Ethical Shopping Is Pointless: An Interview With Consumer Activist George Monbiot

Sure, being a more conscientious shopper is gratifying; we’ve gotten in the habit of refusing bags at the store whenever we can manage to carry the goods some other way, and although it’s a small step, it feels good. But Monbiot, a British journalist and political activist who was interviewed this week on the website of newconsumer magazine, would laugh in our stupid faces at how ineffectual we’re being as consumers: “In the absence of political action it is a form of passivity.”

I am very sceptical of consumer power. I believe better consumption by itself is an entirely useless means of achieving political change. Those who have the most votes – the vote being the money you have to spend as consumers – are generally inclined to use them the least.

Much of Monbiot’s focus these days is on the environment and the destructive effect of corporations on democracy. On his own website, he argues against the emerging model of “green consumerism,” calling it “a pox on the planet”:

If it merely swapped the damaging goods we buy for less damaging ones, I would champion it. But two parallel markets are developing: one for unethical products and one for ethical products, and the expansion of the second does little to hinder the growth of the first… It is easy to picture a situation in which the whole world religiously buys green products, and its carbon emissions continue to soar.

Of course, what he’s really demanding is that everyone, including the Consumerist community, become more politically active – but that can be a tough demand to meet when you’re already financially restrained, overscheduled on a career and/or family track, and unsure of where your political capital can best be spent.

In the United States, so much of our civic role is built around a concept of “every small action matters,” whether we’re dealing with littering, voting for amateur singing sensations, or shopping ethically. What’s the best way to do more? Any ideas?

‘I am very sceptical of consumer power’: Mobiot talks [newconsumer magazine]

(Photo: JK the Unwise)

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  1. sled_dog says:

    The longest journey starts with the first step. Thanks, George, for telling us what dupes we are for taking that step.

  2. forever_knight says:

    he has a point

  3. Dickdogfood says:

    I think he’s picking on a strawman here — do people who try to practice “ethical shopping” really think it solves problems, rather than reduces their role in perpetuating those problems? Or that it’s any substitute for “political action,” whatever that means?

  4. bedofnails says:

    Case in point, carbon credits. Has ever there been a greater scam perpetrated upon humanity?

  5. bobshull says:

    There is an answer for becoming more politically active on a small time-budget: get hooked up with advocacy groups. If you sign up with an organization like Public Citizen or USPIRG, you can hear all about ways that consumers, the environment, and public health are put at risk… and you can get options to speak out to your members of Congress on key issues in just a few clicks. (I work for Public Citizen, so of course I have to plug its website – action.citizen.org – where you can get started today.)

  6. jmschn says:

    @dickdogfood: Read the post about Barnes & Noble bags on Harry Potter opening day and you’ll get your answers (and more!) haha

  7. howie_in_az says:

    Save up some money and buy a senator.

  8. Ransack says:

    Typical bloated-brained globalist with a ridiculous butterflies-and-rainbows agenda that has less chance of success than it does of implementation. Oh, and he has a new book out. Be sure to exercise your capitalist freedoms to purchase this waste of trees.

  9. jtlight says:

    As a libertarian, I believe the government can rarely solve any problems. Government action usually only causes other problems. From corruption to laziness to ineffectiveness, governments (throughout history) rarely solve problems.

    I believe that consumer force is one of the few ways to bring about change. Corporations are in it for money. The more people that prefer to give their money to ethical corporations, the more ethical corporations will grow, and unethical corporations will flounder. This isn’t rocket science.

    I think it’s fairly ignorant to say that consumer action is useless. It is quite obvious that this argument is born more out of anti-corporatism than it is pro-environmentalism (go see the Penn and Teller episode on environmental extremism, and it will be made obvious that this reasoning is rampant.)

  10. bohemian says:

    I have always said that a large block of people with small amounts of money to put together if done properly could cause some real problems for some of these companies. If they were able to do some sort of hostile takeover or find a way to own enough of a company to get people in a position of control they could make all sorts of demands or possible do other things to bring said company to a screeching halt.

  11. superbmtsub says:

    It makes sense that being a conscientious shopper doesn’t make much difference but for some of us, it’s the personal satisfaction.

    I refuse to shop at WalMart. The only reason I go to WalMart (once a year) is to buy a pack of PuR water filters which are not available anywhere else.

  12. number six says:
  13. w_boodle says:

    So he’s a journalist and a political activist eh?
    Like I’m a judge and a prosecutor. But in my spare time I’m a dentist and a candy salesman.

  14. Buran says:

    If everyone says “someone else will do it”, nothing will get done. Don’t give up just because of what some idiot talking head thinks you should or shouldn’t do.

    Do the right thing!

