Thursday, November 03, 2011

A research project

Commenter CW has a point:

I'm so sick of this whole phenomena of one's purchases (including animal purchases) being taken as such an important measure of whether one is judged to be a good person. I don't have any beef with rescue dogs, organic food, fair trade coffee, or recycled paper. Those are all fine things, and I understand there are ethical ramifications to one's purchases. But what about the other areas of life? What about the way we treat our friends and families, the work we do, or the roles we have in our communities? Why, at least in upper-middle class and left wing circles, have consumer decisions become so darn important to the seeming exclusion of everything else? 
The Greatest Good, at least in some parts of American (no, not just New York, and most certainly not all of New York, not even all the wealthy parts of Manhattan: consider the Upper East Side) is turning every purchase into an ethically-driven research project. You can divide your day between commenting on Jezebel about whether "conflict-free" diamonds are what they claim; debating whether local trumps grass-fed; and then making sure that the expensive creams you smear on your face are at least most of the time "holistic," whatever that means in the context of moisturizer.

And no cynicism's allowed. Sure, you're allowed to take greenwashing into account, but only as a way of making sure you haven't cut corners and bought a moisturizer that only seems to stand for what you believe in. There's no option that's about not turning each purchase into a carefully-considered vote with one's dollars.

(The brand "If You Care" always comes to mind in such discussions. I know nothing about the company, but wow, that name...)

Food, though, is the center of all of this. And it's often framed as the fault of the individual consumer that the entire system is what it is. Says Mark Bittman: "We expect a steady supply of 'fresh' Peruvian asparagus, Canadian tomatoes, South African apples, Dutch peppers and Mexican broccoli. Those who believe they’re entitled to eat any food any time seem to think that predominantly local agriculture is an elitist plot to 'force' a more limited diet upon us."

As someone who in the past week or so has bought Peruvian asparagus, Canadian (or Maine?) tomatoes, Washington State apples, Dutch or possibly Mexican peppers, and Californian broccoli, once I finish flogging myself, I'll respond.


OK, so. I do not feel entitled to these foods. I do, however, feel entitled to eat something. Because I don't feel entitled to eat out terribly often, I go with the foods available at the supermarket. While dry pasta and canned tomatoes enter into it, sometimes I like to branch out. And even at Whole Foods, even when the produce in question is in season and grown locally, one does not find local/seasonal except in some special rustic display. Huzzah, local eggplant,! Now, as for the rest of the ingredients...

This post is not about the ethical merits of eating local, or the merits of caring how much one measures up to yuppie pieties. It's about the idea that consumer entitlement is the driving force behind all the world's problems. Put another way, that consumers are doing something wrong by expecting to see at the store the items they generally see, at the price point they've come to anticipate.

This often comes up in discussions of Fast Fashion - consumers (especially women*) stand accused of demanding cheap and disposable, as though we choose this over some perfectly adequate, durable, Made in the USA alternative available just down the street. While this may be true in a broader economic sense (supply and demand), it doesn't tell you much about how the individual shops. My sense of which are expensive and which are cheap comes from what the spectrum of what's available. I do not demand that my t-shirts cost $10 rather than $15, choosing stinginess over Good. Rather, I have no compelling (or even non-compelling) reason to believe that shirts that cost $15 use the extra $5 to improving workers' or environmental conditions. If I go with $10 over $5, it's because the $10 one will more often than not be a nicer shirt.

Libertarians, stop reading now. The problem is that there are issues best dealt with on a larger scale, and, if they are indeed that pressing and uncontroversial, instituted by the government. OK, maybe libertarians can listen after all, because sometimes it's just a matter of not funding that which had been over-funded. I'm not writing here, though, to provide an outline for reforms I wouldn't begin to know how to institute, but rather to point out the massive inefficiency of asking individual consumers to research every purchase, and not to just trust that what's at the store nearby is probably fine. It's inefficient, but it also directs do-gooder energy away from things that might be more important than how "holistic" a skin cream is. It's not that it's zero-sum, precisely, but that if people feel they've done their part, checked that box, with their shopping, they may well call it a day. Consumers who are not turning every purchase into a research project are not lazy or immoral. They're normal. And when said consumers are male, no one gives it much thought.

