Environmental column: Democracy and consumerism
Published: Monday, October 21, 2013
Updated: Monday, October 21, 2013 22:10
Conventional wisdom holds that if we want to change the way society interacts with nature, we need to head to the ballot box. This is how most Americans perceive and engage in democracy, but I believe it represents a shortsighted view. Politics may be the tip of the iceberg, but the bulk of democracy lies below the political surface.
There are often far more effective ways to create change. In particular, engaging in the marketplace through informed purchasing decisions can have far more wide-reaching impacts over conventional voting. Like a fish swims in water, we engage in consumer democracy our entire life and are often equally unaware of it.
Consumer democracy is the concept that individuals express their values through the marketplace. Just like voting for politicians, we are free to vote for (buy) a product that fills a particular need and reflects our values. We support certain goods and services with our hard earned money while choosing against a myriad of other options. In this week’s column, I’ll discuss why we should be giving this concept more thought.
The advantages of expressing our views through a consumer democracy are numerous. First, we engage in it every day. We have literally thousands of opportunities every election cycle to articulate our values in a constantly evolving world. Second, the choice of products is nearly limitless. Unlike politics, where we are often forced to choose between two competing alternatives, there are products that reflect nearly any nuanced set of values.
Furthermore, politicians are elected for long periods of time with limited ability to recall them. Voters may be unsure how these politicians will vote on novel issues. On the other hand, companies can have shorter product cycles that match their excellence at innovation to constantly changing consumer demands.
Another advantage is that consumer democracy is not winner-take-all. In politics, only votes determining which individual won the highest share of votes have any real meaning. Votes for all other candidates have no real significance. In the marketplace, every vote cast is felt and reverberates through the production chain.
Here are some simple illustrations: Despise large corporations and concentration of wealth? Avoid the likes of Walmart by purchasing artisanal goods from local retailers. Think tabloids go too far invading the privacy of celebrities? Don’t support their outlets. Despise fossil fuel companies? Reduce your consumption of gasoline by driving less, smaller and smarter. Think animals should be provided antibiotics only sparingly, or that they should have access to open space? Buy organic, free-range or go vegetarian altogether.
Admittedly, the downsides to this type of democracy are also numerous. The most obvious drawback is the amount of information needed to make properly informed decisions is not often available.
Second, even with the required information, the decision making process can be challenging. Weighing between alternative and sometimes competing values may even prove exhausting. Imagine deciding between price, nutrition, socially-responsible and environmentally-responsible options for every item. As if choosing a cereal box at the supermarket wasn’t already difficult enough!
Here’s a glimpse of what I believe the future should hold. Imagine accessing the environmental history of any product right from your phone. Simply scan the barcode to reveal information regarding its production. The cumbersome data can be presented raw, or digested and summarized by a group or individual of your choosing. Maybe a common scoring rubric can be created that incorporates your values and those opinions you most support.
Better yet, automate certain decisions filling basic needs to these groups themselves. Have them choose many of the small things in life, delivered to your house on a regular basis, in order to free you from a tyranny of small decisions. This will save your mental capacity for more difficult and important purchasing decisions. Community Supported Agriculture, a locally-based economic model of agriculture and food distribution, may be one form of this automated decision process that’s already common in many towns across the country. Under CSA, an annual membership to a farm is returned with local fresh produce on a regular basis throughout much or all of the year.
Despite the information deficit in today’s consumer democracy, some decisions today already have reliable information for well-informed decision making. This is especially true among goods with long lives, whose environmental impacts stem more from their use than their production (ie. cars and large household appliances). Because of mandated Environmental Protection Agency signage, we have the information that allows us to choose vehicles according to fuel-efficiency or our penchant for loud and shiny possessions.
In conclusion, our purchasing decisions shape the world in which we live. The take home message is not that one should forgo ballot style voting, but rather, one should take this same enthusiasm for informed expression to the cash registers.