Can shopping save the world? Maybe not, but it can help.

The activist and filmmaker Annie Leonard, who created an Internet sensation back in 2007 with her 20-minute animated movie The Story of Stuff — it’s been viewed more than 15 million times — is back with the new video called The Story of Change.

In the video, she urges “viewers to put down their credit cards and start exercising their citizen muscles” to build a more just, sustainable and fulfilling world.

Turning for inspiration to Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., she argues that buying “green” is no substitute for the hard work of political organizing.

“The solutions we really need are not for sale at the supermarket,” she says.

The movie runs for about six minutes. Take a look:

The idea that we need to take political action to deal with big environmental and social problem is both inarguable and unremarkable. It should be obvious that we can’t shop our way to the regulation of carbon pollution or to a more equitable tax system.

But I think Leonard has it exactly backwards when it comes to the power of consumers. Like many on the left, she seems to see the economy into “people” (good because we pursue health, happiness, well-being) and “corporations” (bad because they pursue profits, exploit and pollute). But, for the most part, we get the corporates that we deserve. Those that meet the needs of people thrive. Those that fail to satisfy will wither away. Put simply, the power of consumers is formidable.

That’s why I think that environmental and social activists ought to devote more, not less time, to changing consumer behavior. The food we eat, the cars we drive, the size of the houses we build and buy and other choices we make have significant global environmental consequences–particularly because Americans are, on a per capita basis, among the biggest polluters on the planet. [See my 2010 blogpost,  Can behavioral economics help save the planet?]

More important, conscious consumers can reward companies that are responsible and punish those that are not. Over time, this has changed and will continue to change corporate behavior.

I could offer dozens of examples to prove that point, but I’ll put forward just three.

No. 1. Last fall, Starbucks, a corporate-responsibility leader, formed a partnership with the Opportunity Finance Network, a national network of community development financial institutions, to provide financing for small businesses, housing and nonprofits and thereby help create jobs. [See my October 2011 blogpost, Starbucks: We are indivisible] I’m partial to this program because it was the brainchild of two of my friends, Ben Packard of Starbucks and Mark Pinsky of the Opportunity Finance Network, and so I noticed the other day that Starbucks has been selling coffee beans under the Indivisible brand to raise more money.

I emailed Mark to ask him how the fund-raising is going. He replied:

We’ve raised more than $11.5 million to date, which multiplies into more than $80 million in new financing, more than 3,700 jobs created and retained, and more than 650,000 wristbands out there somewhere.

That’s real change, driven by consumer behavior and led by a company and a CEO, Howard Shultz, who understand that the power of business can be deployed to do good.

No. 2:  I’ve been doing some reporting lately about aquaculture, and the efforts by environmental groups, working with industry, to develop standards and certification systems to separate those fish farmers who operate more sustainably from those who do not. Rigorous new standards for popular species like shrimp and salmon are being rolled out by a group called the Aquaculture Stewardship Council.

Standards, certifications and eco-labels have their drawbacks, of course, but they can be a power lever to change corporate behavior. The Forest Stewardship Council rewards the better timber operations and the Marine Stewardship Council certifies responsible fisheries. They do so because they get backing from big retailers like Staples and Office Depot for paper products and Unilever and Walmart for wild-caught fish. These retailers, in turn, reflect what they believe to be the expectations of consumers that they “do the right thing.”

Imagine what an even more energized consumer culture could accomplish.

No. 3: Enormous political effort has been expended to increase fuel-efficiency standards. Automakers agreed to increase average fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light trucks by 2025. (It’s actually more complicated than that, and we can argue another time about whether fuel-economy standards make sense.) None of that would be necessary, really, if people chose on their own to buy small, fuel-efficient, hybrid or electric cars. The automakers would, very rapidly, adjust to meet consumer demands; the entire culture and outlook of the industry would change.

Or, better yet, what if more people chose take buses or train? Or walked or biked to work? [Here’s a great story about biking “highways” in Copenhagen, where about half of the people already bike to work.]

Now, just to be clear, I’m not arguing that personal choices can take the place of political action. But the choice between behavior change and activism is not an either/or. It’s a both/and. People who bike to work are more likely to lobby for bike lanes.

But, please, let’s not underestimate the power of shopping — or better yet, not shopping — to change the world. Corporations are not abstract, evil entities, disconnected from the rest of us. They’re a reflection of who we are and what we do.

Comments

  1. I agree that the power lies with the consumers to influence the corporations to engage in ethical business practices. However, corporations are still corporations. Is there a way to make socially responsible business more sustainable? Rather than just relying on a one-stop campaign and calling themselves “ethical?”

  2. Ed Reid says:

    Apparently there really are no “silver bullets”.

    I am not very anxious to completely change a market system to a “planned economy” run by the “smartest people in the room”. The history of planned economies is littered with good intentions and poor performance.

    I have noticed that the “benevolent” component of benevolent despotism typically does not last nearly as long as the “despotism” component.

    I suspect George Orwell would be shocked to realize that his “vision” had become a script.

  3. Annie Leonard for president! Would that we all had her communications skills!
    I agree that shopping can’t change the world, but as you say, Marc, it can help. After all, we all have to buy things, so why not buy green(er). However, I think that shoppers need to know when NOT to shop and HOW to use the stuff better that they buy. Green consumerism has failed if all we see it as is a way for consumers to relieve the guilt associated with buying green(er) stuff. It will succeed if we at the same time instill in consumers the sense not to buy what they don’t need, to use the products they do buy more responsibly (e.g., turn the water off when they buy the Tom’s of Maine toothpaste, and to flip the switch on the Energy Star rated light bulbs, and to recycle Coke cans after use. (OK, buying a Coke altogether is another matter. Let’s save that for another discussion.)) I’m heartened to see how much sharing is being made possible by the internet, because that can cut down on consumption and waste, too. There are many more ways that consumers can and should do more — in addition to putting their citizen caps on as Ms. Leonard suggests. But only doing this — and not trying to become better consumers continues to make the mistake of taking the onus off consumers and shifting it to corporations and governments who exist to serve them as consumers as well as citizens. I’ve been doing some serious thinking about this topic during the past few years. More on this topic from me shortly.

  4. I am excited about a lot of companies with great ideas to meet the needs of the Bottom of the Pyramid who help finance their developing world marketing with sales in the affluent world. Biolite for example has upgraded designs for improved cookstoves for the off-grid developing world which can also charge cell phones. They make a good profit on selling them to the backpacking American crowd!
    http://shop.biolitestove.com/BioLite-CampStove_p_15.html

  5. Marc,

    I see your argument as pointing out the theoretical potential impact of individual consumption choices. But to argue where activists should put their time and money, the argument should be more rigorously about return on investment for that effort. It’s not clear to me which is more effective – there are many anecdotes for either side.

    I would point out that there is a big difference between the theoretical potential of consumer action and any likely effect. This can be understood based on neurological factors – people are inherently bad at comparing short vs. long term gain, at comparing opportunity cost with gain (i.e. have built-in loss aversion), over emphasizing peak happiness vs. average happiness, identifying causation vs. correlation, etc.

    Many parts of marketing are all about exploiting these and other tendencies and emotional reactions that people have. While consumer pressure does happen, it is unrealistic to expect modest activism to overcome these non-rational thought patterns in the face of billions of dollars of marketing. Perhaps even less realistic than political efforts in the face of billions of dollars of lobbying.

    I’m not sure of the answer, I just think that it is in those areas from which the right answer on this debate would stem.

  6. Hi Mark!

    Loved your post and shared it on Twitter.

    Also found this video that, in my view, perfectly illustrates the power of consumers! I think this young lady is brilliant, and her message really powerful.

    http://www.upworthy.com/i-dont-care-about-chicken-i-care-about-my-gay-friends?c=upw1

    Keep writing, I love your blog !

    Best

    Marion

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