This is a response to Michael Hobbes’ article, The Myth of the Ethical Shopper, published July 15, 2015.
Michael Hobbes wrote an article for Huffington Post Highline a few weeks ago that shook the conscious consumer community. In The Myth of the Ethical Shopper, Hobbes outlines the myriad ways buying our way to a better world has failed us. It’s well researched, and it’s true. Imposing regulations on foreign companies without real oversight or local social change has little long term effect on the well being of factory workers.
If you’ve been following the movement for awhile, you’ve probably heard an outline of his argument before, but I encourage you to read it – it’s an impressive amount of research. The primary point of the piece is this:
Listening to consumer advocacy campaigns, you’d think our only influence on the developing world was at the cash register. But our real leverage is with our policies, not our purchases…We are not going to shop ourselves into a better world.
Let me be super clear about this, in words I might have minced in the piece itself: that is impossible. And pretending it’s not is exactly what keeps sweatshops from being solved.
The massive scale on which social problems are
conceived often precludes innovative action because
the limits of bounded rationality are exceeded and
arousal is raised to dysfunctionally high levels. People
often define social problems in ways that overwhelm
their ability to do anything about them.
Basically, if you’re inundated with information about how terrible everything is, your brain is wired to shut down. This may be the reason The True Cost movie hasn’t been as well reviewed as one would hope. There are simply too many reasons to give up hope. There are too many problems.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is low arousal, which can occur if you think too much about an issue until it becomes “depersonalized.”
Whether one is too aroused or not aroused enough, Weick concludes that the solution is to break down large problems into small, manageable steps. The “small wins” system works, because:
Small wins often originate as solutions that single
out and define as problems those specific, limited
conditions for which they can serve as the complete
remedy…Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.”
Hobbes probably knows this, but his failure to mention it and his unwillingness to see the negative repercussions of his rhetorical strategy warrants a kind-hearted calling out. It may be true that we will never change the world through shopping, but it’s just as true that we will never resolve serious social issues until we can learn how to break them down into smaller problems with concrete solutions.
In his followup blog post, Hobbes briefly mentions his “fair-tradey friends” who respond to his critiques with “it’s better than nothing.” He scoffs at this, saying that if we’re going to do something, we should make it something that really counts, like donating money to pro-union NGOs. He pretends for the sake of argument that buying fair trade and donating to NGOs are mutually exclusive ways of being. But the reality is that there are lots of ways we can do better, and be better. And if I stop buying stuff from Ten Thousand Villages so I can really fix the world by donating money to an organization, I might not be in a better place than where I started. Things are more complicated than that.
Voltaire is credited with popularizing the saying:
The perfect is the enemy of the good.
It’s certainly true for the conscientious consumer movement that waiting for the best keeps us from working toward the good. It’s easy to fixate on the huge, giant, impossible problems in the world and decide that they’re un-fixable. And, you know, maybe they are. But we have a responsibility to do something and it could very well start with buying something from a fair trade shop instead of the local Wal*Mart. We need some nice gateway drugs into the movement. We need some smooth, solid stones marking the pathway to justice.
So, keep finding ways to shop, and live, ethically; you’ll get better over time. Let your ethics trickle through every aspect of your life. Don’t stop until the work is done. It isn’t easy, but know that each step forward is a small win.
What else can we do about all this?
Brands and Bloggers: Stop pretending that buying stuff will fix anything. As the fair trade movement becomes trendy, we have to make sure that we’re being honest about the type of impact a purchase will have, and the limits of the fair trade model.
Conscious Consumers: Try to detach your identity from the Capitalist system and see what you can see. You can’t curate your way to joy and wholeness.
Skeptics: Consider that your choices have a domino effect and that, whether or not you have the tools to change the world, you can change something. What else do you have to live for?
And let’s all consider donating to NGOs and organizations that empower people to lobby for themselves and improve their communities. Check out The Note Passer’s Resources page for links to international labor organizations.