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)