Monday, February 13, 2006

Why Consumer Activism Is Futile

Capitalism is by its very nature unethical. The profit motive rules all, and the invisible hand of the market raises its middle finger to anyone who would suggest otherwise. Therefore, anyone seeking to create “ethical consumerism” will always be thwarted, will never succeed, will always be frustrated because some aspect of their ideals has been compromised.

It is absolutely impossible for anyone to be truly ethical in all of their purchases. Because of this impossibility, consumer activism itself is so impractical as to become impossible. Therefore, one should not focus one’s energies on buying “ethically.”

If a consumer wants to direct his spending towards reducing global warming, he can, for instance, buy a hybrid automobile, like the Toyota Prius. By buying the Prius, the consumer is reducing his impact on global warming. However, he’s also hurting the efforts of labor activists to promote the purchase of union-made cars. Toyotas are, by and large, not union-made.

If, right now, the consumer wants to protect both the environment and labor, he would have to buy a Ford Escape hybrid. By doing so, he is already compromising his environmental values, because the Escape is a bigger automobile, produces more emissions and gets worse gas mileage than the Prius; thus, it is less environmentally friendly than the Prius.

Let us assume for the sake of argument that the Detroit automakers start producing hybrids in droves, and that somewhere down the line a consumer has the option of buying a Chevrolet Cobalt hybrid. We’ve gotten the consumer to the point of buying an environmentally friendly, union-made car. Good.

But he still has to fill up his tank every so often with gas that likely comes from countries with brutal human rights records. And with oil that comes from the same place. And get his car serviced at a service station that probably has a shoddy environmental impact record and no union. And eventually replace his tires, battery, and various other car parts. And eventually dispose of his car in a landfill.

How is this consumer supposed to be vigilant about absolutely every aspect of his car purchase so that he ensures that his values of environmental and labor activism are promoted with every choice he makes?

You could argue that he’s taking a few steps forward, that he’s making a difference in some areas where he has control, and that because he has no control over the other areas, he shouldn’t worry about them. But by definition, that makes him a hypocrite. Environmental and labor activism matter to him in the buying a car, but not the smaller purchases that maintain the car he bought?

This example can be extended to any aspect of consumer activism. So you’re a vegetarian. And you don’t buy leather clothing. Fine. Do you drink milk? Eat eggs? Because if you do, vegans would argue, you’re supporting the very same kind of animal subjugation and cruelty that drove you to be a vegetarian.

Ok, so you become a vegan. Fine. Where is your non-leather clothing made? Your toothpaste? Your deodorant? Do you drive a car? What do you do with your trash? What is the packaging for your vegan soy milk made of? Do you recycle it? Did the people who made it earn a living wage for doing so and have the opportunity to organize their workplace? Is the production of soy for soy milk environmentally sustainable? How is it farmed? Do the soy farmers have a union or make a decent wage?

The point is, it just seems absolutely impossible to keep everything consistent. If you care about one cause and purchase items accordingly, then someone is going to find a way to call you a hypocrite because you’re neglecting a similar injustice somewhere else.

Consumer activism takes the focus off of a system that needs fundamental structural changes by redirecting activist energies towards the “least bad” options within the system itself. When the system itself is the thing that needs to be changed, using the system to attempt change is futile and counter-productive.

There’s a well-known metaphor about crabs washed up on a beach, and a man going up and down throwing crabs back into the ocean so they won’t die. There’s no way he’ll get to all of the crabs, but his efforts “matter” to the crabs he is able to save.

The problem with this metaphor is that it focuses on the wrong problem. The real problem isn’t that the crabs washed up on the beach and are going to die. The problem is that the evolution of the crab was such that it could not survive out of water.

The solution to this problem is to let evolution take its course, allow natural selection to promote the evolution of stronger crabs with the ability to survive out of water. By throwing the weak ones back and allowing them to survive and propagate, the man was actually impeding the successful evolution of a species.

The nature of a market economy is to produce the cheapest, most attractive and most marketable products to maximize consumer demand, beat the competition, and make a lot of profit. The goal of a market economy is not to create the highest quality, most durable, most efficient or overall best product, unless those attributes come about as a side effect of marketability, cheapness, attractiveness and/or profitability.

If a large enough group of consumers boycotts a particular product for some humanitarian or ethical reason, they might succeed in changing some aspect of its production, but during the boycott they will probably end up spending at least some of their money on something equally objectionable. Therefore, the group has not succeeded in creating the kind of systemic change that may have been their goal. And if not everyone participates, and by everyone I mean a majority of consumers, or at least enough to make a product’s manufacture unprofitable, then there is no incentive for the company to change its behavior.

Take the current boycott of Wal-Mart by labor and human rights activists. These same activists probably shop at Target or K-Mart or any number of large grocery stores or big box chains that do exactly the same kind of damage to the local economy that Wal Mart does, except perhaps on a smaller scale. Labor activists protesting Wal-Mart need to find a union grocery store where they can do their grocery shopping. Fine, the workers at the grocery store are represented by a union, but what about the people who make the products on the shelves? And how are Wal-Mart’s profits doing?

Thus, there is no solution as long as the market economy rules the day. Activists who want to really do something need to work for fundamental structural change to the way we do business. We need a social evolution towards an ethical system of producing and consuming goods. Stop trying to buy fair trade coffee. Instead, buy cheap coffee, buy from Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club, Target and Best Buy. Be a capitalist. Because that’s the system in which we all live. And if you play the system, you’ll have more money left over at the end of the day to spend fighting the real battles that need to be fought.

It is probably impossible to bring down capitalism anytime soon, and I’m not sure that should be our ultimate goal. It is true that capitalism won’t fix itself. But it may be possible to create a kind of “social capitalism” by enacting legal reforms and mandates designed to prevent abuses of our planet and our people. Working for fair trade laws is a worthy endeavor. That’s a structural change that can make a real difference in protecting the rights of labor and saving our environment. Another worthy endeavor is working with groups like Amnesty International to fight human rights abuses.

But the easiest way to make a difference is to stay involved in local politics and keep abreast of the issues. The kind of fundamental structural changes needed will never happen without an informed and involved populace actively working to make those changes happen. Consumer activism may be futile, but political and social activism are critical.

--Ethan Jones