Monday, June 4, 2012

Money, Power, and the Consumer: Can We Make a Difference?

"I'mma tell you like Wu told me, cash rules everything around me." -Wyclef Jean

You should go read this excellent article by Melissa Campbell at SPARK about why she will never tell anyone, "Vote with your dollars."

Her general premise is that telling people (especially young girls) that purchasing things is the only way they can voice their power doesn't do enough to disentangle power from money:
When people refuse to buy something, or buy product B instead of product A for what they believe to be political purposes, they might affect the bottom line of a company. They might even provoke that company to make changes to their products or practices. That’s great! But what they’re also doing, and what is so dangerous about telling young people that “voting with your dollars” is the most important thing they can do, is leaving the bulk of the power in the hands of those companies. This limits our own power—our power to create and to innovate and to call for new opportunities and experiences—to the power to consume (or not consume). It takes all of our experiences and lives and wants and needs and desires and possibilities and puts them into a dollar, ultimately conceding that yes, the best we can do is give other people our money and hope for the best.
She goes on to point out how challenging it is to consume ethically since so many companies are actually owned by the same huge conglomerates. For instance, the company who brought you these body-positive ads:

is owned by the same parent company (Unilever) as the company who brought you this one:

So even if you buy only Dove products because of their positive marketing campaigns, you are still helping the company in charge of Axe's misogynistic ads profit. 

What's an ethical consumer to do?

I very much respect the stance that Campbell takes on this, and I agree whole-heartedly with her claim that we need to focus on "our power to create and to innovate and to call for new opportunities and experiences." This is the only way to create true alternatives to these horrendous corporate practices, and I think that we're seeing real alternatives, be it through online media (like web shows that do a better job of showcasing diversity than mainstream options) or online shopping that allows small, ethical companies to reach out to broader markets in an affordable way.

Still, I guess my real qualm with Campbell's stance is that I'm not optimistic enough.

We are consumers. It's really, really hard not to be caught up in consumption in our culture. I completely agree that money shouldn't equal power, but I still think that the reality of the situation is that it does. Money gives you the ad campaigns, the screen time, the market control. And the American narrative of success is so wrapped up in monetary gain that our affinity for status symbols and wealth are nearly taken for granted.

Again, I'm not saying that any of this should be this way. In fact, I am completely flabbergasted by how concentrated the power in our culture really is.

Six companies control 90% of our media outlets. 

My recent petition against KRAFT over the stereotypes they portray in their MilkBite campaign called for a boycott, but a true boycott of KRAFT would mean avoiding all of their subsidiary brands, everything from A-1 to Jello to Kool-aid. It's going to be much harder for the average American family to vote with their wallet when a company's roots run that deep.

And while, yes, there are some people who really are able and willing to make sure that each and every thing they purchase aligns with their moral values, this is a rarity. For the general consumer, ethical consumption has to happen in baby steps.

And that's why I still think that calls for ethical consumption (in the form of boycotts and buycotts) are a useful tool for activists.

There's speculation that Disney's latest film Brave is an attempt to answer consumer demand for stronger female characters.

Huggies completely changed their "Put Dad to the Test" campaign when they received consumer pushback for their sexism.

Consumers do have power, but that power is largely bound by our ability to organize and communicate. Corporations have a hierarchical imbalance of the power because they control so many of the avenues for that organization and communication and because our very identities are often wrapped up in what we buy, making it even harder (and I might say impossible) to disentangle ourselves from the consumer culture in a way that allows us to look in on it objectively.

Ethical consumption should never be a dismissal. We shouldn't tell someone "Just don't buy it" if they're upset about something. Ethical consumption is not an individual act (at least not if it's going to be effective). It has to include a collectivist action and the communication of the reasoning behind that act if it is to have any effect on the actual consumer culture.

I really appreciate that Campbell's piece demonstrates some of the limitations of ethical consumption, especially if it remains framed as an individual endeavor.

So, don't just vote with your dollars, but put your voice in so we can all vote with our dollars. There's power in numbers, and those corporations would not exist without us. Remember that.

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