Let's Act Like Citizens, Not Consumers
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 (email@example.com)
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.