Heart Centered Learning: The Myth of Ethical Consumerism

“…Even though it’s mostly progressives who identify as Ethical Consumers, as Teachout illuminates, making change through the way we shop is ultimately a right-wing idea. We’ve fully embraced the neoliberal system and worldview that change should happen through the marketplace. Conservatives are the ones who think the best solutions to social problems as market solutions, and have fought historically-progressive strategies to tackle social and environmental problems such as government regulation, public spending, better education, social programs, and trade pacts that protect human rights and the environment both here and abroad. Ethical Consumption may have started out 30 years ago as a byproduct of our powerlessness in the neoliberal era, but somewhere along the way we bought into it…

…But I think it’s self-evident that Ethical Consumerism is a grossly inadequate and unequal response to our most pressing problems, like the climate crisis, systemic racism, sweatshop wages, growing inequality, and so on. Moreso, I’m convinced these problems are in large part created by unchecked corporate power, unregulated capitalism, and our weakened democracy that Ethical Consumers help prop up. Fashion is a perfect example: What drives sweatshops is not a consumer demand for sweatshops. It is a lack of proper labor laws to protect garment workers and intense economic concentration that incentivizes the industry to drive down wages. The best solution to this problem is to nurture our democracy and return to the progressive and strong mass movements of the past that provide a counterweight to the market’s crushing power…

But where we get ourselves into trouble is in viewing shopping as a moral act—and viewing shopping at a cheap chainstore that has poor business practices as an immoral one. Consumption is an economic imperative (there’s no escaping it under capitalism), and it is fundamentally determined by our income. Unless we believe that rich people, who can afford more ethical products, are somehow more ethical than the rest of us, we must confront that it’s unacceptable and arguably deeply unethical itself to ever tie human “goodness” to what we buy. In fact, I now believe that the only ethical approach to consumption (if such a thing exists) is to make the cheapest available products as responsibly as possible, as was recently argued in The Guardian, which means overhauling the big companies that make most of the stuff that most people buy….

…None of this is easy. Learning how to get involved in real political movements means learning entirely new skills (Eitan Hersh’s book Politics Is for Power is a great starter guide) and requires reinvigorating our broken political system, the rewards of which require patience. And Ethical Consumption is second nature to many of us. Recently, when I posted about PayUp Fashion, our new phase of the #PayUp campaign in the Consumer Activist tradition of calling for systemic reform of corporate fashion, including new laws and regulations to create living wages for all garment workers, a colleague responded, “This is why we need to support small business.” We still cling to the hope that we just need to expand our ranks. Likewise, when Everlane’s workers tried to unionize earlier this year, the Instagram comments were mostly some variation of, “I won’t be shopping there again.” A more powerful strategy, the public strategy, would be to find ways to support organized labor across the retail sector…

…When in doubt, think like a Consumer Activist. Rather than give up plastic to-go cups, Consumer Activists would work together to ban single-use plastics, investigate the plastic industry’s influence over American government, and push our government to propose a low-carbon national policy that undercuts the plastic lobby’s clout. Rather than buy organic food, they’d call to better regulate the petrochemical industry, build new social programs to support sustainable farming, and work to ban toxins. And rather than boycott Amazon or delete Instagram, we’d realize our own antitrust laws should’ve never allowed these platforms to have this much control to begin with…

~ Excerpted from The Twilight of the Ethical Consumer by Elizabeth Cline.

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