Shopping like an activist doesn’t always make you one


author: marty grande-sherbert | op-ed editor

jeremy davis

How many of us, at some point, have felt inclined or convinced to change some aspect of our spending habits – eating vegan, eating with reusable containers, supporting small businesses? Most of us have a small conscience supplying us with guilt when we buy something we know to be unethical, and that isn’t a bad thing. It’s important for us to have a relationship with our food and the other products we use. Everything we do is a reflection of our moral principles, even something as small as buying lunch, and I don’t believe we should indulge in practices that end up hurting others just because we want a certain luxury or convenience. But not every injustice that happens in the world can be avoided with a simple choice.

Making the rightful connection between our consumption and our ethics birthed the “vote with your money” philosophy, the idea that we should try to bring about change by financially supporting things we agree with and refusing to support things we don’t. If we consider things like boycotts, it’s easy to see that financial support or lack thereof for corporations isn’t without its power. I do wonder, though, when I see this philosophy in action, if sometimes we get too caught up with the idea of our money having power and we forget to consider that power is exerted in other ways as well.

The most recent example of a vote with your money”\ issue was the Nike boycott that was covered in the last issue of the Carillon. Several writers sent in their takes about whether we should vote with our money to support Colin Kaepernick – to buy Nike products in an effort to bring attention to police violence. Who won in that scenario? Was it a win for the right-wing objectors who defaced their Nike products, or for Kaepernick or the Black Lives matter movement? Of course, the real answer is that Nike won, regardless of anyone’s position. As our contributors pointed out, Nike’s sales shot up because of the controversy and both sides ended up helping with advertising. There were some responses that were incredibly extreme, like a Louisiana mayor banning Nike products from any gym facility – but even that was publicity. Clearly, although Nike may have wanted to give off the impression of being connected to social change in this case, whether or not people were buying shoes with checkmarks on them actually didn’t have any bearing on the state of racial violence in the United States. If you think about it objectively, that kind of seems like a no-brainer.

Another example that was covered in a previous issue was that of the straw ban, where restaurants banned straws to reduce the negative effects of single-use plastic on marine life. This is something that I care about, and I have for some time tried my best to reduce my plastic use. But even if we ignore the fact that not everyone can give up straws, we have to acknowledge that straws are not at all the biggest contributor to plastic waste – we have more to blame on plastic fishing nets used by many companies that probably do not even manufacture straws. Not only that, but some companies’ solutions to the “straw problem” make equally little sense; Starbucks, for instance, replaced their straws on some drinks with sippy lids that were also made of plastic. In other words, this is the same overarching issue as the one with Nike; people may have changed their spending habits in a well-meaning way, but they did not by any stretch of the imagination solve the problem, because the solution is nowhere close to the source. In addition, I would venture to say that the top executives at Starbucks probably care less about the environment than they do about connecting (and advertising) to the environmentally-conscious crowd they’re selling to.

There is a common thread between these two examples – ultimately, companies operate in the way they think is best for them, regardless of consumers. Even if we only buy ethically, companies who don’t care about the things we do are still fully operational until they aren’t allowed to be. Yes, if everybody decided to shop ethically, these companies would be out of business, but the arguments and statistics that lead some of us to change our ways don’t work on everyone. Some people simply do not care about fair working conditions or cruelty-free products, as long as they are living conveniently and making a profit. And, because there are so few restrictions in place on the conditions under which we can sell products, the conditions under which we buy them always have room for cruelty.

Nike and Starbucks are big examples of famously exploitative corporations, but even small companies with modest roots are trying to fix a broken system while playing by its rules. Unfair working conditions and environmental negligence are cornerstones of capitalist production, and although we might replace one product with another, this is no substitute for actual societal change. For example, what laws can we advocate for that will make it illegal for corporations to damage our air and oceans? How can we punish and hold companies accountable for the unfair way they treat their workers, and how can we support workers in our own communities? It is the value of profit over people that makes these problems so severe, so should we not be placing the focus of our activism on how we’re going to affect people, and not how we’re going to affect profit?

I would never suggest that ethical consumption is a fruitless endeavor – it always makes a difference and I respect every effort for it – but I do want to suggest that there is a lot more we could be doing, and not doing it all the time by supporting the “wrong thing” every now and then simply isn’t worth the self-flagellation. It is hard to reduce our waste and change our spending, but it’s actually much harder and makes bigger waves to go to protests and change legislation, even if you go to McDonald’s afterward. We are not living in an unfair world because ordinary people just don’t make enough good choices; rather, we are living under a system that exploits all of us. So, continue to put soy milk in your fair trade coffee lattes, please, but remember that the fight for a better world exists outside of your wallet.

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