Why corporate fat cats love 'ethical consumerism'

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… and five reasons why voting and shopping are not the same thing

These two articles appeared this month on Treehugger.com.  The author, Sami Grover,  is obviously not a socialist, but his comments are insightful. It is a mark of growing awareness of the inadequacy of personal solutions to the environmental crisis that such views are expressed on a website that calls itself  “a one-stop shop for green news, solutions, and product information,” by an author whose  works agency specializes in “brand strategy and design for good-for-the-world businesses and non-profits.” 



“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.



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?

1 Comment

  • Sadly what Sami Grover does not address in his call for political activism aimed at changing the system, which I completely agree with, is that current democratic political systems are susceptible to hi-jacking by special interests. Consequently this is what the corporates do, Canada is a case in point.

    The fundamental flaw in current political structures is that it is accepted that the social power of the people automatically moves up any organisational hierarchy to the top most level. As there are fewer and fewer people at each level of any organisational hierarchy it becomes easier and easier to hi-jack. If we want to change things we have got to come up with organisational hierarchies where the social power remains at the bottom most level, always.