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


  1. Nice remodeling of the blog, Ethan. Looks good.

    As for the impossibility of ethical consumerism-- well, true, yet we still do..

  2. Thanks. I'm glad you like it, though I'm beginning to tire of the background color. That might change soon.

    I know that activists will always do their best to shop ethically, and I myself will probably not shop at Wal-Mart, for various reasons--mostly because it's a really unpleasant place to shop--but my point is, don't focus on that--focus on the real problems. Shopping ethically is impossible, and the attempt tends to be too expensive, both in time, energy wasted, and in money spent on "ethical" products, like fair-trade coffee, or organic toothpaste, or what have you.

  3. Wow, that was bad. It's such a horrible argument, and given your political affiliations you can't possibly mean what you say.

    Capitalism is, of course, horrible. I understand your frustration which such a vile and unethical system, but some people want to fight for change within the system. There's nothing inherantly wrong with that.

    Life is a journey, my friend. None of us wakes up one day and "figures it all out." We find out Wal-Mart is a really immoral company and we quit shopping there. Yes, we continue to shop at other, very similar, companies; but a seed has been planted: the seed of consciousness.

    We begin to think about these issues; we begin to get involved in various ways with our friends and neighbors.

    We live in an amazingly complex society. I sit here surrounded by goods made by people I'll never know or see. But your position is ultimately that of a defeatist. We can't make sure all our purchases are ethical so why bother? Hell, I can't make sure all my decisions are ethical so why bother to care? And let's not forget that simply by working we are supporting the world's most fearsome war machine ever assembled: the US army.

    Some of our progressive friends are fighting for the rights of animals. Others are fighting to protect our friends in the sea. Still others are fighting to keep the flame alive for human rights. Some of these battles are huge; others are small. But they are all worthwhile battles.

    Hybrids do little or nothing to solve our oil problem. It takes more oil to produce that hybrid or gas guzzling vehicle than they will ever use in operation. Look at your car. It's floating in oil: the plastics, the paints, the motors and the machines used to make the cars.

    The only real solution, and the one few people are talking about, is the fact that we will have to change the way we live. Our lifestyle is unsustainable. We'll either change or we'll be forced to change.


  4. Dave,

    Here's pretty much what I'm saying. Capitalism itself is diseased. Unethical companies and the bad things they do are the symptoms of that disease. Sure, we can fight the symptoms, but the better choice is to work on a cure for the disease itself. Thus, instead of wasting our time and energy trying to find a pair of jeans that's not made in China, we should be on the ground talking to our legislators about creating conditions for global fair trade that protects the rights of workers, so that we don't have to worry where our jeans are made because wherever they're made, they'll be made ethically. It's about figuring out where our energies will be best spent, and I don't believe our energies are best spent agonizing about our every purchase. I'm not saying that we should go out and purposely shop at Wal-Mart, but I'm saying, if you have to shop at Wal-Mart, don't sweat it, because Wal-Mart is just a symptom of the larger disease.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments.