"Every time you spend a dollar, you are casting a vote."
It's a common refrain in the green world, and one that I have used myself in my good-for-the-world branding work. It has some truth to it too. Every time someone chooses a green energy provider over a traditional utility, picks the vegan option at the pizza place, or signs up for community-supported beer, they are sending a message to the markets about the world they would like to see.
But spending money should not be confused with voting. You see consumers are essentially stupid.
Before I get howls of outrage at my elitist generalization, let me explain. I am including myself in the above description. I am not, in general, a stupid human being (my wife may disagree), but when I have my consumer hat on—shopping at the grocery store or browsing online—my mind is focused primarily on a specific task, namely finding the item I have set out to buy, and processing all the messages coming at me about all the other items that the retailer would like me to buy.
As someone who blogs for a living about sustainability and greener living, I am of course also mulling over ethical considerations—but those ethical considerations must fight for space in my brain, and sometimes they lose. Retailers know this, and there is a careful science that goes into keeping the shopper focused on shopping. It's not evil, it's just the way it is. The retailer's primary interest—even the ethical retailer—is the business of selling goods. Not the business of counting votes.
From why recycling is bullshit to carbon labels on toilet paper, it's an observation that's been discussed before here on TreeHugger. Corporate executives would love to keep ethical decisions as "freedom of choice" issues, offering conscious consumers greener, fairer options (at a premium) while they continue to externalize costs for the rest of their product lines. But to do so would denigrate the other ways that we, as a society, make decisions.
Americans want clean energy. Brits want clean energy too. Germans want stricter animal welfare standards. Americans don't want GMOs. These are all real ethical positions and genuine wishes. Just because someone does not have solar on their house does not mean they don't want clean energy, and just because someone eats factory farmed foods does not mean they wouldn't support animal welfare legislation. The same goes for GMOs. True, our cause would be advanced if they put their money where their mouth is—but our primary concern as a movement must be in making their political voice heard, not trying to "reform" their individual consumer behavior. Unlike religions, we get no points for saving souls.
Interestingly, even forward thinking "ethical" corporations seem to be coming around to this fact. They can't simply change the world by selling us more green stuff, they have to raise their own voices as a cultural and political force too. From Patagonia's plea to not buy their jackets to B Corporation's efforts to create alternative corporate structures, green business has entered a decidedly activist phase of late. Even mainstream corporate executives have started questioning the viability of our current economic system.
We should reward companies that make better products and follow ethical decisions, and we should avoid those that don't. We should cheer every time a corporation doesn't just improve its own behavior, but raises its voice for systemic change too. But green lifestyle choices are only important as long as they remain an extension of, not a replacement for or a distraction from, broader cultural and political engagement.