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.