This post was authored by Ljubica Sarafov, KEY Coalition member.
Recently I was reading an article about American Apparel. If you’re like me and you’ve been living under a rock or something, maybe you haven’t heard but the company is shady! I knew their ads were controversial, namely because they strike many consumers as borderline pornographic (which is fair, i think, considering they have used porn stars in their ads). But I had no clue about everything else. If you’re unfamiliar with the shadiness that is American Apparel, go here, here, here and here. Or here, or here and … I’m sure there are many, many more.
So all of this is very interesting. But not very obviously connected to the climate change movement, dirty energy, or the usual topics discussed here. So why bring it up? because as I was clicking through these stories and getting deeper and deeper I found, A Wolf In Sheep Clothing by Ari Paul. In the article Paul is talking about how buying from American Apparel is an easy way to feel good. He says: “Additionally, “consumption activism” strikes me as just an easy way out. If I buy this sweatshop-free tee that is ALSO in support of same-sex marriage, I’m covering all my bases, right?”
I think the sentiments in that sentence go well beyond American Apparel, and it’s something I would like to unpack.
It might sound strange coming from an environmental activist, but I hate the “Green Movement.”
Why? Well, despite the ridiculous climate change debate I blogged about last time, many Americans understand that global warming is real. They want to do something about it. But what? It seems hard to ride a bike to the grocery store instead of a car. Its hard not to crank up the heat in these cold winter months and harder still not to turn it way down in the sweltering heat of summer (both intensified thanks to climate change). So what is a semi-conscious citizen to do? Go shopping!
Yes, go shopping, and believe me corporations are ready for you. While once upon a time, I had to go to my local natural foods store to get environmentally friendly products, today thanks to the “green revolution” going on in your grocery store, companies like Windex have produced eco-friendly versions of their products.
But, I want to push back on the idea that we can forgo grassroots activism in favor of consumer /consumption activism. You see, activism challenges the wrongs in our society. It’s about closing down coal plants across campuses like the SSC is doing. It’s about closing down incinerators one at a time and fighting against newly proposed ones, like EJN is doing. Activism is about making substantive change, while consumerism provides a cheap thrill that doesn’t last very long. Consumerism is about using things up and then going on to the next one (like that Jay-Z song), so one day you need an eco-friendly tote bag and the next it’s “green” Windex. That isn’t exactly a conservationist model. No, indeed, environmentalism is almost completely mutually exclusive from consumerism; “consumption activism” is an oxymoron.
Now don’t get me wrong its great that there are options for consumers, and that its convenient. The part I have a major beef with is the concept. I don’t like that they’re trying to sell us on this idea of “voting with your wallet.” I guess that’s supposed to mean if you want things to change in your local store then you need to buy certain products (i.e. Eco-friendly Windex). And lots of other people like you will buy them, and then that somehow makes the world a better place via Adam Smith’s invisible hand – the market will sort out the best way to serve needs.
Unfortunately, markets can be complicated ((Not sure what I mean? Check out this Planet Money episode where an economist who kept losing his slippers, paid his 7-year-old son $1 every time he found them. Pretty soon, the kid started hiding the slippers and making easy money. ). For example, Walmart may sell both “green” and regular Windex. You can buy green Windex and feel good about yourself and your “vote.” But When Walmart needs Windex (or whatever cleaning product they use) they let bottom-lines talk. It’s not that they are evil. They are a corporation and by their very existence all they care about is maximizing profit for shareholders. So, they use the cheaper product, regular Windex. Interestingly, this creates a feedback loop, where the regular Windex is cheaper because there is a higher demand for it thanks to corporations like Walmart. Still feel like you can vote effectively with your money? All things equal, when we vote with our wallets, corporations get bigger votes.
So how long is this really going to last. I don’t know. I hope that more eco-friendly products are always widely available. The problem is that its not a sustainable for change. It doesn’t challenge the status quo.
The fact is that we need to make bigger changes in our lives then simply switching window cleaners and buying tote bags. We do need to leave thermostat down, and get rid or the SUV or old clunker that gets like 15 miles a gallon. We need to challenge the status quo and make big change because at the end of the day, although they like to tell us differently, corporations are only accountable to their shareholders. Consumers might make up most of their profit, but we are not their main concern. That being said there are people who’s job it is to be accountable. Its their job to be concerned with “we the people,” our public servants!
That is who we need to think about when voting (duh!). If you want to vote with you wallet then donate to a candidate who has a strong stance on climate change and conservation. Oh, there isn’t one running? Let them know that you care. Gather 15 constituents and march down to their office. Let them know that these people’s votes can be hers/his if they take a better stance.
You see, people think that government is really corrupt and tangled with special interest money. I think to some extent that is true – now more than ever, thanks to Citizens United. However, Politicians need money to get your vote. It’s expensive to run a campaign and they know that whoever spends the most has an advantage. BUT, you can circumvent all that by just going directly to your representative. Believe it or not, it’s as good as walking in and handing him/her a check for your own special interest. In fact, it’s better! You’ve also just provided him/her with contacts of concerned citizens and people who might be willing to help campaign. The relationship you create is more powerful than the check.
More importantly, you’ve just acted as a catalyst of change. Real substantive change. And, unlike a corporation, you can hold your representative accountable for that promised change. That is activism at work, and, believe me, it is more rewarding than buying Windex at the grocery store.
If you’ve stuck with me up til now, then I just have one more exercise for you:
Imagine if, instead of 15 people, we gathered like 10,000. That’s Power Shift. That’s what it’s about. Yes, there are workshops, keynote speakers, caucuses and all kinds of training. Things that will be beneficial to you in your future. But what Power Shift really does, why it’s really important, it shows the strength of our movement. It says to politicians: hear our concerns and act if you would like to stay in office. It’s real activism that can change our future.
If you would like to attend Power Shift, registration is now LIVE—GO! GO! GO!
***Please Note: Early Registration Deadline is FEB 13th
If youre interested in coordinating a group from your area or campus its not too late.
Sign up to he a coordinator: http://powershift2011.org/organize/coordinators
Or shoot me an email at email@example.com