My recent musings on ethical consumerism seem to have touched a nerve—with responses ranging from the overwhelmingly supportive to the somewhat skeptical. Having posted on why corporate fat cats love ethical consumerism, and then followed up with a discussion of why voting and shopping are not the same thing, Kristen Marzocca over at Sustainable Speak posted a response in defense of ethical consumerism. Kristen agrees that shopping and political activism should not be seen as one and the same thing, but takes issue with my stance that the latter has more potential for lasting change than the former.
They are, she says, "separate but equal":
Canned tuna companies were pressured through consumer boycotts to end fishing practices that endangered dolphins before governmental legislation mandated such. While I certainly agree that systematic and lasting change is necessary, why do we assume that it must originate from governmental legislation? Why downplay an alternate route to the same kind of social and environmental change? Whatever the vehicle of change you choose, the important thing is that you get behind the wheel and drive!
In many ways, she is right. Consumer boycotts and activism can indeed have much faster, more immediate impact than politically focused actions—but that is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Because while ending specific abuses and exploitation is important—for example deforestation or unsustainable fishing practices—the larger problems we face (global climate change, overpopulation, resource depletion) are long-term problems that require systemic fixes.
If we try to tackle global climate change through a primary focus on consumer action, we will fail. Because however many businesses we encourage to buy renewable energy, or cut their carbon emissions, the fossil fuel driven juggernaut of the global economy will plow on regardless. But if, on the other hand, the small band of consumers dedicated enough to focus on these issues acts to reward the companies who do take action, boycott the companies who do not, and use those actions as part of a broader push to build a vocal constituency—including forward thinking pro-environmental legislation business leaders—then we stand a chance of heading off the worst case scenarios that are looking ever more likely.
As argued in my original posts, then, ethical consumerism—particularly strategically coordinated ethical consumerism of the kind that Marzocca references—is useful only as a tool within a broader strategy that must be informed by a larger, unavoidably political vision. Tuna companies didn't change their ways (and indeed haven't changed their ways anywhere nearly enough) because individual consumers chose to buy certified, sustainable brands. They changed their ways because there was a concerted, coordinated effort by consumer activists to put pressure on those brands, and to simultaneously push for legislative change.
My issue with ethical consumerism is not that it exists. But that it has become, for many environmentalists, the primary form of expression; that it is rarely informed by strategy; and that it is often talked about as an alternative to, not a means for, fixing our troubled political system. We must assess all the tools in our armory, and we must use each for the purpose it was intended. Together.
When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When all you have is a sustainability-focused shopping list, all you can do is go shopping.