than I abstain, and probably engage in wasteful behavior without even being cognizant of it. 

My attempts to change my lifestyle took place when there was a substantial amount of discourse about sustainability. Singapore designated 2018 as the Year of Climate Action; the ban of plastic straws in establishments became more commonplace; metal straws, reusable bags, wheat cutlery sets, and other eco-friendly products flooded the market; sustainability buzzwords gained even more popularity among corporations and brands. Perhaps it appeared as if I started caring about the cause because of the evolving milieu. And when a friend made an offhand remark that my attempt to abstain from single-use plastic was just a phase, I was mildly affronted by their suggestion that I was jumping on the bandwagon and that my efforts would not last. 

Now I feel differently about the comment. I have come to recognize that my ego is irrelevant to the cause and my attempts at a more eco-conscious lifestyle don’t have to be unwaveringly consistent or require longevity in order to be worthwhile. When I first tried to live more sustainably, my rigid compliance with the new habits I tried to cultivate meant that I often berated myself when I slipped up or found myself in situations that could not accommodate them. But along the way, I learned to be more forgiving, avoid moralizing, and accept that the opposite of a desirable practice is not necessarily a bad one.

After two years of abstaining from poultry, I was unsure if my seafood-heavy diet contributed to my borderline high cholesterol levels. When I re-introduced poultry to my diet, I suddenly developed a taste for vegetarian food. This meant that my meat intake fluctuated across the years, which opened my eyes to how each diet denotes the different phases of my evolving journey to live more sustainably. Since our priorities, abilities, and environments are constantly in flux, it is only natural that we go through phases — during which we are constantly assessing if our habits and behaviors are serving us before making the necessary adjustments.

The Next Phase: Activism

Another reason why I no longer take offense at my friend’s comment is that I now know that focusing on my private consumption choices has misled me to neglect systemic change. After reading journalist and activist Elizabeth Cline’s essay, titled “The Twilight of the Ethical Consumer”, my perspective on what it means to champion sustainability shifted. She writes, “Ethical Consumption can ultimately serve as a type of delusion or fantasy where we tell ourselves that our economic actions are righteous and that we’re doing our small part to make a difference, even in the face of underwhelming evidence.” 

During the pandemic, Cline stopped confusing shopping for social change because she invested her energy into the #PayUp movement — an online campaign that successfully pressured companies to pay their garment workers for work that they had already completed — and saw that the rewards of activism far exceeded the impact of her ethical purchases. Cline is not disregarding individuals’ endeavors to consume more ethically but merely arguing that a market-driven approach to change is simply insufficient. As such, she presents an alternative: the Consumer Activist, someone who “[transforms] the marketplace in ways that tackle root causes” and calls for accountability through policy reforms and regulation.

At first, the thought of entering the realm of activism was daunting. Many questions came to mind: Where do I start? How much time and energy do I dedicate to the cause? What does community-based activism look like in a city with strict (protest) laws? However, after researching on climate justice activism in Singapore, I started to have a better idea of what the next phase of my journey to champion sustainability will look like. It includes a commitment to self-education through reading the work by academics, activists, and writers; keeping up with the latest developments in climate action both locally and worldwide; supporting and participating in more initiatives led by advocacy groups in my community. One thing’s for sure, I’ll have to magnify my personal actions in the ways that I can and ensure that my efforts go beyond the private realm.

Illustration by Stella Heng; feature collage by Sherryl Cheong

Sherryl Cheong

Sharer and carer of wildchild

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