The principled consumer?

This is why I consider commercial boycotts to be largely a spiritual and symbolic exercise, at least at the personal level.  I refuse to buy anything with “Nestle” written on it, for instance, because of their repulsive treatment of third world babies; but I know the only difference it will make is if I consciously offer up the (miniscule) sacrifice that involves.

Anyway, I usually buy store brands of food — but aren’t those often made by the same corporations, and just packaged more cheaply?  Blah.  Education is a good thing; but I think we are fooling ourselves if we think we can keep our shopping baskets ritually pure.  If we avoid all taint as consumers, we will quickly starve.  When large groups of people band together and exert pressure on corporations, they can affect real change.  But it does not follow that a single, harried shopper who grabs a bag of Laffy Taffy is committing a sin against third world babies.

What makes sense to me is this:  pick a few causes that you feel really strongly about.  Make a firm decision to make the sacrifice so you can avoid supporting those particular evils. Stick to it.  And then just chill about the rest.

What do you think?  How do you handle being a principled consumer when your choices are not real choices?

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  • Sheila C.

    The only thing I can afford to do is simply to buy less. I can’t afford fair-trade anything. I have no idea what country Aldi brand sugar comes from and whether it is grown on land stolen from Laotian peasants. But I can choose to buy clothes at a thrift store, to cut back on luxuries, and to buy more *ingredients* (in which the farmers get a larger cut of the profit) than premade foods.

    My husband is a diehard capitalist. He says most regulations are unnecessary because consumer outrage would destroy the businesses who ignore basic rights. But I think experience shows otherwise. Consumer outrage doesn’t go very far, especially since we’re all on budgets and there aren’t many choices.

    Me, I’m more or less a distributist. If I can buy something handmade or from a local business, I do. Otherwise I really truly just try to get by without.

    Someday we are hoping to move to a farm so we can produce ethical food, clothing, etc. But till then, I pinch pennies. Where I know of exploitation, I try to avoid it, but I can’t boycott everything.

    But it does trouble me. After what I’ve read about child slavery, I’m thinking of giving up chocolate. I couldn’t afford the fair-trade stuff very often at all, so the only choice is to do without. 🙁 Still, it’s a first world problem. I can live without chocolate with absolutely zero real hardship. And when I read the words of a child slave, “When you eat chocolate, you are eating my flesh” …. well, it broke my heart, and I haven’t been able to buy any since. Not when it’s so impossible to tell where the chocolate comes from.

    I read an excellent idea for a free-market solution, though, which someone ought to develop for real. It’s a credit card that lets you list your boycotts when you sign up, and then when you swipe it to purchase, it declines your purchase if you are boycotting that item. Then it automatically sends a letter to the company you boycotted telling them that they lost your business because of X position or practice. Nice. I’d settle for an app that let you scan stuff and told you what problems that company had. Unfortunately it is often impossible to tell, even with hours of research, so I can’t quite imagine how an app would manage all that.

    • exactly! Buy less, buy used, grow something, make something

    • ladycygnus

      The fair trade stuff is expensive, but you can buy some brands in the local grocery stories here (so not shipping costs). Also – it tastes so much better than Hershey’s and yet, for some reason, I’m not as tempted to keep eating it. Thus one bar will last me a week or more.

    • enness

      My understanding of Aldi is that they make up for the lower prices by spending less on advertising, fancy displays, cart loss, credit card fees, etc. I don’t know what their approach to consumer ethics is, but I doubt they’re any worse.

      I tried the “2nd Vote” app, which is a lot like what you describe. Unfortunately, at the time, the reviews were spot on and it did not work for me on my phone. However, I was able to see the list of companies and ratings at their website and take mental notes on a few in particular. Some people complained that you have to create an account, but it’s free, and an app like Dropbox does that too but nobody seems miffed about it.

      Practicality does have to win sometimes. Bill Gates wants population control, Google pushes SSM, and I’ve never been a Mac girl, but learning another OS isn’t something I really have time for! If we can find a way to use the product to our own advantage, that’s something.

      • Sheila C.

        I love Aldi. The one downside is that they don’t share where or by whom their products were made. I’m going to make some calls and see if they’ll tell me at least what country some of the imported food come from. Sugar, coffee, and chocolate all have some good and bad producers.

    • LiveOaksandSpanishMoss

      Unregulated capitalism has already been proven not to work; consumers only get outraged when it doesn’t require real sacrifice. There’s a reason why we have child labor laws.

      I read that quote about “eating my flesh” too, and, wow, talk about a reality check.

  • Tori

    I just accidentally erased my painstakingly-typed-with-one-hand-while-nursing comment. I could cry haha. Anyway, I take the same view. I personally avoid General Mills and Starbucks, which is a small inconvenience, but I try not to sweat the other stuff. Thanks for the reminder about offering up the sacrifice.

  • ladycygnus

    I tend to focus on obvious stuff. I have no idea if product A was made in a ethical fashion, so I try not to stress over it. I avoid companies that have made themselves an icon of unethical behavior (Ben & Jerry’s and Starbucks come to mind).

    However, my main focus is on the charities I give to and making sure they don’t fund evil like Kolman does. That and I try to buy local and used items.