  15. Amy Alkon says:

    Activists tend to be all talk and no money where their mouths are, in my recent and prior experience. I have vegetarians railing at me this month for a column I wrote, and all of them screech on about how cows should be treated. Want to know how I shut them up? Suggesting that if they care so much about the cattle, they should buy a plot of land, buy cattle and let them roam free until they fall over and croak. Same goes for the anti-abortion types. Want to prevent abortion? Pay women who’d abort to carry the kids to term, then pay for that child from delivery room through dorm room. Whooosh! Activist-B-Gone!

  16. brokekid says:

    I don’t think ethical shopping is an entirely lost cause, but we do need to develop better tools that will allows us to effectively distribute our buying power.

    With organized group purchasing of “green” and “fair” products we can lower the cost of many of these goods, which tend to be costlier than less friendly items.

    Consumer developed product and corporate reputation systems would allow us to figure out not only what products are ethically challenged, but which producers also.

    Improving current systems of producing, processing, transporting and selling goods at a hyper-local level provide for transparency and aid the local economy.

    Organizing to change infringing laws on the local level will have a rippling effect throughout regions and states, outlawing plastic bags and incandescents are a small step in the right direction.

    I get Monbiot’s point, but he underestimates the will of the consumer and the power of our diverted dollars.

  17. LibidinousSlut says:

    @JTLIGHT really, putting aside the fact that libertarian is just fancy talk for narcissist, you’re citing Penn and Teller as your unbiased point of reference on the environmental agenda? Let me just ask Ann Coulter for her unbiased opinion on the Democratic Debates…

    Anyway, guys like Mobiot irk because they don’t realize that by the very nature of their work (and the fact that he’s from a relatively affluent background) means he exists apart from the tedium of the everyday that most of us have to deal with. He gets paid, to espouse his beliefs. Most Americans (and people in general) get paid to, do if not the exact opposite of what they believe in, to subvert their values. And, if you’re in debt, as most Americans are, you can’t, statistically speaking, afford to live your values. It’s much simpler to play dumb, and dull your doubts with tv, shopping and medication.

    Getting a grasp on consumer culture and the effects of one’s purchases, is the first step in getting more active in the political sphere.

    When one can say, I don’t need to buy that, or I am going to get out of debt, or I will live in a smaller house, and one can afford to work fewer hours to meet your needs and wants, one has more time to be politically and socially engaged. But as long as your hooked to the teet of consumerism, as long as you need to work hard to keep your debt at bay, it’s hard to be a vocal active member of society, to be a citizen and not a consumer. Monbiot fails to realize this.

  18. hoo_foot says:

    Completely disagree that consumers don’t wield power. One small victory here is that my local grocery chains and Whole Foods have begun offering larger selections of locally grown produce and dairy products in response to rising consumer demand for it in this area. Another victory is that a few local dairies have banned bovine growth hormones from their products, making it easier and cheaper for consumers in the region to find non-rBGH laced milk.

    These might not be sweeping, fundamental changes, but they are examples of how consumer demand has forced companies to take a step in the right direction.

  19. m.ravian says:

    anyone read that article in the New York Times a few weeks ago (i think it was in the styles section?) about green chic? same damn thing…just because your 3000 sq ft second vacation home was made of sustainable new growth wood doesn’t make its existence okay. better not to have the house in the first place.

  20. nctrnlboy says:

    Just gimmie cheap products (I need… not want) so I can survive in this miserable world! Everything else takes a backseat when you are just struggling to survive!

  21. eross says:

    Monbiot is dead on. consumer actions alone are trivial and the counter argument someone made about rgbh is actually a prime case in point. Without political organizing to stop Monsanto from blocking any dairy from even labeling their products as free of rgbh-derived product, we would have no choice at all. See: [reclaimdemocracy.org]

  22. synergy says:

    This is assuming that either way you’ll be a good little consumer. Stop consuming unless you really need to and when you do, do so “green” and then things might improve. Don’t have the 3000 sq. ft. house and 3 cars.

  23. MercuryPDX says:

    I find it hard to believe that even a small change (ie. Bringing your own bags everywhere, doing a better job recycling) has no positive effects at all, yet it all seems kind of futile if you’re the ONLY one doing it.

  24. chili_dog says:

    Yet another fool who believes in the panacea of government control of the population. Some government is good and needed, but come on people, if we are going to actually make a difference pass the laws, set the levels of “acceptable” pollution and DON’T lie about it. Nothing galls me more then the political lying about the laws.

  25. SOhp101 says:

    I agree with him that the current trend of “green is fashionable” is silly and that corporations/companies hardly do much to actually benefit the environment.

    However the government is horrible at preserving the environment. The best thing the government can do is create a market/information database that will enable consumers to really know how much a company pollutes, renews resources, etc. Other than that and the government generally fails at whatever it does.

