Here I was thinking that now, more than ever, we need to organise, mobilise, take to the streets, and voice our dissent – collectively. Then I went to a couple of supermarkets in the USA, and was left speechless by the sheer number of product lines which promote the idea that concerned shoppers – as individuals – can save the world by consuming more of them.
Here I was thinking that consumption was a major part of the ecological and social catastrophe that we have created – why the lands that we live on are being filled up with landfills at an alarming rate, why the rivers and lakes are polluted and dying, along with many animals, fish, plants and trees. Yet on the shelves, can after jar after plastic packet after box tell me that by buying this product I would be taking a real action for a better world. Really?
Every time we go to a supermarket we are invited to believe that the planet’s resources are infinite and that the enormous mountains of packaging we usually have to wade through before getting to whatever it was that we actually bought can somehow be miraculously disposed of without any human or ecological cost.
Not to mention the costs of producing and consuming the product and disposing of the residue. Our personal and political identities have become inextricably linked to what we buy and where we shop. Consumption has become a substitute for democracy, a replacement for emotional expression, and for political action. The corporate media regularly inform us that the consumer is the driving force of a strong economy. Consumerism is our duty, our meaning in life.
The USA contains less than five percent of the world’s population but consumes nearly twenty-five percent of all fossil fuels, over thirty percent of all paper, and creates fifty percent of the world’s waste.
But from the moment we get up to the time we go to bed – assuming we have a bed to sleep in and some money to our name- we can consume and feel good about helping to save something.
A brand of almond butter proclaims that it is committed to preservation of farmland. “Every day 5000 acres of farmland are being sold for development. With education and enthusiastic consumer demand, we can preserve our American farming heritage, keep farming families on the farm, and keep farming a viable economic livelihood” reads the label on the jar.
There is an organic chocolate syrup in a plastic bottle which tells me: “For people and the planet a percent of profit goes to Wildlife Organisations. We can all help support organic farmers and a healthy environment.”
Around the corner there is a box of pasta made by a company which awards around US $25000 a year in environmental scholarships.
And my favourite has to be this chocolate bar wrapper for a company which supports organizations committed to the protection and preservation of endangered animals and their habitats: “Through our efforts and your purchase, together we can make a difference, changing the world one chocolate bar at a time”.
Down another supermarket aisle I find a box of toothpaste made by a company concerned about protecting and restoring the nation’s rivers and watersheds. The company has trademarked the phrase “working with nature to make a difference”.
Nearby is a toilet tissue which “saves natural resources, reduces pollution”. The company which makes it has trademarked “You are making a difference”, uses quotes from the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy, and thanks customers on its plastic wrapper for “caring enough to help make the world a healthier and safer place for this and the next seven generations”.
Behind some of these products may be good people who genuinely care about the planet. One could perhaps argue that the messages on their packaging are one way of informing the public about environmental and social concerns. Other companies, especially transnational corporations with huge public relations and advertising budgets – and the list here is endless – concerned about their profit margins and growing discontent with business are branding themselves as good corporate citizens.
But what is perhaps most worrying is that “ethical shopping” advocates redefine activism as a passive individual activity to be engaged in through consuming or not consuming a particular product. The ethical shopping industrial complex has found a niche in the market in selling stylized political statements and postures to those that can afford to buy. But does “ethical shopping” constitute the first step towards political awareness and action or is it a dead-end street?
Some genuinely believe that justice for the peoples of the global South will come if we in the North simply buy “fair trade” products and boycott Nike and Reebok. Yet how do these actions advance struggles for the rights of peasant farmers and workers’ rights to freedom of association? How do ‘ethical shopping’ decisions in the North address colonialism, structural adjustment, imperialism, or the poverty in the societies in which we live which ensure that only those with enough money in their pockets can afford such items in the first place?
Moreover, many ethical shopping and fair trade campaigns are underpinned by an underlying classism and elitism. Are those of us struggling to get by on low-incomes buying the cheapest brand available, or not buying at all because we can’t afford to, don’t need it, or make it ourselves, somehow less politically right-on than our more affluent sisters and brothers who can choose to spend more?
And since when have private businesses become our proxies for political action and the conduit for financial support towards environmental or social justice causes?
In Upside Down – A Primer for the Looking-Glass World, Eduardo Galeano writes: “Experts know how to turn merchandise into magic charms against loneliness. Things have human attributes: they caress, accompany, understand, help. Perfume kisses you, your car never lets you down. Consumer culture has found in solitude the most lucrative of markets. Holes in your heart can be stuffed with things – or with dreams of things, anyway.”
Are products which jostle for selection by “ethical shoppers” really any different?
In a recent article in THIS Magazine (Business As Usual, November/December 2002) Canadian Auto Workers economist Jim Stanford notes: “The idea that consumers can exert significant influence over companies through isolated, one-off purchasing decisions is simply fantastic. Yes, our collective spending power is one of the tools we have to fight for change, but that’s way different from simply setting us loose, one at a time, to go out and spend money in a politically correct manner”.
Social and ecological justice cannot be bought and sold as commodities in the market place or cooked up at home like a can of beans or a packet of pasta. We cannot leave the manufacturers of products in our shops to decide which organisation and cause is worthy of our support.
We need to consume less and organise more.