Using Purchasing Power for Good

Since ’tis the season for commercialism, shopping sprees and big-ticket purchases, I thought I’d write a post that I’ve had in mind for a long time. It’s less about atheism per se, more about rationalism and being aware of the ways our choices shape the world around us.

We may scoff, and rightfully so, when the Supreme Court uses free speech as an excuse to lift campaign-finance restrictions on huge multinational corporations. But it’s true, nevertheless: Money is a form of speech – and not just in the sense that it lets you rent billboards or buy ads on buses. Every purchase you make, every person or business to which you send your dollars, sends a signal about what you value – and, in essence, is a vote for what kind of world you want to live in.

If you send money to companies that cut down old-growth forests to make tissue paper or clear rainforest to plant oil palms, you’re voting for those practices to continue. The same applies if you shop at businesses that fire workers for trying to organize, that use child labor, that pollute the atmosphere with carbon, or that have a record of supporting fundamentalist and conservative religious causes.

Adam Smith imagined market forces as an invisible hand, but that metaphor makes it seem as if there’s a single, invisible agency consciously deciding how the economy will go. A better one might be that the market is like the planchette on a Ouija board, and the motion of the “hand” is determined by the sum of billions of small pushes from each of us. When our buying decisions collectively indicate that we only care about price, we should expect businesses to respond accordingly – to focus on reducing the price of their product at the expense of all else – even if it means acting unethically or unsustainably.

But the opposite side of this is that our buying decisions can support good causes as well as bad ones. If we buy from companies that practice business with an eye to sustainability, companies that treat their workers well and pay them fairly, companies that support progressive and liberal causes, then we’re signaling that we support those practices and that will naturally encourage more businesses to follow suit to claim their share of that market.

Granted, it’s hard not to be complicit in bad business practices. For most people in developed countries, except a fortunate few who live in dense urban areas with readily available mass transit, it’s impossible to make a living without owning a car – and that means we have no choice but to enrich corporations that lobby for destructive drilling in environmentally sensitive regions, that cause disastrous spills and pollution, and that enrich repressive theocracies and corrupt dictatorships. Still, even if every buying decision can’t be virtuous, there are a lot of things the average person can do. This includes, wherever possible, buying products that are:

Fair trade: Fair trade certification ensures that products are produced by workers who are paid a living wage, work in safe conditions and have the right to organize and bargain collectively. The best known fair-trade product is coffee, but certification is expanding into other markets, including fresh flowers, cotton, chocolate, wine and tea, even ice cream.

Certified sustainable: Many of Earth’s natural resources are in danger of being destroyed by voracious harvester companies that use them up faster than they can replenish themselves – for instance, most sought-after wild fish species are being fished into extinction. Groups like the Forest Stewardship Council and the Marine Stewardship Council certify that paper products, timber and seafood are being harvested at a sustainable rate (but beware of “greenwashing”, where corporate-owned front groups sell their own, virtually meaningless “certifications” to companies that want the cachet of a green reputation without the work).

Organic, local and humane: Modern agriculture is driven by vast quantities of fossil fuels, fertilizers and antibiotics, often ending up by shipping food halfway around the world from where it’s produced. This approach has its advantages, particularly efficiency and economy of scale, but it also has unintended costs. Much of the meat and poultry you can buy in the supermarket comes from CAFOs – massive industrial complexes where animals are raised, often in cramped and filthy conditions – and even aside from humanitarian considerations, the constant dosing with antibiotics to keep the animals healthy encourages the evolution of resistance in dangerous human pathogens. Meanwhile, the carbon pollution caused by fossil-fuel-intensive farming and shipping contributes to climate change.

Theree isn’t a perfect solution to this – it’s best to buy locally grown produce if possible, but few people live in places where it’s available year-round. And while organic food does have advantages, realistically, its benefits are modest, especially if it’s a large corporate-run operation (and be aware that “natural”, unlike “organic”, is a fluff term that has no legal meaning). But again, buying these products sends a signal about what consumers want, and that helps to steer the market in the right direction. There are also programs like the American Humane Society’s certified humane standard for livestock.

Low-carbon or zero-carbon: The greatest threat facing humanity is climate change caused by CO2 emissions from fossil fuel. And yet, surprisingly, there’s no international standard for certifying a business as low-carbon or zero-carbon. However, many utilities give consumers the option to buy their power from alternative energy programs that rely on environmentally friendly sources like solar, hydroelectric, wind, biomass and geothermal. If your utility offers a program like this, consider taking advantage of it. The more of a market we create for alternative energy, the more we speed the decarbonization of the world economy – and that will pay dividends beyond just the environmental ones.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Alex SL

    That is a very nice sentiment, of course. But sadly, it can only work it a very significant number of people has enough money, and is not so desperate that they need to buy the cheapest option. And that is not a good description of the world that I see around me. I do not have high hopes for market-based solutions to our environmental problems.

