by Lauren Kirchner
“Are environmental and social problems such as global warming and poverty the result of inadequate governmental regulations or does the burden fall on our failure as consumers to make better consumption choices?” Thus begins a very earnest press release about a study forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research next month.
In their pursuit of the answer to this question, Canadian business-school professors Markus Giesler and Ela Veresiu analyzed the “influence of economic elites on the creation of four types of responsible consumers: the bottom-of-the-pyramid consumer, the green consumer, the health-conscious consumer, and the financially literate consumer.” (Which one are you? / Collect all four!)
The authors found that corporate lobbyists and leaders spend a lot of time and money on encouraging individual consumer “choice” while simultaneously discouraging policy changes or government regulations. When environmental or social problems enter a discussion, such as at the World Economic Forum in Davos, “the economic elite” can usually succeed in shifting responsibility away from themselves, and away from the state, and onto consumers.
This same “elite” then creates a market to sell those more-responsible solutions for a profit, and make consumers feel special and smart for doing so. (Air pollution and energy crisis and global poverty got you down? Here, you’ll feel better when you buy these hybrid cars and long-lasting light bulbs and stop eating meat and wear buy-one-give-one shoes.)
Giesler and Veresiu write:
While the responsible consumption myth offers a powerful vision of a better world through identity-based consumption, upon closer inspection, this logic harbors significant personal and societal costs. The responsible consumption myth promotes the idea that governments can never achieve harmony between competing economic and social or environmental goals and that this instead requires a global community of morally enlightened consumers who are empowered to make a difference through the marketplace.
Every day we’re told that we can not only rebel against the mainstream forces of conformity by buying stuff, anddefine and refine our individual identities by buying stuff, but that we can save the environment and end global poverty by buying stuff, too. But this empowered, feel-good marketplace only serves to enrich the corporate interests that invented it in the first place. Maybe instead of voting with our wallets, we should, you know, vote with our votes.
Lauren Kirchner is the web editor of The Baffler.