Barry Commoner: The Illusion of Consumer Sovereignty

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[Quotes and Insights #7]

The reason we’re in trouble with automobile pollution is big cars. As Henry Ford said, “Mini cars make mini profits.” The reason Detroit went to big cars is not that people wanted them — until they were told. It was because big cars were more profitable.

Still, the issue always comes up: Isn’t it up to us? Isn’t it our fault that we buy the big cars, for instance? Well, no it isn’t.

Let me give you my favorite example of why the consumer is not really to blame in most cases. I wear size 12 socks. That’s an intimate fact I will share with you. Not long ago, I went into a well-known New York department store and asked for a pair of size 12. They said, Oh, that’s a special order. But over there you can get size 10-to-I3.”

Today it is very hard to get sized socks. Is this because of consumer demand? Do you know anyone who went into a store and said: “Listen, my feet change size every week. I need a variable-size sock?”

That is not why it was done. It was done to reduce inventories and maximize profits.

I’ll give you a less facetious example. You go to the store to buy a refrigerator. You and the storekeeper have no idea how the thing was delivered from the factory. It could have come by railroad or truck. If it comes by truck, it causes four times as much pollution as if it came by railroad, because the fuel efficiency is four times lower. But what am I going to do, go into the store and say, “Listen, I’m an ecologist. I must have a refrigerator delivered by railroad”?

My response to that kind of situation, and I tend to be somewhat practical, is to get into politics. You have to rebuild the railroads, and you’re not going to do that by saying: “Oh, well, we should not buy these silly refrigerators.”

Certainly there are consumer efforts that are important. For example, I think the plastics industry is going to go into conniptions soon over growing consumer rejection of plastics, and I think that’s fine. But let me tell you, you’re not going to get the petrochemical industry the Dows and Monsantos, to roll over the way McDonald’s did, because Dow and Monsanto don’t sell directly to the public. There are no fast-plastic-selling joints.

So there you are. I tend to see the issue as social, economic, and political. I simply refuse to blame us consumers. Mind you, I have a sort , of religious preference for natural fibers over plastic ones, but that’s about as far as I go.

From the question period following a talk by Barry Commoner at a meeting organized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, January 12, 1988. Published in Environment in Peril, edited by Anthony B. Wolbarst. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1991.


  • Let me start with what I agree with. Environmental damage cannot and will not be fixed by the individual. While every individual should be doing what they think is right and working hard to teach people what they learn. This alone will not do much to move environmental needs forward. As is mentioned here there are far too many hidden damage that an individual just doesn’t have the tools to succeed. As long as companies are not held accountable to environmental costs there will be no progress.

    Now where I disagree is on the demonizing of “profit” that is prolific through this writing. I need not give a lesson in economics but suffice to say that profit is merely a return on an investment. It is a method of determine where time, energy and effort should be placed. There are no size 12 socks because there isn’t a significant number of people wishing to pay the premium for single sized socks to warrant that company to invest in it. Instead that effort can be put to use somewhere else.

    If one understands profit from this perspective then influencing investment, effort and time becomes a much easier task. Tax items that cause damage and reward items that help the environment. You need to make improving the environment profitable for corporations and lower cost to the consumer and all else will fall in line. Only the government can do this and only the voters can pressure the government to do this.

    What alternative is there? Do you want someone dictating that we must have all sizes of socks from 1 to 12 because he personally feels more comfortable in them, while hardly anyone else feels the same way? There just isn’t very effective ways of determining investment without capitalism. So embrace it and use it to get what you need.

  • I agree with Barry Commoner, which is why I worked full-time in the summer of 1980 to get him on the California presidential ballot. As always happens, we got him on the ballot but he fell short of winning five percent of the national vote. This is proof positive that change won’t come without revolution. I highly endorse Dr. Minqi Li’s book, The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World System for a discussion of the relationship between economic growth and ecocide.

  • This is an interesting and provocative post. I tend to agree with both the comments as capitalism subjects us as “consumers” rather than “citizens.” However, when we as citizens act ‘consciously’ as citizens rather than consumers, change will occur – revolution, as it were.

  • kamran, I think you’ve completely missed the point here. Of course individual actions are important – that’s why I try to buy ethical products, avoid buying stuff I don’t need, use public transport and so on. But this is not going to solve the problem. In fact, even if you convince millions of people to change their lifestyles, that’s not going to make a dent in global warming. Why? Well, because the problem is structural. We are locked in fossil fuel dependency and the only way out is through government action, using public investment and tax reforms.
    Yes, socialists try to change people one by one. But we don’t try to change individual behavior, rather we try to build political and social movements to change the rules of power. What we need is a revolution and that’s not going to happen through consumerism.

  • While I understand the logic of Barry Commoner and have agreed with it since my youth, IT IS ESSENTIAL TO WORK TO CHANGE INDIVIDUAL MINDS. When as a socialist or ecosocialist you hope to recruit others to your social, economic and political views, in effect you are trying to CHANGE PEOPLE ONE BY ONE. The radical change will not happen unless a large majority of people on this planet change their world view and their way of life. Sure, the capitalists try to create demand for their commodities, but the decision to eat animals or not is an individual decision. To buy an efficient light bulb is an individual decision. And these decisions are part and parcel of the great change in people’s worldview.