The other day I posted that corporate fat cats love ethical consumerism, taking issue with the idea that "every time you spend a dollar, you are casting a vote."
That post drew a lot of praise, but it also evoked some skepticism—including one tweet that exclaimed that "our votes don't count, where we spend our money does." It all got me thinking over what role ethical consumerism has in bringing about lasting political change, and once again I was struck by just how different voting and shopping really are. Here's a break down of why we should never confuse the two.1. The More Money You Have, The More Votes You'd Get
True, our electoral system is profoundly corrupted by money. But to emphasize shopping—even shopping locally and green—as an alternative to voting or political engagement is to advocate for a system where money is the only thing there is. It is, essentially, one dollar one vote. And that does not sound like progress to me.
2. The Consumer Mindset is a Short-term Mindset
We all wear many hats—as friend, citizen, lover, spouse, activist, whatever. Of all these hats, our consumer hat is about the worst one at making long-term decisions. (With the possible exception of the "happy drunk" hat I like to wear from time to time.) When we shop, we are primarily focused on shopping—and any ethical concerns will have to compete hard for mind space. For activists to promote shopping as a primary change agent is a little like a sports team asking to play an away game in the least favorable weather conditions possible. If we want to change the world, let's focus on those areas of our lives—civic engagement; family life; community; politics—where people are predisposed to consider their choices more carefully.
3. Regulation Will Not Come About Through Shopping
There's no doubt that buying local, or buying green, can help the good guys gain more ground. Similarly, boycotting companies or products you disagree with helps shift the economic balance for the better. But the kind of mainstream, permanent and deep change we need requires legislative action. From ensuring the coal industry take responsibility for its economically ruinous impact to ending factory farming, I can see no realistic game plan in which these changes come about through the incremental growth of the "conscious consumer" without at least as concerted an effort on the political front.
4. We Can't Shop Our Way to Less Consumption
One of the comments on my last ethical consumerism piece hit the nail on the head—the most important "dollar vote" is the dollar not spent. Kicking the consumption addiction is absolutely central to gaining some kind of equilibrium in this economy of ours, so however well intentioned our consumer activism is—it must encourage making do with less. Of course the rise of collaborative consumption does offer some tantalizing pathways to less resource intensive spending, and these models are worth supporting, but ultimately consuming less will mean shopping less. Buy Nothing Day must get a whole lot bigger.
5. We Are All Hypocrites
I drive a car. So do many of the people who successfully opposed the Keystone XL pipeline. On one level that makes us hypocrites. On another level, it just means we exist within a system that is skewed to encourage the use of fossil fuels. By over-emphasizing lifestyle changes and consumer activism, we suggest that we can shift that culture without tackling the underlying causes—from deregulation to poor planning laws to a lack of decent fuel economy standards to an obsession with GDP—that drive us to consume in the first place. In the words of Annie Leonard during our live chat about the Story of Broke, we are just trying to get better and better at swimming upstream, rather than changing the course we are on.
Once again, I must emphasize that I am not suggesting we abandon ethical consumerism or greener lifestyle choices all together. But we must learn to view them as an extension of, not a replacement for, political and civic engagement. Surely that's something we can all buy into?