  • jack

    These are great suggestions, Ebon, and I would only add that none of these is all-or-nothing, and that a little creativity can go a long way. For example, even if you live in a city with lousy public transit, you can buy a small, fuel-efficient car, or even an electric one that you charge with solar panels if you can afford that. If you’re young and athletic, and willing to accept some risk, you can bike to work. If none of those options is available, there’s always car-pooling.

    Of course, if you feel strongly enough about some issue, the best solution may turn out to be all-or-nothing. I quit eating seafood of all kinds about ten years ago, and I don’t feel especially deprived or unhappy for the loss of it.

    And by the way, Merry Christmas to you, and to all on D.A!

    (And to all those Fundie lurkers: See, there’s really no War on Christmas here!)

  • Jetson

    I think this makes a lot of sense, because we do vote with our money!

    But how do we get those who don’t really care involved? There is such an overwhelming number of people who can’t seem to think for themselves, and who are just following the crowds into and out of Walmart or McDonalds, for example.

    It’s like things have gotten too far from local, and there is no turning back.

  • Brad Feaker

    Good post – but I must take minor exception with the references to ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’. For the most part these a mere marketing ploys as well as ‘locally grown’. Suggested reading…

    Unfortunately it’s all about the Benjamins in the long run.


  • staceyjw

    It doesn’t take too many people buying to make companies stand up and take notice. For example, every time Im at a restaurant and they sell Chilean sea bass, or other unsustainabky fished food, I make a point to mention that this is why I can’t order it. When a few good customers do tihis, it can change the buying process. so what if it’s small change? It adds up.

  • keddaw

    The problem with this is that we need better information about what companies are doing in order to vote with our wallets. We can impact simple things by avoiding stores that do things we don’t like, but without information about what the corporate giant is really up to it has a superficial impact. For that we need better investigative journalism.

    How is organic more sustainable than non-organic produce? The amount of land required to produce the same amount of food organically is about 70% extra. Non-local organic food has to be flown rather than shipped since it spoils quicker and that is hardly environmental. Organic food spoils quicker which means more spoilage on the supermarket shelves which means more has to be produced. Organic food is not a good idea.

    If you really want sustainability switch from beef to chicken, or even better, to insects. Ideally we’d all be veggies, but that is unlikely to happen.

    “The greatest threat facing humanity is climate change caused by CO2 emissions from fossil fuel.”

    How do you work that one out? Apart from the most apocalyptic predictions it appears that AGW will impact coastal regions and desert regions. That doesn’t sound like a threat to humanity, humans certainly, but not humanity.
    Extremist rhetoric like this kills the conversation because you end up with people who do want to change our outputs to minimise the damage that will be caused by AGW into opponents of certain policies because it is not “saving the world” as much as some people claim it is. When you think you are “saving the world” there is no price too high. If you think that you are protecting poor people in vulnerable areas then you are able to see the hard choices that have to be made.

  • Ebonmuse

    It’s taken a few days for me to get back to this, but I want to address some of the comments raised by Brad Feaker in the links he cited.

    This link claims that local agriculture has the disadvantage of burning more fossil fuel to transport food between a larger number of small farms and the marketplace. But it seemingly goes on to undermine its own point by showing how a locally-sourced distribution company solved that problem:

    Henry’s added larger distribution centers, and realized even better efficiency. Today their model of distributing locally grown produce, on the same day it comes from the farm, is hardly distinguishable from the model of any large retailer.

    There’s nothing about local agriculture that requires not using a distribution center or not calculating the most efficient way to get produce from the farmer to the consumer. The driving idea is not that food has to go directly from farm to plate with no intermediate stops, but that food should be grown relatively near where it’s eaten. For one thing, this eliminates carbon emissions from long-haul shipping. The essay argues that goods moved by boat, even over long distances, don’t produce as many emissions as people believe, but environmentalists have always known that sea travel is relatively efficient, as is rail. The much bigger issue which this article doesn’t touch on is air freight, which is the only feasible means of shipping highly perishable goods – and the carbon footprint of air travel is enormous.

    There’s another point this article doesn’t address, which is that local agriculture leads to a more distributed, less centralized food production system. Even setting the question of sustainability aside, distributed local production is more resilient, less vulnerable to disruption from disease outbreaks, bioterrorism, and especially from changing climate – and that is going to be a hugely important factor in the coming decades.

    From this link:

    Ironically, the reverse is closer to the truth. Among other benefits, modern hybridized crops are designed for specific soil types, and to leave those soils less depleted so that they can be replanted for more seasons before being rotated. So-called sustainable agriculture is, in fact, far less sustainable than the planting of crops that have been optimized to thrive in the available conditions.

