Let's Act Like Citizens, Not Consumers
By Betsy Barnum, September 29, 2003

In the past few weeks, several articles have appeared in the alternative press arguing that consumer action is the way to address corporate abuses and strengthen democracy.

Doris Haddock (Granny D) described in an article posted on Common Dreams on Aug. 27 the process by which corporations have gotten too much power, especially when it comes to global trade, and declared that "a small group of dedicated people" can stop them by demanding fair trade products in coffee shops and other stores. Anita Roddick, of the Body Shop, in a Common Dreams article on Sept. 22 suggested that consumers "hold the key" to changing sweatshop conditions by supporting companies that have codes of conduct for how they treat workers.

I admire these women tremendously, but they are pointing us in the wrong direction. Consumer power is a myth, and a very potent one, that not only doesn't work but actually distracts us from the only real power we have to address corporate rule and the degradation of our world.

Why is consumer power a myth? Here are three reasons.

One: Political problems must be addressed politically.

It certainly appears that the problems created for society, the environment and future generations by corporations are caused by their economic activity. It may seem logical that we ought to counter them in our economic role, as consumers.

But it is not simply economically that corporations dominate our lives and our nation. It is because they have usurped our place as political decisionmakers in our system of self-governance.

Why is trade that is regulated by and for corporate benefit called "free trade" and shaped so that only profit matters? Who decided that worker rights, human rights, ecological integrity and community values would be set aside as irrelevant?

We the people did not make these decisions, nor did we create these situations by "consumer demand." They are political decisions. It is not as economic entities, but as politically active corporate "persons," that corporations exercise power to define how trade is conducted and how workers are treated, as well as how natural resources that belong to all of us are used. And even though each corporation is, legally speaking, a single person like each of us, in practice their political voice is amplified to such an extent by their wealth, size, and the economic space they occupy that they drown us out.

This situation can't be addressed by consumer action, but only by political action--by claiming our authority as citizens, and taking away the political voice and power of corporations so we, the human people, are guiding political decisionmaking.

Two: Consumers don't decide what happens in the marketplace, they merely respond.

Many people say that we can use our "consumer power" to force corporate decisionmakers to make the products we demand. But as consumers, we can only respond to what corporate decisionmakers put on the market. As long as we agree to being consumers, it is the corporate honchos, not we the people, who are making decisions about how corporate activity treats people and the Earth.

Why are we the people allowing corporate owners and managers to make important decisions not just about global trade, but also about things large and small that impact our everyday life--like product packaging that is not reusable or recyclable; violent television programs and movies; advertising circulars flooding our mailboxes; toxic poisons put into the air and water by industrial processes? Why do our kitchen cupboards have more chemicals in them, many highly toxic, than the average chemistry lab had 100 years ago? Why is it almost impossible to find a pair of athletic shoes that were not made in a sweatshop?

The answer often given to these questions is that consumers buy these things, so they are produced. We learn in Economics 101 that consumer demand creates the marketplace, as corporate managers respond to what consumers want--a statement that leads directly to the ludicrous idea that consumers have "demanded" things like genetically modified organisms in our food or baby toys made of toxic materials like PVC, to say nothing of leafblowers, jet skis, botox, and--add your list of useless, destructive, outrageous products that no consumer ever thought up and demanded.

How it really works: Corporate owners and managers decide what to produce, based on projected profit, and spend millions of dollars on advertising to convince us that we want it. People respond by buying the products that are advertised--voila! Consumer demand.

The highly lucrative project of direct-to-consumer drug marketing is just one example of how "consumer demand" works in the economy. Commercials inform people of new drugs, which they wouldn't know about any other way, suggest that they "ask your doctor about ___," and the prescriptions written for the drug go up. Consumer demand created by corporate advertising.

