Several Christmases ago, I stopped buying NCAA-branded gifts for my football fanatic in-laws, because the NCAA’s treatment of student-athletes is abysmal. Recent reports that some college sportswear is being made with the forced labor of Muslim-Chinese ‘Uyghurs’ may convince more shoppers to boycott.
Our beliefs and our behaviors dictate our buying decisions at least as much as our desires. Or they should, if we’re paying attention.
When you spend an extra $2 or $5 on hormone-free, free-range eggs, you’re purchasing some reassurance. Gen-Z is being choosier about brands that reflect—or reject—its values.You can reward the farmers who agree with your views about how chickens should be treated, or what they should be fed. But in an increasingly complex supply chain, how practical is it to express your values through your buying choices?
Millennials (entering their prime earning years) will overtake boomers next year as the generation with the largest purchasing power. They’ll leap-frog the smaller Gen X, with larger numbers more than making up for their lower incomes. That means corporations, especially retailers, are eager to cater to millennial desires.
Gen Z, which will be the richest generation in human history, is already generating discussion by being choosier about brands that reflect—or reject—its values. By voting every day (at the cash register or online cart) young people are leading the way in supporting companies that prioritize (or at least publicize) making the world better, in addition to making products they love.
Conscious Consumption in a Complicated World
Economics is all about trade-offs, and conscious choice encourages us to navigate an imperfect world as best we can.
Vegans try to avoid all foods of animal origin. Many people feel strongly about supporting “fair trade” coffee and cocoa, even though it’s more expensive and the fairness to small farmers is dubious.
We honor our own values by putting our own money into the things we care about.
Some Christian conservatives make a point of supporting Chick-Fil-A, because they vocally support traditional values and give all employees Sundays off. Many woke millennials boycott those delicious chicken sammies over Chick-Fil-A’s record on LGBT issues, prompting an apparent change to company policy. Amid the cultural proxy-war, sales doubled.
All those choices are valid. And they’re valid because we honor our own values by putting our own money into the things we care about.
The Political Power of the Purse
This kind of conscious consumption is privilege by definition—it requires financial security to reject the most affordable version of just about everything.
It’s also not clear whether eco-friendly marketing hype corresponds to real change or just attempts to woo customers with greenwashing. Even when we’re deliberate about our buying choices, it’s difficult to know if we are making a meaningful difference or not.
Maybe there’s no such thing as a perfectly pristine dollar made or spent.
We love our smartphones, even though making them requires mining rare minerals and every upgrade creates toxic e-waste. We increasingly prioritize travel and special events, despite the high carbon emissions from planes.
Young people rewarded Nike with a $6 billion boost in brand value for its support of the race-conscious Colin Kaepernick, forgetting temporarily the dire working conditions of other people of color in the Nike supply chain.
Vegan cosmetics replace animal-derived oils with palm oil, even though palm oil plantations are a leading cause of rainforest destruction. When consumer pressure encouraged brands to go “palm oil free,” replacement oils proved even worse for the environment.
I’ve written before about the invisible consequences of well-intentioned consumer trends:
When we embrace the meatless burger as a victory over factory farming, we don’t consider how much added land must be cleared to raise soybeans. We enthuse about “zero emission” electric cars, but fail to see the coal-burning power plant at the other end of our electricity grid. We agree to eschew plastic straws without calculating whether “strawless” lids actually use more plastic. We protest pipelines without considering how many tanker trucks must be added to move that fuel to heat homes. We decry fossil fuels as dirty or villainous, without appreciating their role in protecting forests which would otherwise be farmed or burned for fuel.
In short, the complexity of the modern market, with its unprecedented connectivity, and shared prosperity, makes it challenging to understand the implications of our actions. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
The Power of the Purse
Maybe there’s no such thing as a perfectly pristine dollar made or spent. Our global supply chain system is so sprawling that we simply can’t be sure that every worker is treated well, every environmental precaution taken.
When we go wrong is when we try to impose our values on other people, or when we demand to use other people’s money to support what we value.
Social responsibility means using the impact you have on the world to promote change—and your spending habits are a huge source of local, vocal activism.
Our values are so individual that tasking someone else with defending them will always result in disappointment, whether that’s Amazon or a government agency.
Social responsibility doesn’t mean bullying people who have different beliefs or badgering them to make changes you think are necessary. It means using the impact you have on the world to promote change—and your spending habits are a huge source of local, vocal activism.