By Justin DeWaele
There exists in American society a politics of consumer choice in which one’s social consciousness is often judged by the products one chooses to buy. This culture of ethical consumerism was brought about by corporations’ attempts to create a market out of awareness for global problems Unfortunately, this market rests on the assumption that changing consumer choice is the solution to global warming and environmental degradation, or that it can solve human crises.
This culture of socially or environmentally responsible capitalism is epitomized by TOM’s shoes—a company that pledges to donate a pair of shoes to a poor, shoeless child for every pair that it sells—and the “Go Green” slogans on T-shirts and bumper stickers. Such corporate-driven initiatives do two things: shift responsibility to fix problems onto individuals’ behavior and attempt to co-opt humanitarian concerns by offering profit-driven solutions to them.
Drives for ethical consumerism seem like a good thing at first, but they are misleading at best and actually do more harm than good at worst. Take the “green” campaign, for example, which gained widespread popularity in the mid-2000s. This campaign made it fashionable to purchase environmentally sound products and to practice sustainable lifestyle habits. Sales of the promising environmentally friendly Toyota Prius doubled in 2004 and in 2005. Unfortunately, the environmentally-conscious stigma associated with organic foods, hybrid cars and products made from recycled materials is often inaccessible because they are priced too high for working class people. This puts the environmentally sound lifestyle out of reach for people who do not have the luxury of choosing which types of products to buy.
If it seems perverse that middle and upper class people can affect the most environmental change through their purchasing power—it’s because it is. The solution to environmental degradation and destruction cannot come from purchasing more products. The vast majority of pollution and environmental harm come from the extraction of resources and production—levels of the supply chain that are outside of consumer control. No matter what kind of products an individual chooses to buy, she cannot prevent multinational corporations from grabbing land in the Global South for mono-cultural production, she cannot decide how cars will be manufactured, she will not have a say in whether or not power plants will run on coal, and she will not be able to change the deplorable conditions of environmentally destructive feedlot operations of industrial farming companies.
A similar idea applies to consumer campaigns, like TOM’s shoes, that have feel-good business models that offer a solution to perceived global problems. These marketing campaigns supposedly give us the option of helping humanity and taking care of our own wants simultaneously. TOM’s shoes pledges to donate a pair of shoes to an impoverished child somewhere in the world for each pair of shoes that it sells. TOM’s shoes does not, however, provide concrete evidence for the crisis of global shoelessness or the effects that their blank donations have on the receiving communities. Additionally, by buying into TOM’s shoes, one is still contributing to the exploitation of labor and land in the Global South.
While these drives of ethical consumerism raise awareness for global problems and social inequalities, they offer misguided and often regressive solutions and encourage consumers to donate money to a cause without examining their role in the problem critically. Furthermore, these campaigns preclude any non-capitalist solutions to social problems, and assert that a person can enact change through their role as a consumer.
Social change must come about through critical analysis and collective action. A person must recognize that in a capitalist society one must go beyond their role as a consumer to affect this change.
Photo by Memphis CVB