Umbrage and Flummery
Hog Scratchings


Cath Elliott, whose wisdom has previously been noted, today shares her insights regarding ethical consumerism. This, so far as I can make out, involves inordinate fretting over the morality of washing out empty peanut butter jars:

I usually just give up and throw it in the bin (as long as no one’s watching).

It also involves no end of bothersome contradiction and, of course, feelings of remorse.

I refuse to set foot through the door of Primark and yet I shop in Tesco. I make sure my vegetables are locally sourced, but then I eat mango like it’s going out of fashion. I cycle to keep fit and to minimise my carbon footprint, but I also smoke, not roll ups either, but cigarettes manufactured by a major tobacco company.

Oh, the humanity. I trust Ms Elliott is no less forgiving of others – say, people who shop at Primark.

No doubt some people would argue that I’m a textbook example of a hand-wringing liberal, making futile gestures so I can feel good about myself, and performing all sorts of intellectual contortions to try and rationalise any slip-ups.


After all, is my decision not to drink Coke realistically going to have an impact on a company that last year earned $5.98bn? Probably not; but just as I’m fairly sure my refusal to buy Cape fruit in the 1980s had no bearing whatsoever on the later dismantling of the apartheid regime, that’s not the point.

If not to have a discernible impact, directly or by example, what, then, is the point? What drives this level of anxiety over soft drinks and peanut butter residue? Unless much of this is indeed about seeking out pretentious guilt and then wringing one’s hands for public display and personal gratification?

It’s not that I necessarily believe that my eating a KitKat is going to lead directly to the death of a baby in the developing world, or that drinking a Fanta means one more “disappeared” trade unionist, it’s more a case of knowing that if I do these things I’m letting myself down, that I’m going against the standards I’ve set for myself.

Standards that apparently serve no objective purpose, whether enacted or not. Could these ineffectual standards then be about something less tangible and more intimate? Could they perhaps be about how a person wishes to seem, to themselves, or in certain kinds of company?

I don’t care what anyone else thinks of me.

But of course. What was that about unrecycled peanut butter jars?

I usually just give up and throw it in the bin (as long as no one’s watching).

Ah, yes.

But I do care about what I think of myself… It’s hard to get it right every time, and inevitably there will be occasions when we let ourselves down, but to paraphrase Edmund Burke, the very worst we can do when confronted with the evidence of injustice and suffering, is to sit back complacently and do nothing.

Actually, I’m pretty sure inflicting suffering personally would be much worse than doing nothing about something one has negligible, if any, ability to affect. And publicly fretting at great length about consumer choices that, by one’s own reckoning, have no discernible impact is, if not bad, then somewhat peculiar.

Reading Ms Elliott’s ethical travails reminds me of the ways in which various people define their moral credentials. Some concentrate chiefly on matters over which they have immediate and visible influence - civility, reciprocation, mindfulness of neighbours – things of that kind. Others shift their focus to loftier and more theoretical concerns, such as the geopolitical ramifications of mango or a forbidden KitKat bar. And while I am - in real life, if not online - a courteous and noble being, and nothing if not neighbourly, I just can’t seem to feel guilty about my choice of fruit or carbonated drink.