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I am a great fan of Dara O’Rourke, whose work on sweatshops and supply chains has been a tremendous contribution to both scholarship and activism. His research has improved our understanding of how to transform production systems. I agree with most of what he has written here, but I will concentrate on those areas where we diverge.
Like O’Rourke, I am enthusiastic about ethical consumption as an avenue for social change. In eras such as our own, when corporate power has increased dramatically and business capture of the state is so advanced, looking to consumers as agents of change may be inevitable. So-called market campaigns, which pressure retailers, have been some of the few success stories over the last fifteen to twenty years.
But O’Rourke’s account of how and why consumer activity can work at times veers toward what I would term the “naïve” model of ethical consumption, which assumes that consumers mostly have influence as individuals in the market and that shifts in buying power (or “voting with dollars”) prompt corporate response. That is rare. O’Rourke does discuss NGOs, but I wonder if his account fails to give them enough credit, which is curious from a scholar whose work has been so oriented toward institutions, including NGOs.
As I suspect O’Rourke will agree, it is less by mobilizing people as consumers than as activists that market-based campaigns succeed. My research with Margaret Willis shows that the links between buying patterns and activism are strong. Using a national database of people who boycott and “buycott,” as well as our own sample of 1,850 committed ethical consumers, we found that activism is highly correlated with ethical consumption and that 25 percent of our respondents were converted to activism through this route. In contrast to accounts that accuse ethical consumption of “individualizing responsibility,” and therefore detracting from activism, our work finds that people buy and agitate as part of a single process.
Ethical consumption is a route to activism.
This is also the lesson from a number of studies of particular campaigns. Activist groups play a crucial role in organizing consumers. Private, individualized shifts of purchasing power do not drive social change. Especially at a time when activism has been de-legitimated, ethical consumption is an important route into it. And without activism we do not get changes in state policies. Whether the issue is labor exploitation, energy standards, toxins, or animal cruelty, it is almost always state action that finally ushers in reform and takes change “to scale.”
This brings me to my second point, which concerns the strategy behind GoodGuide. Having participated in early, low-tech approaches of this sort, I appreciate their appeal. But as the field has progressed, I have grown less sanguine. The literature on ethical consumption often shows that people are overwhelmed by information. They agonize about competing concerns, such as local versus organic, or fair trade versus low carbon. They feel paralyzed by multiple labeling schemes. While GoodGuide may allow consumers to set their preferences, the bigger problem is that they don’t know how to weight those preferences, not that they can’t do the calculation once they figure that out.
This information-based model proceeds from an understanding of the consumer as rational and calculative. It’s homo economicus in the pre–behavioral economics era. But consumers are less utilitarian, more impulsive, and more symbolically driven than the rational model assumes. Enhanced information is a weak predictor of behavioral change. An information-rich phone is a gadget that feels like it was designed by an engineer for an engineer, rather than something that would appeal to a stressed-out parent rushing through the aisles at the grocery store.
The alternative is to focus on companies and brands rather than individual commodities. This is largely the way people already shop. Consumers can figure out which companies and brands best represent their values. NGOs can “discipline” those companies, as the food movement has attempted to do with Whole Foods. Learning that Patagonia, Ecover, and [fill in the blank] are industry leaders in eco-impact, for example, leads to a one-time, long-term decision. The convenience of this approach is valuable. Consumers are telling us they are overwhelmed by the task of choosing the “right” products, and they are begging for parsimonious solutions.
Social movements have always found the consumer goods that express their values. I am confident that today’s activists can do the same, without expensive outlays on experts, rating systems, or hardware. The greater challenge is getting consumers to recognize that their individual purchasing power is less important than the power they can mobilize as an organized collective voice.
A small percentage of consumers have already moved a portion of the market toward more sustainable practices. But the larger promise of ethical consumption remains unmet.
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