The consumption habits of many of us in the global North and among elites in the global South are obviously unsustainable. The raw materials needed to support our habits are unreasonable and unfair. As standards of living improve in countries like China the demand for goods continue to grow, putting additional demand on people and the planet.
Economists tell us that consumption is good. Economic growth is the answer to all of our problems. After all, they tell us, purchasing things means that someone has a job making things. In 2001, President Bush tried to convince the American people that consumption was their patriotic duty following the attacks on September 11. He encouraged everyone to show those terrorists what we are made of and go out there and shop. And they did.
Fast forward to 2009 and the call to consume seems absurd (as it did to many people then) and potentially criminal in the light of the financial tsunami, which originated in the US but has now hit millions of people around the world, leaving a trail of foreclosures, bankruptcies, and poverty in its wake.
So what is the relationship between consumption and political action? While I don’t accept the premise that indiscriminant consumption is the answer to fixing the global financial system, I do believe that there is potential to use our purchasing habits to further our political goals. For example, there are worker-owned cooperatives, fair trade producers, and unionized factories that provide decent livelihoods for thousands of women and men.
I should be clear that I don’t think consumption is sufficient as the only point of political action, but rather it is one small, but albeit important, piece of broader civic action. Although I am writing this from a perspective of relative privilege, the same is true for consumers in the developing world. Choices we all make -- individually and collectively -- can be used as valuable tools to influence the way systems are structured and resources are distributed.
If you happen to be living in one of the countries that recently passed economic stimulus packages and you receive money, I encourage you to think about how to spend that money in a way that furthers your social and political values. Give it away, save it, or if you spend it, check out this guide to where to buy ethically made goods: Shop with a Conscious Consumer Guide