*Major gender angle here! With food, even if the Food Movement leaders are (with the exception of Alice Waters) dudes, there's always this element of, you, Woman, if you cared, you'd turn grocery shopping into a big ol' research project, spend your precious shoe money on Organic for your family, your holy late nights at the office preparing something "nourishing" with lentils. It's no coincidence this issue comes up so much re: clothes and food.


Daniel said...

Good post! I try to buy the "right" things, especially after reading Foer's "Eating Animals", but the effort is often very inefficient (so I made sure that my favorite sandwich shop gets its meat from local farms).

Though I'm sure that there might be a gender aspect to it, couldn't it also be that food and clothing show up in these discussions so much because they are the two need that we buy the most frequently? Of Food, Clothing, and Shelter, only Shelter is made irregularly. Food and Clothing are very regular purchases...

Phoebe said...


I think there's pretty definitively a gendered aspect to it, albeit not one outright created by any modern-day pro-sanctimony contingent. Rather, given that food and clothing have long been assigned as up to women, there's no way to start a movement insisting that "consumers" be more mindful of their purchases that doesn't, by default, shove this extra work at women. I mean, no one these days (except if trying to provoke) is going to outright insist that the problem is that women refuse to cook. But ultimately, who's more likely to be held responsible for the family not getting enough "organic"? These arguments are often constructed in a way where it's left to the reader to fill in the rest, the '... and thus The Woman must spend more time and energy on The Home' bit.

And re: clothes, yes, clothing of some sort is essential, but the critiques of "fast fashion" are of women shopping for clothes... the way that men shop for gadgets, i.e. beyond what's essential. (Not that women don't buy gadgets, or that men don't buy trendy clothes - I'm talking about how these things are typically gendered.) Now I don't know how many synthetic H&M dresses add up to one iPad, say, but my sense is that there's far more interest in condemning the former than the latter.

CW said...

"It's not that it's zero-sum, precisely, but that if people feel they've done their part, checked that box, with their shopping, they may well call it a day."

I think that you are getting at one of my biggest objections this substitution of virtuous consumerism for civic virtue. When I buy all the right locally grown and organic stuff at the Co-op, I don't do that much (if anything) to better the world, but I do feel pure. I personally am not contributing to the problems of the world, and that's good enough.

One a somewhat different note, the "work" of becoming a good consumer is largely solitary. It consists of research and shopping. Traditional civic activism, on the other hand, involves going to meetings, writing letters, joining organizations, attending protests and fundraisers, etc. In addition to furthering the cause at hand, that sort of activism builds communities and relationships.

Phoebe said...


The analogy the New Sanctimony always brings up is to religion. And religion is sometimes about solitary prayer, sometimes about volunteering with others from the congregation. Different people are oriented in different ways, and there are ways to do your part without being a "joiner," so I suppose my own problem with shopping-as-activism isn't really that it's solitary. (It's also often not solitary, as with food co-ops, farm-to-table restaurants, eco-chic boutiques - there are see-and-be-seen elements.) It's more that a) the smug is radically disproportionate to the effort being made, and more to the point b) that I think much/most of the good-done-by-shopping ought to be, the truly bad should be off the shelves on the first place. It shouldn't be up to individuals' research projects for products not to be incredibly toxic, incredibly damaging to the environment, and made by abused 8-year-olds in the developing world.

Sigivald said...

Part of it, that I didn't notice you mention, is just plain ol' economist-approved signaling behavior.

Not only is there a desire to feel virtuous, but overall (the exact weightings varying by the individual) as much or more desire to be seen to be virtuous.

At this point I have the suspicion that upwards of 80%* of the drive for "local" and "whatever-free" and "fair-whatever" consumption is status marking, class-differentiation and other demonstrative behavior, at its core.

(* Number scientifically picked from nowhere. Point being I know it's not 100%, and I'm reasonably sure it's over half. Well over half.

And "at its core" is deliberate; people are great at believing their motives purer than they really are, and there's a lot of real, honest overlap between notionally theoretically doing some good, and Looking Really Virtuous...

That said, if I find that someone has un-ostentatiously, say, donated a pile of money or time to Whatever Cause, I'll give them full credit for doing so, even if the cause is one I'm wary of the real benefit of.