But if consumer demand in our "marketplace democracy" doesn't really originate from consumers themselves, how are we to make our preferences for sustainable products known? How can we, for example, "vote with our dollars" if the products we want to choose aren't being made? What if we can't find out crucial information we need to decide which product to "vote" for, such as whether it has genetically modified organisms, or what kinds of poisons were released into the environment in producing the product, how workers who made it were treated or how much the CEO was paid last year?

As consumers, we can only choose from what is offered, and corporate decisionmakers only offer what they know will be profitable, while doing their best to ensure we don't have access to full information about the product so that knowledge won't influence our decision.

Here's another example. In an era of global warming that is brewing an ecological crisis unlike anything humanity has ever experienced, corporate decisionmakers are still making and marketing 12-mpg vehicles because they are more profitable than small gas-efficient models. This should qualify as criminal.

To say, as many do, "they wouldn't make them if people didn't buy them" overlooks the truth about how "consumer demand" is created, and oversimplifies a complex and subtle dynamic that includes psychological manipulation, deception, many overlapping cultural factors like fear and denial--and lots and lots of money.

Why do we allow corporate owners and managers to make decisions like continuing to produce gas-guzzling vehicles, and to spend billions marketing them to us with psychological manipulation and lies--and write off the advertising costs on their income taxes? Why do we, in our role as consumers, believe that we must acquiesce in being continually assaulted with manipulative advertising, tolerate the flooding of our social commons with 3,000 commercial messages in our face every day which we subsidize with our taxes, and then take the blame for the very existence of the products we buy?

Yes, people who buy SUVs do have a responsibility in this situation, but it doesn't make sense to hold people who buy products like gas-guzzling SUVs responsible while we ignore the responsibility of the people who decide to make and sell SUVs. Why do we let them off the hook and blame the buyers? Perhaps it is because we believe the myth that consumer demand drives the market.

SUV owners do have responsibility for the existence of SUVs, the same responsibility we all share as citizens in a democracy: It is we, not the owners of corporations, who should be deciding that lower ecological impact, not higher profit, should be a main guiding principle in auto manufacturing. As long as we abdicate our role of responsibility for making governing decisions, and allow corporate owners to make them for us with profit as the sole criterion, we are all responsible for the consequences.

It actually used to be that the people were in charge. In the 19th century corporations were required to operate in the public good, and many that overstepped were dissolved. Corporate personhood, a Supreme Court decision in 1886 that gave corporations the rights of an individual, changed all that. But suggesting that corporations ought to be considered tools for the public good is is not a wild, new idea, nor is realizing that allowing corporate owners to make decisions with vast impacts on society and culture is allowing corporations to govern. And it's not a moment too soon for us to begin thinking about how to recover our governing authority.

Rather than simply reacting to what corporate decisionmakers decide to offer us, we the people ought to be deciding that all products must be sustainable, and requiring that corporate activity be based on our commonly agreed values. We cannot move corporate decisionmaking away from favoring the bottom line over all other values by trying to shop more consciously. We can only do it by taking our rightful place as the decisionmakers in a democratic society, and taking responsibility for the political shaping of an economy that is based on the humane, Earth-honoring values I'm convinced almost all of us share.

Three: Consumer action can't create the political force to end corporate domination.

Corporate domination of our lives and world is an extremely serious problem that must be addressed immediately. It's clear that continuing to allow corporate decisions that consider only profit and disregard ecological, humanitarian, community and labor concerns will further shred the fabric of social life and eventually destroy the ecological basis of human society.

Attempting to exercise consumer pressure in hopes that corporate decisionmakers will respond to our concerns just isn't going to cut it. To end corporate domination, we need a social movement as strong and broad as those that changed law and culture about slavery, women's right to vote, organized labor and civil rights for people of color.

Although consumer action may look like a social movement, it's really just individuals doing the same thing separately. There may be some coordination, provided by an organization that calls a boycott, for instance, but the potential for effectiveness rests entirely on individuals making "good choices" on their own, day after day and month after month.