    I wonder why this article doesn’t address the issue of dead zones in oceans and lakes caused by nitrogen runoff, which in turn occurs because many of these “optimized” crops, like genetically modified corn, are dependent on constant inputs of fertilizer to produce their huge yields. This is one of the most important issues relating to sustainable agriculture, so its omission from this essay is more than a little unusual.

    Burning biodiesel or ethanol in our cars exhausts the most significant greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, into the air — just like gasoline does. So even if we switched all of our cars over to biodiesel and ethanol tomorrow, down the road we’ll be no better off.

    This is manifestly false. The author has failed to grasp a basic point about the carbon cycle: when you fuel your car with biodiesel, the carbon that’s emitted was taken from the atmosphere by plants just a few weeks or months ago, so the net contribution to the atmosphere is zero. When you fuel your car with gasoline, meanwhile, you’re reintroducing carbon that’s been out of the global loop for millions of years, and that does have an effect on climate.

    There’s one other enormously important area that none of these essays choose to address, and that’s the impact of organic farming practices on livestock. Animals raised in the crowded conditions of CAFOs require continual dosing of antibiotics to stay healthy, and this directly contributes to the evolution of resistance in dangerous pathogens that can also infect humans. As I said in my original post, the benefits of organic agriculture are modest; but this is one of the most important ways where it makes a difference.

  • Jim Baerg

    The real problem with biodiesel etc. is the amount of land that would be needed to grow the plants to make the fuel to replace our use of petroleum products. The estimates I’ve seen are roughly as much land as we now use to grow food. Unless there are some seriously flawed assumptions behind those estimates biofuels can only play a small part.

    I too wonder why we couldn’t take cattle directly from pasture to slaughterhouse & skip the feedlot. That wouldn’t necessarily qualify as ‘organic’ since artificial fertilizers & antibiotics could still be used, but problems of disease among overcrowded animals & pollution from large quantities of dung would be reduced.

  • unintentionalhypocrite

    I recently decided to try a reusable menstrual cup – this particular brand (Mooncup – the UK version; according to their website they can’t sell in the States as there is already a product with the same name) is designed to last for up to ten years – I believe other brands may recommend replacement within a shorter time frame, but in any case, it’s far better than throwing out heaps of towels or tampons each month. If you think about how many towels or tampons you (well, if you’re a woman) use each year, then think about how many menstruating women there are – well, that’s a heck of a lot of rubbish. Anyway, I felt this might be relevant to the discussion, it being related to sustainability and ethical buying, even if it is a little gross ;) (Just a natural part of life, really). Here is a link to the Mooncup website, for anyone wanting more info:

    (I also trust, Ebonmuse, that you are open-minded enough to not mind me dirtying the thread with period talk).

  • Alex Weaver

    The real problem with biodiesel etc. is the amount of land that would be needed to grow the plants to make the fuel to replace our use of petroleum products. The estimates I’ve seen are roughly as much land as we now use to grow food. Unless there are some seriously flawed assumptions behind those estimates biofuels can only play a small part.

    There probably are some seriously flawed assumptions involved. Biofuels are as susceptible to UR DOING IT RONG as anything else – particularly if you do idiotic things like growing extra corn, to make extra corn syrup, to ferment into ethanol – rather than working out ways to ferment the rest of the plants we’re already growing that would otherwise be burned or something. For biodiesel, manipulating algae seems like a promising route from what I’ve heard, but I’ve only been involved with it as far as measuring the emission benefits goes (they’re impressive, particularly with regards to particulate emissions – on quartz paper sample filters, 99% biodiesel comes out #F0F0F0, standard highway diesel comes out #080808).

    The point is, the potential of biofuels is not effectively evaluated by pointing out that the dumbest, most inefficient way imaginable to produce them is dumb and inefficient. >.>

    If you think about how many towels or tampons you (well, if you’re a woman) use each year, then think about how many menstruating women there are – well, that’s a heck of a lot of rubbish.

    I wonder if there’s some way to produce fuel from it…. :P (Only half kidding.)

  • Ebonmuse

    Yes, the real holy grail for biofuels is a cheap way to mass-produce cellulosic ethanol. Producing it from corn sugar is a terrible idea, which of course doesn’t prevent farm-belt politicians from throwing billions of dollars at their constituent corporations to do it.

  • OMGF

    this particular brand (Mooncup – the UK version; according to their website they can’t sell in the States as there is already a product with the same name)

    I’m not familiar with that, but in the States we have the “Diva Cup” which sounds like the same thing.

  • Quath

    From what I have seen, for the same quality of food, the cheaper food used less energy to arrive at the supermarket (including transportation, fertalizer, etc). Less energy tends to mean less polution. So I don’t care about locally grown, just the cost.

    I also think we should be careful about fair trade. I hate to support sweat shops, but I think they are better than not having them in developing countries. Our attempts to get rid of them moves jobs away from there to richer countries which just hurts the people we want to help. Wikipedia has a good section on the pros and cons of sweat shops.