Consumerism Intersecting with Activism

It’s my last full week of my first year at Colorado College, and I think I’m beginning to understand elements of the school’s culture—positive and negative. We’re weird to a fault, care a lot about the welfare of the world, though not always enough to do anything about it, and above all, we like to have fun.

Illustration by Wayan Buschman

Recently, though, I was thinking a lot about dominant CC culture particularly as it relates to how we behave as consumers in a free-market society. As a conscious and progressive student body, we think a lot about what we should and shouldn’t buy, and what impact we have as consumers. However, we go about it ineffectively, in two primary ways.

The first has to do with how we think about sustainability as it relates to our consumptive choices. I’ve found that our dominant culture stresses buying things that are made in an environmentally friendly way. Patagonia, for example, is an extremely environmentally conscious company, which makes their products appealing to us. However, we forget that while it definitely matters that we buy from companies that think about sustainability, possibly the most important thing we can do for the environment is just buy less stuff. 

The second, and probably more salient, issue I have with our culture as consumers is that we view personal consumer choices as the end-all be-all of our purchasing power. 

In the fall of 2015, I became a vegetarian for a couple months while I was living in North Carolina, working for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a labor union that represents migrant workers in a national campaign against big tobacco companies. I was explaining my reasoning for becoming vegetarian to one of the organizers who is vegan. I expected him to respond with similar rationale, but he told me it was for health reasons and nothing else. “But the moral reasons factor in a little, right?” I asked, confused. He explained that after a decade working with labor unions, he’d come to believe that consumer choices could only make a difference if they were part of a larger, organized campaign—so, no. 

I don’t fully agree with him. I would argue that it does matter what we choose to buy even if it’s just on an individual basis. Especially on vegetarianism I disagree because vegetarianism is a large enough unorganized movement that it has some power. But overall, he makes an important point.

Throughout history, companies have changed their behavior when forced to by boycotts, among other things. Rarely have companies worried about their bottom line enough to make a change because a dispersed, unorganized group of people quietly decided not to buy their products. Even if huge numbers of people stopped buying a certain product for moral reasons without declaring a formal boycott, the company might not understand what was hurting their profits and attribute it to something else.      

Right now, United Students Against Sweatshops is running a nationwide campaign, centered on college campuses, against Nike for exploitative and abusive labor practices in their factories. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations is sponsoring a boycott against Nabisco, the snack foods company, for laying off hundreds of workers in the U.S. to move factories overseas.

If we, as a student body, really want to make a difference as consumers, we should do it by plugging into existing boycotts and organizing our campus around them. Our power as consumers lies in our power to make collective choices that together create a powerful effect.  That being said, keep on buying from sustainable and ethical companies, exercising your right to reward companies for their efforts.

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