  • Julie

    The biggest sacrifice I make as a consumer (just on a personal and not monetary level) is not buying Girl Scout cookies. It’s painful because firstly, I love thin mints to the point where I consider them the nearly perfect cookie, and secondly, because I hate disappointing the little girls who have no idea that the money they’re trying to make for their big camping trip is tainted by Planned Parenthood. And now that I think about it, boycotting Girl Scouts in general has been a sacrifice. So much of it is good, but I can’t willingly participate knowing what I know.

  • zonohedron

    A friend of a friend is very opposed to Chick-Fil-A’s stance on marriage, but likes their sandwiches, so she has what she calls the “Chick-Fil-A tax”: eat a sandwich, then donate money to an organization that opposes that stance.

    I thought it was a great idea, myself, despite not sharing that opinion, so if I go to Starbucks or buy Girl Scout cookies (and so forth) I try to put more money in the basket at Mass, or buy from an organization that does support causes I agree with, or what-have-you.

    The exception for me is Nestle, for the same reason as yours; with “they donate to bad causes” or “their founder has bad opinions” companies, I feel fine with ‘balancing out’ my purchase, but Nestle’s bad-ness is directly related to how their company works, not something incidental. It means I don’t give my son Juicy Juice, eat my favorite candy, or buy Stouffer’s dinners, and I agree that that mostly (overwhelmingly mostly) affects me, not Nestle; but it also means that when there’s samples of Nestle products at the grocery store, I have an opportunity to say “no, I don’t buy Nestle because of the predatory way they market formula in poorer countries”. (And I think that opportunity is worth something, too.)

    • Sheila C.

      Exactly. I don’t lose any sleep over companies that have opinions I don’t like. I mean, I can hardly help it, and any money they go to that cause is surely a teeny tiny percentage of their profits.

      If they actively exploit people, though, I make a real effort not to buy their stuff. Not because I think it makes the slightest difference, but because I don’t want to participate in evil. I don’t like the thought that I am helping drive a demand for something that hurts people elsewhere. I may not be able to stop it, but I sure as heck am not going to be a part of it.

    • LiveOaksandSpanishMoss

      You hit the nail on the head. There is a massive difference between the opinions held by the company/ CEO as opposed to how the business operates.

  • Mary Schreiner

    Great. Now I want Laffy Taffy.

  • I live by this idea too, and I have to remind myself that I can’t boycott everything. I pretty much stay away from Girl Scout Cookies and charities that promote fetal stem cell research.

  • LiveOaksandSpanishMoss

    When I found out about Nestle and their rampant use of child slavery in Africa, I resolved to never buy Nestle again! Ever! Go human rights!…. And then I found the map you just showed, which led to depression and despair. I’m not sure what the answer is. I was trying to not eat chocolate unless it’s fair trade, but yesterday I had a Snickers and didn’t even think twice about it. But even if we steer clear of chocolate, Nestle (and other evil corporations – I don’t use the term evil lightly) have their fingers in so many pies, as you said. How ironic – we have more choices than ever, but no real choices at all….

  • Josh

    Isn’t boycotting a company to effect a change a form of bullying, even if the change we seek is morally good? It seems like extortion on a small scale. I’m not trying to Sheame anyone here, but the vociferous, public boycott for a good cause smacks of consequentialism. Except for the personal-gain aspect, how is forming or advocating for a public boycott of a company that supports Planned Parenthood (or whatever) different than this

    Taking Simcha’s position of “hey, change or no change, I don’t like them and I’m not buying their crap” seems like a reasonable and moral way of exercising stewardship. It’s why I make some of the consumption choices I make. Why does it have to be about changing the seller/producer/organization at all? If they give into our demands, will that create an obligation to purchase? The whole “hit ’em where it counts: their bottom line” thing assumes the moral validity of the guiding premise of consumerism (borrowed from Social Darwinism, Political Realism, or any other fundamentally godless ideology): sales makes right. Trying to carrot-and-stick a supranational conglomerate is trying to beat them at their own game.

    • zonohedron

      For me, it’s not so much “do what we want because we control your sales” as “even if only $0.005 of my $0.75 candy bar goes towards your bad behavior, that’s more support than I’m willing to give.” I can hope that enough people join me that Nestle changes how it markets formula and how it treats the people who work to provide the ingredients for its products – but even if that doesn’t happen (and it would take an enormous number of people), I don’t want to be responsible for even half a penny of their marketing budget.

      So if Nestle did change their ways, I wouldn’t become obligated, because for me it was never about “do what I want and I’ll give you $0.75!” I probably would buy from them simply because I did before I learned the reasons for the boycott, and so I like some Nestle products and wouldn’t mind having them again.

  • This is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately too (along with my foot in my mouth).

    And…I dunno. I’m still very much working it out.

    If we know, shouldn’t we take some action? But does that action even matter? Does it even make a difference?

    What I keep coming back to is that maybe. Does it matter that I love God? Well, yes. Not only to me, but in a ripple effect that impacts others.

    Does that love of God influence me to love others? Um, not as well as it should.

    And does that, somehow, give me an obligation to do more than just twiddle my thumbs?

    That’s the thing that I can’t reconcile just yet. Or maybe ever. I guess we each have to discern on some of these things and those of us who work it out out loud (ahem) may go more slowly than others…

  • Amen. I heard a talk on “fair trade” last night, and what it all means. There are very broad descriptions and more narrow ones. The best pieces of advice I heard were: 1) commit to one change and you will make a difference, and 2) consider the person on the other end of the manufacturing line. This is why I love organizations like Homeboy and Connected in Hope because you know that your money affects real people somewhere.