Problem is, if it's un-ostentatious I'll probably never know.

And if they celebrate doing so, we're back to signaling behavior. (cf. Matthew 6:5 and the old Jewish tradition of anonymous charity).

Carrying a reusable shopping bag with green slogans on it? Zero points.)

Phoebe said...


I don't mention the economics term for it, but I think my reference above to "see and be seen" gets at this.

Signaling is important, but your description of it strikes me as too... cynical? One-dimensional? It's not just about bourgeois types strutting their stuff. It's also about a culture in which unacceptable products become so taboo as to be not fit for consumption, much as someone who keeps kosher might view pork not so much as food they'll refuse as a non-food item. Like that woman who, though broke, had to feed herself and her family yuppie meals. Is the best description of this that she's stuck-up, or (and I lean towards this view) that she's come to recognized yuppie food as her only food option, and thus has to find a way to make that work on a very limited budget? It's signalling as intentional differentiation ('see, I'm not lower-class, that's why my clothes come from consignment shops'), but it's also unconscious class-based self-expression, if that makes sense.

Britta said...

Ok, late to the party, but Zizek writes about this (and someone else as well, but I'm forgetting who) about how the whole "activism through consumption" thing is actually incredibly regressive, because it transfers what could be organized collective political action into individual, passive consumption which really fits right into the existing capitalist framework. Or in other words, by making us feel like we've been active and we're working to change the system, it's precluding us from actual radical political action that might change the system.

Your critique is also spot on, in that critics perpetuate this idea that consumers have power, AND that our consumption decisions are purely about choice and 'lifestyle' rather than economic or social constraint. In other words, it's as though the problem with capitalism is that grad students 'choose' shop at H&M or buy Mexican strawberries, rather than that persistent, global inequalities of capital on all levels, global policies which favor large corporations and not environmental sustainability (e.g. why are Mexican strawberries cheaper than local ones? It's not because consumers demanded that they be.)

Finally, I know I've said this a million times before, but I'm someone who pretty much buys stuff in season most of the time (for price and taste reasons as much as anything else), and I get really sick of the "remember the good old days when we all ate local" kind of stuff, because unless you were raised really wealthy in, I don't know, Southern California, your diet was mind numbingly monotonous at best. I know there were some winters my great-grandparents ate birch bark soup to survive, and it's not exactly something I reminisce about returning to. Indeed, the fact that starvation wasn't too far off for most people in the world until very recently makes the whole, "remember the good old days" seems a bit callous.

Phoebe said...


I can't decide whether this all leads more to a critique of capitalism, of the government's interference with capitalism (corn subsidies, etc.), or primarily an 'again, the patriarchy' line of argument. I'm all for reforms that would make it simpler to get better/more ethically-produced whichever, but it strikes me as incredibly important - and relevant whatever one thinks of 'local' or 'organic' - that this is about giving women busy-work, busy-work to replace dusting or whatever may no longer be socially acceptable to demand. That it's about having women poring over websites about ethical moisturizer and where-did-my-baby's-food-come-from, and that if the government just took care of making consumption less fraught, this would be a problem not (merely) from a libertarian standpoint, but (primarily) from a crap-what-will-women-do-now-to-stay-at-home? one.

CW said...

To respond to Britta's point regarding the romantic view of how people ate in the past, the only time I ever really ate local during a winter was when I was living with a host family in Moscow. Imported fresh vegtables were in the stores frequented by new Russians and rich expats, but we ate root vegtables (I remember lots and lots of potatoes, not that many carrots). Maybe things are different there now, but that's all most people there could afford in the 90s. There was nothing particularly uplifting about the experience. I felt really worn down during those winter months, and I attribute some of that to the lack of fresh vegtables (the air was also polluted, I was suffering from culture shock, and everyone seemed sick all winter, so I can't blame everything on the veggies). When the first cucumbers and tomatoes showed up in the Spring (probably brought in from the Ukraine or Southern Russia), it was such a relief. I felt so much healthier.

As for signalling, I think that's certainly one aspect of what's going on, and it was referrenced (if not by name) in the previous discussion. To me what's more interesting is why this particular form of behavior has become so important both as a signalling behavior and as genuine (if sometimes misguided) attempt to better the world.