Please Place Your Vote In The Bagging Area

by Ana Marta Laranjeira

Artwork by Barbara Kruger

Artwork by Barbara Kruger

Why do you buy what you buy?

There’s certainly a handful of answers to that single question: because you really like the design of  your Adidas, because Apple is “hands down the best brand ever” and hey, because there was this unbelievable promotion online in which they gave you free shipping if you bought that extra t-shirt (SO. WORTH. IT.).

Easy question, easy answer. Here’s the next-level question though: what impact do you cause when you buy what you buy? I’m not talking about any kind of impact here, like the one that massive chocolate fudge Ben & Jerry’s ice cream tub you just bought will have on your diet (once again: SO. WORTH. IT.), but how will your last trip to the supermarket resonate in the society? Is that something even worthy of consideration? The belief that every buying decision can be deemed as a political/ethical statement may be defined as political consumerism. Using one’s power as a consumer to engender change in the society.  It has be done in the past, and it’s done everyday: from entire groups of people (or even entire countries) boycotting certain institutions to individuals making a conscious decision of avoiding certain brands or products.

The thought process here is rather straightforward:  businesses – in between all of their complex processes – will reply to demand.  As a consumer, you shape that demand.  With every purchase you make you send an approval for the company to keep on the production of that exact same item you just got and, possibly, make more of it.

Following this train of thought, every single purchase accounts for a vote (consciously or not) for keeping that item on the shelves. However, that vote is never just for the final good on your shopping bag but for everything that it takes to generate it, be it the working conditions of the factory workers who produced it to the kind of materials used.

Putting that into more practical terms, if you are against, for example, child labour, it wouldn’t be too logical to “finance” a company that continuously hires children as factory-workers by buying their products, especially when there’s alternatives in the market. And that same reasoning goes to a multitude of other matters, very much depending on one’s personal values and beliefs. It is about making purchasing decisions based on meaningful information.

But just how feasible is political consumerism? Undeniably, there will always be a fair amount of ambiguity to this practise. Simply going after the “ethical label” down the supermarket aisle may be rather deceiving and the consumer can never truly know how reliable the knowledge available on a certain company is. However, it is hard to deny that access to information is increasingly facilitated by the means of online communication, with even the companies themselves having an interest in having more relative transparency in order to satisfy customer inquisition.

Nevertheless, the burning question is yet to be posed: is it worth it? One can say that it is, even if just for your own moral values, to act according to your beliefs. But can consumer decision really engender change?

Yes. Change has taken place in the past and it always will, for as long as businesses have the need to rely on customers for profitability, as it is the general rule on the capitalistic model of the economy.

The fashion industry, for example, is a very current case. With more and more customers opposing to the foundations of “fast fashion” and sweatshops, companies have been “forced” to change their procedures. This was further aggravated by the 2013 Rana Plaza incident in Bangladesh that killed 1129 factory-workers and injured another 2 500 when the building (a factory producing garments for brands such as Mango, Accessorize, Primark and Benneton), with no security conditions, collapsed. There is now an increasing number of new fashion brands with absolutely no links to the sweatshop model and well-established companies refining their old processes.

If the consumer is unsatisfied with something on the company’s procedures, they will have to change this in order to keep customer satisfaction and profitability. Is this enough? Most likely not. Political consumerism cannot make up for the entire set of one’s political engagement, or at least an efficient one. It may be an important piece but, nonetheless, a piece and not a whole.

Change – whichever it is – does indeed happen, but by the means of an assortment of actions and not just a single strike. Political consumerism may, therefore, be yet another important (single) step towards the right direction. The right direction is up to each one of us. The power to pursue it is ingrained on our authority in the consumer society.