Letter on consumption and consumer power
[Translated from GegenStandpunkt 1-16]
I have a question about your criticism of consumer power. From the text I gather that you criticize people who believe that they can solve the “problem” through targeted consumer choices. And ultimately your text comes down to there being no such thing as consumer power.
Since I myself attach a lot of importance to my consumer choices and try to lead a conscious life, I naturally feel like I am being addressed directly. I am always open to adapting my behavior and rethinking my opinion or stance on an issue. However, it is not entirely clear to me from the text why or if I should change my behavior? It is clear to me that consumption choices in life shift the market shares of companies. An example occurs to me here in couch surfing. If I stay with someone who has a free bed, this takes customers away from hostels. Conserves resources. Takes away jobs.
If I only buy/barter/give away secondhand clothes and don’t represent demand for new clothes, the demand for production also decreases there.
If I eat vegan/vegetarian, this shifts the market away from mass-produced meat. If I buy a Fairphone instead of a smartphone, the market share shifts again from A to B. (And yes Fairphone is better than the alternative – if one believe what it says)
In all my activities of course I hope to get more people to choose ecologically. Just as you hope more people will read your texts.
Ultimately, the question for me is: do you criticize acts of conscious consumption? Or do you criticize that many people who consume consciously do not deal with the causes of the problems of this world, but believe that a few purchasing decisions represent enough activism to lastingly change the world?
If you actually criticize conscious consumption per se, then two questions occur to me: What are the alternatives to conscious consumption? Or do you think that this method would take too long to effect real change? That’s all; I hope my comments are somewhat understandable.
You have gathered from our article that we think improving the world by means of conscious consumption is a crazy idea. You say nothing about the question of the objective correctness or defects of the arguments we presented for it in the article on the “Consumption and the consumer” – you merely maintain that the conclusions you think follow from these arguments do not suit you. Particularly in view of this, we want to once again briefly and directly summarize the main ideas relating to your question – precisely because our arguments about the practice of critical consumption follow from our theoretical conception of the subject.
The market economy is not a mechanism for the production and distribution of useful goods for those who need them. The consumer who buys them, and consumption as a whole, is in this system only the means of capital turnover: The manufacturing companies need buyers in order to turn their profit-making commodities into money and thus to realize their corporate purpose. This purpose, a return on the advanced capital, is the reason for the recurrent scandals about harmful junk products and the ruinous circumstances of their production for humans, animals and nature.
To think, of all things, that the consumer has with money, which he can spend consciously or not, a means of power in his hands to change this, is a self-delusion – and a somewhat pompous one. Because there is nobody who really consumes “unconsciously”: everyone manages his budget as best he can, and buys the best he can get for himself with his money. None of the consumers for whom you reserve the label “unconscious” ask for hormone contaminated meat from factory farms that torment animals out of unfounded carelessness. No one wants the cramped, poorly soundproofed apartments near the highway. Or intentionally orders devices that are unusable after a little while. Why is all of this then for sale? And why is it supplied? Because people’s buying decisions depend on their wallet – and for most people there is only as much in it as they earn as an employee. Wages and salaries are not however based on what one needs or wants. They are a cost factor in the calculation of the employer, who keeps it low. That’s why commercial capital is so sure that a very limited ability to pay is a permanent feature of our beautiful affluent society and happily competes for low income purchasing power: if “cheap” is the main selling point on the mass market, then people are offered “cheap” stuff; and because with low prices good profits are to be made, the costs of producing consumer goods are rigorously lowered: it uses substandard raw materials and every kind of poison, as well as all the methods of extorting hard labor and downward pressure on wages which have not yet been banned – and are often promoted. If there are then complaints about the crap which is foisted on people, the manufacturers justify it with the brazen argument: The customer demands it! He buys the crap that suits his poverty, so he wants nothing else.
Higher earning customers or people who are generally willing to give up more can be led by advertising arguments such as organic, fair trade, etc., to the more expensive items from vendors who make their profits this way. These customers have every reason to doubt whether the promised considerations are observed because these are also only – costly – advertising material for selling commodities. On these doubts thrives a whole certification industry which makes its business with precisely the suppliers who use the organic label for a selling advantage – and which the customer can finally only trust in. So whether demand from particularly well-to-do or particularly willing to sacrifice customer segments is in fact effectively market shifting and whether the latter only leads to gradual changes in the customs of producing depends completely on what the seller’s side wants to make of it; and indeed in accordance with their purposes and calculations – see above. And from this you in all seriousness expect a – however modestly posed – “solution to the problems of this world”?
The consumer is on both sides the dependent variable of the economy: he can only spend what he earns and only buy what he is offered for this money. He does not decide the range of commodities, but can do nothing more than fit his needs to his wallet and the range of commodities on the market. The need to self-ration is forced by this society; the fantasy of properly rationing oneself and thereby having some control is hogwash.
You make a peace offer to this criticism, that maybe we think “many people who consume consciously do not address the causes of the problems of this world.” That is not true. We do not want to say that people who set “consumer power” against the imperfections of the market economy don’t dig deep enough or do enough and also not that their good deed would take too long to have an effect, but that they pose a false reason for the “problems”: the insufficient willingness of the consumers to act so that everything is hunky-dory.
You ask about our alternatives: we have no political alternative to offer people as consumers. In this role they are and remain integrated into a whole economic system and can do nothing else with their money than contribute to the success of the capital turnover. There is no commercially available product which corrects this economy’s purpose and way of calculating which one could acquire by switching suppliers. Improving the world at zero cost looks the same accordingly.
Related articles on consumption and consumer power:
“Fair Trade” – The capitalist world market as a challenge to the consumer’s morality
“Taste the waste”