We know from the history of consumer boycotts that they sometimes succeed if large numbers of people participate; but once the corporation meets the demands, and the pressure is off, the objectionable activity resumes. Any type of consumer pressure--demands for certain products, insistence on social justice monitoring, "voting with our dollars," etc.--will follow the same pattern.

The boycott of Nestle Corp. over its marketing of infant formula in the Third World is instructive. Begun in 1977 by INFACT, a nonprofit group, the boycott was hugely successful over the next nine years, with millions of people and many nonprofit and religious organizations taking part and urging others to join.

Finally, the negative publicity got bad enough that Nestle Corp.'s executives agreed in 1986 to stop marketing the infant formula to women in poor countries and the boycott was called off. But within two years it was reinstated because the corporation's decisionmakers broke their promises. And even though the boycott is still in effect 17 years later, coordinated by a different group, the marketing of Nestle and other brands of infant formula in poor countries not only continues, but has become entrenched as the corporate promoters develop materials and arguments to counter the boycotters.

Our true power: Political action together

All this is not to say that it doesn't matter what purchasing decisions we make. It is very important, especially for people who have disposable income in the U.S., the wealthiest nation on Earth, to become conscious of the ecological and human impacts of our consumer choices. We must shop with integrity and awareness, reduce our consumption and avoid products from sweatshops.

And in doing so, we must also understand that improving our consumer choices will not change the economic structures that allow sweatshops and clearcut logging, toxic pollution and child labor, destruction of indigenous cultures and privatizing of water. It will do nothing to challenge the authority of corporate owners and managers to make decisions that create the conditions in which all people and all creatures on the planet must live.

The only way to challenge and ultimately change this obscene imbalance of power is to come together politically as people who love the Earth, who want everyone to have food and water and shelter, and who want to leave a livable and just world to our children. We must enact our responsibility as citizens, not consumers, and build a social movement to restore democracy.

Political action in social movements isn't as easy as changing our buying habits. It requires coming out of our cocoons, getting informed, thinking through our political opinions and talking with others about them, organizing neighbors and friends, learning to make decisions together when we don't agree on everything.

And there's the question of what to do, once we've gotten together. How can we take political action to challenge corporate power in our community? Thinking together with other people in your area who care about the present and the future is almost certain to result in a wide variety of ideas for political action that makes sense in your community. The possibilities are limited only by the civic imaginations of the group that begins to talk about what to do.

Teach-ins, conferences, forums, study circles and other educational events are political activities. So are kitchen-table conversations. And the need for education is great. Educating ourselves is an excellent starting place.

In some communities, city councils have passed resolutions and ordinances opposing corporate personhood and asserting local control over decisionmaking. State-level efforts to change laws governing corporate charters are under way in some states. In other places people have begun campaigns to demand that their local media meet community standards for coverage of issues and events.

Building coalitions among groups working on a wide variety of social justice, human rights and environmental issues, as well as faith-based groups, has always been an essential aspect of strengthening social movements. For example, some anti-war groups have shifted their focus to discussing the connections between militarism and corporations, and are reaching out to democracy organizations for information and joint work. Some of these coalitions are developing strategies to make sure resolutions about ending corporate personhood become part of political party platforms for the next election, or to work on holding local media accountable.

Direct action is also political, has a long and venerable history as part of social movements--and can be very effective if large numbers of people are organized.

As long as we allow ourselves to be defined as consumers, and continue to believe that as consumers we can affect situations that are politically created and politically maintained, we will continue to be at the mercy of what corporate owners and managers decide to do.

Reversing this situation, so that we the people, not corporations, are making the important decisions and taking responsibility for our common future, will not happen easily or quickly. But it can happen--will happen--if we take up our power as citizens and act together politically.

Betsy Barnum (betsy@greatriv.org) is a member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, the Alliance for Democracy -- Minnesota chapter and a member-supporter of the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy. She is also Executive Director of the Great River Earth Institute, an environmental nonprofit in Minneapolis, Minnesota.