    Prime example where corporations are full of BS when it comes to helping a cause? Look at RED (HIV/AIDS). Approximately 2% of actual profit went to HIV/AIDS organizations. Pretty sad, really.

  26. shoegazer says:

    I agree with Monbiot.

    There is an inherent conflict between the aspirational lifestyle journalism which makes readers feel better about themselves and sells country kitchens and the central demand of environmentalism: that we should consume less.

    I’ve said before the carbon offset bullshit is a symptom of our willingness to buy away our problems. Very few people are honest enough to say that they don’t really give a flying fuck about the environment other than it makes them look sensitive to be SEEN to do so. Consumer society is all about making the easy choices in lieu of the hard ones, which is directly opposed to the old-style conservatism which actually DOES have an effect.

    Meghann, you said that so much of our civic role is built around “every small action matters”. While this is true, it avoids the central point in the actual article: that “green consumerism” is just another social ladder to climb.

    In places like Surrey and the New Forest, farmland is now fetching up to £30,000 an acre as city bonuses are used to buy organic lifestyles(5). When the new owners dress up as milkmaids then tell the excluded how to make butter, they run the risk of turning environmentalism into the whim of the elite.

    I am NOT an activist, I am a realist. I don’t buy organic unless I am at a farmer’s market, I don’t pay for carbon offsets and I don’t have a Red Amex. And yet I recycle, consume less and use public transport. Arguably, I do more for the environment than 5 Prius-loving sanctimonial eco-pricks. I’m not saying they don’t have their place. However the atmosphere is becoming poisonous, and not just from carbon emissions.

  27. aikoto says:

    Bogus. Maybe it doesn’t change the world or politics, but it does change YOU. Your outlook and your willingness to take a few extra steps for a cause are the basis of political movements. People who believe they can’t change anything are the defeatists that never get anything done.

  28. morganlh85 says:

    Maybe that idea of “every little action counts” was instilled in us on purpose; i.e. so that we really will never make a difference, but will wholeheartedly believe we are.

  29. jgkelley says:

    @morganlh85: I think that’s the man’s main point, and you stated it well. It’s not that it has no effect when we pay $5 a month for a bit of windpower from our electric company, or that it causes as much damage to the environment when you use a canvas bag instead of plastic/paper for a year, but the effect it has is so minimal as to be completely lost under the emissions caused by coal in example 1 and destroyed by the number of products we bought that contained plastic packaging in example 2. I believe he’s simply stating that it would be more effective to save the $60 a year, use the plastic bags, and spend an hour a week writing our congress-person instead.

    And to all those people stating “our government is useless, lazy, inefficient, etc”, that may be true in many instances, but under our system of rule, it is our best hope to get them to listen to the citizenry. To claim that we must “do things for ourselves” instead is far more idealist than anyone saying we should use the government to effect change.

  30. Hambriq says:

    One problem to consider regarding convincing the government to enact environmental change: it’s expensive. I’m not saying it is or isn’t worth it. I’m just saying, forcing America to be more green isn’t going to hurt the rich elite or the upper middle class. After all, the majority of “organic” products are marketed to (and purchased by) the aforementioned elite and upper middle class.

    The people who get shafted are the lower classes because now, every product they could barely afford in the first place is suddenly more expensive via a trickle-down effect.

    Again, I’m not trying to say that it is or isn’t worth it. But it seems like the people who are calling for the most change are the ones who will be least affected by it.

  31. Chicago7 says:

    @howie_in_az:

    Save a little more money and buy a President. The Arabs did, and look at the price of oil now.

  32. @jtlight: “I believe that consumer force is one of the few ways to bring about change. Corporations are in it for money. The more people that prefer to give their money to ethical corporations, the more ethical corporations will grow, and unethical corporations will flounder.”

    I agree. If you create demand, corporations will fill it. And if you cut demand, or make people embarassed about buying a particular product, corporations will back off that product.

    I for sure feel like my shopping choices make a lot more difference in this country than my voting does, sad to say.

  33. He doesn’t attack things like recycling and riding the bus. He is upset with people who supposedly go green but are just as wasteful, if not more so, as they were before or urge people to do things they can’t possibly afford or have time to do (like having your own milking cow).

    Monbiot’s point is valid. The idea that we should go green by consuming more resources is ridiculous.

  34. @morganlh85: “Maybe that idea of “every little action counts” was instilled in us on purpose; i.e. so that we really will never make a difference, but will wholeheartedly believe we are.”

