Welcome to the first part of a two part series on purchasing power. This short series will focus around the idea that you, and I, and each individual consumer is a political actor, whether we know it or not, and that each purchase and each decision in the marketplace is a political act. Read on to find out more, and keep an eye out for parts two and three coming soon.
Over the past few decades the world has been witness to the “corporate explosion.”
What was once a fairly meaningless word signifying a limited liability company has been transformed into one of the most important terms in the realms of economics, politics, and even ethics. In fact, in 2009, 44 of the top 100 world economies were corporations – Wal-Mart for example, has a larger economy than Sweden, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela.
It is impossible to ignore the influence that corporations have, whether they are dictating what you watch on television, what goes into the food you eat, or who gets into the White House.
We now live in a world where our money can have exponentially more impact than our vote, and it is important that we realize this fact.
The Cost of Blind Consumption
The take away message from this piece is that for every penny you spend, you are casting a small, but meaningful vote. When you purchase locally grown apples at the market, you are voting in support of local farmers and against farming corporations. When you buy your clothes from a second-hand shop, you are voting for sustainability and recycling, etc.
In order to demonstrate the importance of spending one’s money consciously, we’ll first cover a few real world consequences that stem from what we will call “blind consumption” – buying products without knowing what your money is paying for.
We’ll work with one category that most consumers are familiar with – clothing. The production of clothing has been a serious point of contention for decades, and for good reason. When consumers go in search of new clothing, or any product of elastic demand, they naturally seek the cheapest clothes that their limited capital will buy them. And when supplying goods of elastic demand firms need to keep their costs and prices low in order to stay in business and attract customers. The vast majority of consumers of clothing are “blind,” meaning they are unaware of where their clothing was made, how it was made, and how much it cost to make it.
The results are not pretty.
In order to reduce costs and product prices, companies naturally seek the cheapest and most profitable workforce possible. This practice, while economically beneficial, walks a dangerous line.
The majority of the images above are taken from the horrific Bangladesh Building Collapse that occurred last April, but a quick search around will produce countless other atrocities that have occurred as a result of our consumption habits.
But this is not just about sweatshops or working conditions in some far off land. This is about pollution – whether or not corporations decide it’s profitable to irresponsibly burn their chemical waste. And this is about safety – whether or not the CEO of a major car company decides to pay to fix a dangerous model, or pay the law suits from the resulting deaths. No seriously.
We will have more on this subject in part two of our series.
What Can We Do?
The answer isn’t to stop buying stuff, – making purchases and participating in markets is what drives economies at home and abroad! Instead the answer is to know where your stuff you buy comes from, and then use that knowledge to make purchases based upon what you value.
So for example if you are a proponent of gay rights, the more you know about the companies you are purchasing from, the greater impact you can have on the fight for marriage equality. Some companies donate millions to anti-gay groups each year, while others donate to the opposite camp, so it follows that you’d want to shop at the latter. This applies to passionate individuals of all kinds. Against animal cruelty? Shop local! Against sweatshops? Shop re-used and responsible retailers. You get the idea.
Common sense? Absolutely. Effective? You bet. If you are looking for evidence of conscious consumption having an impact, look no further than your local supermarket. A few short years ago, the terms “local” and “organic” were nonexistent among large food retailers. But today companies are very aware that consumers are privy to the health, and environmental benefits of this type of product, and so they provide it! Consumers win, and producers win without the awful consequences of blind consumption.
There is a plethora of different resources available to consumers, no matter what type of information they are seeking. A few of my favorites include the Buycott application for Android and iPhone. It allows the user to scan bar codes, and displays the corporate family tree of that particular product. It also allows you to join or create your own campaign involving whatever issue you want, and it even warns you when you are purchasing a product that goes against your values. Awesome.
Another app of similar design can be found over at GOOD.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, SHARE your knowledge about different issues and products. Almost no one is a completely blind consumer. Each of us knows different facts about different industries, and if we work together, pool our knowledge, and consume responsibly, we can change the world. No one is going to stop buying stuff, and companies are not going to stop producing the stuff we buy. So let’s purchase products from those companies who go against the grain, and from those producers who understand that profits aren’t the bottom line.
Stay tuned for part two coming shortly. Be sure to like, share, and comment with your thoughts, and have a positive day.
Interested in what you can do about sweatshops? Check out this short but sweet write up by Anita.