    I dunno. When I took my lawn organic and overseeded with clover, and then put in native prairie plantings, everyone was like, “pfft. What difference does one organic lawn make?” (Well, for me, I can walk barefoot on it without creepy chemicals, but whatev.) Well, three years later, more than half my block has taken their lawns organic and introduced clover and native flowers.

    Our block is now a notable haven for butterflies and bees. And presumably all kinds of insects I don’t know enough to notice and tell apart. And the hawks interested in the birds that eat the insects are picking off the rabbits, too, so everybody’s happy!

    Most people exist in a community, and small changes by individuals DO ripple out through that person’s small community, and that really IS how grassroots movements get started.

  35. mac-phisto says:

    i think active consumerism is a start & government intervention takes it to the next level. i’m not sure if that’s exactly what he’s saying here or not. he kind of hints at it, or maybe it’s b/c he’s speaking from the standpoint of an active consumer that it bleeds thru.

    w/o the active consumer, there’s no market for more environmentally-friendly products, but w/o government interaction, the positive changes rarely carry over into the general market.

    take, for example, recycled paper products. not many people were buying recycled paper in the 80′s when it was 4x as expensive as non-recycled, with poor overall product quality. but once state & fed agencies started restricting timbering operations & reducing the amount of paper resources available to the market, recycled paper became a more desired commodity. today, it’s hard to find paper products that aren’t at least partially recycled.

    BUT, one thing mr. monbiot seems to be neglecting all together is the importance of the corporation in the equation. w/o an initial investment in something radical (like manufacturing & selling recycled paper products in the 80′s), where does that leave us? activists & government can work together to create the necessary environment for change, but w/o businesses seeking to invest in & identify with change, we’re not going to get very far at all.

  36. forever_knight says:

    @eross: what some brave milk provider should do is “break” the law and boldly post it on their label. no public official will try to stop them. such a publicity nightmare. monsanto will also try to use 3rd parties to fight it, but i think it will bring the issue to the general public’s awareness.

  37. Melikoth says:

    Doesn’t “Carbon Credits” mean your just paying someone else to be more eco-friendly for you? How does that help at all? To the person who said they were a scam, I agree… they just don’t make any sense to me, but then, I’ve never seen a good explanation of how it works either.

  38. mac-phisto says:

    @Melikoth: carbon credits simply monetize pollution & trade shares on the open market. the reason they don’t make a lot of sense here is largely b/c of our refusal to follow the kyoto protocol. we think of our ability to pollute as infinite & credits largely as voluntary. kyoto provides the necessary context for understanding how credits are supposed to work, b/c each country is given finite levels of pollution.

    to simplify greatly, think of trash pickup in your town. you get to throw away 2 bags of trash every week, along with all your neighbors. well, let’s say you generate 4 bags/week & you have 2 neighbors that each generate only 1 bag. you offer to pay each of them to take your extra garbage. that works great until another neighbor also starts generating 4 bags/week & he offers to pay more for his extra bags. now, a market has been created on your block where you must compete for finite bag space. you either pay more or generate less.

    kyoto also establishes a certification process for the dispersement of the money generated by credits, so it’s not like the money can be used for lobbying or chaining hippies to trees. a company or foundation that receives credits to offset, say 100 tons of emissions, must prove that their program actually reduces emissions by that amount. it’s not just that they produce ZERO emissions – they must actually ABSORB those 100 tons.

    over time, as pollution levels rise relative to pollution allowances, market competition will increase the cost of credits. as companies pay more for credits, they will have a benchmark to decide when converting to cleaner operations is less expensive than continuing to buy credits.

    b/c credits are voluntary in the u.s., their effectiveness is questionable. nothing requires the largest polluters to do anything at all. still, the voluntary creation of the market might be the necessary catalyst for making credits mandatory sometime in the future.

  39. olegna says:

    I agree completely.

    Ethical shopping is a stupid way for people too justify their sense of entitlement.

    What bothers me is how “being green” is always within a consumer perspective: instead of buying a big, mean SUV, buy a small hybird. Sure don’t bother reducing your 14,000 miles (the average Amercian’s annual mileage), just make sure it *pollutes less*.

    Put it this way, who’se footprint is smaller: guy with the big SUV who lives close to work and rides his bike regularly as a mode of transport, or the hippie who drives a Prius and lives outside of town and logs 20,000 miles in his hybrid.

    My point is the products and the slogans on bumper stickers don’t mean nearly as much as the lifestyle choices people make.

    Drining a Pruis is nothing more than a fashion statement. Cutting your mileage in half (7,000 per year) in WHATEVER car you drive is more important and more relevant.

    And, of course, as the bumper sticker on the Pruis sez: Buy Less Stuff.

  40. Rusted says:

    @jeremyduffy: Agree. Chinese imports is my bugaboo. I feel like it’s supporting the enemy when I have to.