Protesters outside the luxury gym Equinox in West Hollywood, California, demonstrating against gym owner and Trump backer Stephen Ross on August 9, 2019. | ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Consumer activism and conscious consumerism mean more people are buying from brands they agree with — and boycotting ones they don’t.

In August, it was SoulCycle and Equinox. The month prior, Home Depot. Back in 2017, L.L.Bean. These are only a few of the companies to ignite the collective ire of progressive consumers over corporate ties to Trump. In the case of the boutique fitness studios, it was a Trump fundraiser hosted by their majority stake investor Stephen M. Ross; with the home improvement chain, it was co-founder Bernie Marcus’s promise to donate to Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign; with the duck boot and outdoor apparel brand, it was Bean descendant and board member Linda Lorraine Bean’s $60,000 donation to Trump super PAC Making America Great Again, LLC (itself a violation of the Federal Election Commission’s permitted donor limit of $5,000).

For Americans opposed to Trump’s policies — from the inhumane treatment and targeting of detained migrants, to detrimental inaction on climate change, to refusal to regulate guns in the wake of unprecedented mass shootings — shopping at retailers connected to the celebrity-entrepreneur-turned-sitting-president is tantamount to hypocrisy.

Calls to boycott Trump-tainted brands stretch back to the #GrabYourWallet movement that began in the wake of the 2016 election. Organizers Shannon Coulter and Sue Atencio turned outrage into action with a spreadsheet of companies linked to Trump or the Trump family, both explicitly (Trump owned) and implicitly (Trump funders, Trump brand sellers), detailing why those companies are on the list and what they need to do to get off it. “The goal,” Coulter told the New York Times, “came originally from a place of really wanting to shop the stores we loved again with a clear conscience.”

Of course, boycott calls are not unique to Trump’s critics; Trump himself is an avid boycotter, and his MAGA fans follow suit. Nor are boycott calls unique in the Trump era. Consumers have long registered their disapproval of businesses’ practices by refusing to shop them and calling on others to do the same, dating back to this country’s birth (and further back elsewhere in the world, like in ancient Greece and early Christianity, in the form of organized ostracism).

What do you get when consumers takes action? Consumer activism. And by the inverse action, consumers are shopping alternative products and companies that complement their worldview more now than ever before — particularly when it comes to combating climate change. Sustainability-tinged consumer activism is a new flavor of an old tactic, one that falls under the umbrella of what we now call conscious consumerism.

Consumer activism can take the shape of two diametrically opposed actions — buying en masse and boycotting en masse — that are after the same goal

“[Consumer activism is] either grassroots collective organization of consumption or its withdrawal,” explains Lawrence Glickman, an American historian at Cornell University and author of Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism.

Meaning, it’s “Buy Nike!” to express support of Colin Kaepernick’s 2018 pick as brand ambassador following his kneeled protest against police brutality targeting people of color and his collusion lawsuit against the NFL. It’s also, “Boycott Nike!” and even, “#BurnYourNikes!” to express outrage over “when somebody disrespects our flag,” as Trump put it in 2017, supposedly provoked by Kaepernick’s peaceful demonstration.

Calls to boycott, though, are a heck of a lot more visible on social media than are rally cries to pledge brand support. Glickman writes in Buying Power that two-thirds of Americans take part in at least one boycott a year.

Boycotts stem from anger. Anger spreads faster and farther on social media than any other emotion, as uncovered by computer scientists at China’s Beihang University and reported by MIT Technology Review. And there are many, many ongoing and overlapping boycotts at any given time. AP News even has a feed to track boycotts worldwide.

Consumer activism, boycotts included, puts power in the hands of the people — ”or at least they think it is,” adds Glickman.

We boycotted before there was even a word for it

“Boycotts are as American as apple pie,” #GrabYourWallet co-founder and digital strategist Coulter told Fast Company in 2017, referring to the Boston Tea Party’s 1773 dump of British imports that precipitated the American Revolutionary War. Colonists had boycotted British tea for several years by then; “No taxation without representation,” they demanded. Refusing to purchase British tea was a pointed way to voice their mounting resentment of their decidedly un-independent status. Short of revolt, it was the only power they had — until, of course, they revolted.

Glickman dates the boycott much further back: to ancient Greece. Expedition Magazine cites the city of Athens’ historic boycott of the Olympic Games in 332 BCE as a key turning point. The city had incurred a massive fine after its endorsed athlete attempted, and failed, to fix a match, and refused to attend the games in protest unless the charges were dropped. (They weren’t, and Athens eventually relented.)

The term “boycott” didn’t emerge, however, until 1880, in Ireland. Captain Charles Boycott was a British land agent in County Mayo — and “the man who became a verb!” — whose evictions “were many and bloody,” as described by IrishCentral. After Boycott attempted to evict another 11 tenants, the Land League (an Irish political organization of the 1800s that rallied in aid of poor farmworkers) convinced Boycott’s employees to walk out and compelled the community to, essentially, ice him out. Shops and the like refused to do business with him, the post stopped his mail. He left Ireland humiliated.

Boycotts are employed the world over, and not all of them are about consumerism. Just last month, tens of thousands of students in Hong Kong boycotted the first day of school as part of ongoing protests over an extradition bill that could send Hong Kong citizens to China, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a boycott of the Israeli TV channel that co-produced the HBO show Our Boys, and Sweden’s top female hockey players are boycotting the national team over unfair pay and poor working conditions.

Still, there is a certain Americanness to the ubiquity of the boycott today. Take #GrabYourWallet, which at present calls for boycotts of 31 different companies (not including subsidiaries or partners), five over their Stephen M. Ross connections. Says Glickman, Americans “didn’t invent [the boycott], but the frequency with which we use it is somewhat exceptional.”

Consumer activism in 2019 is not a whole lot different from consumer activism in the 1840s — except when it comes to the causes

“A lot of people think that what we’re seeing now is new,” says Glickman. “But there are a lot of parallels with history.” Particularly, America’s history of slavery and abolitionism.

The Free Produce Movement, led by Quaker abolitionists in the 1840s through the Civil War, hinged on boycotting goods made by enslaved people, cotton key among them. Buying these products, as far as Free Produce stalwarts were concerned, was analogous to supporting slavery outright.

The issues are different today, but the strategy remains the same: Vote with your dollar and don’t contribute a cent to the bottom line of companies whose values don’t align with your own. Says Glickman, “That fundamental question of, ‘No one stands outside of moral problems, that we’re all implicated in [them]’ — that’s the essence of consumer activism.”

Voting with your dollar doesn’t just mean not spending your dollars in problematic places (i.e. Amazon, Wayfair, etc.); it also means supporting companies that practice what they preach, both by way of their company culture and by what they sell. Conscious consumerism drives at that very point, particularly when it comes to “voting” for sustainability and humane working conditions.

Says the Nation’s Willy Blackmore of the boycott’s antebellum lineage, where abolitionists bought wool over cotton and maple sugar over cane:

The same thinking—that it’s better to buy products that we believe are made without exceptional suffering—animates some contemporary conscious consumerism. The desire to minimize the harm we cause as consumers has led to a variety of fluffy marketing terms as well as third-party verification organizations, so you can buy everything from cruelty-free makeup to Fair Trade food products.

Conscious consumerism (alternatively called ethical consumption) is today’s catchall to cover consumer dollars invested in a host of progressive values: worker rights, animal rights, low-carbon footprint, recycled and/or renewable materials, organic, local, etc. — your fair-trade fashion, your greenhouse-gas-cutting Ikea, your metal straw. It’s a term that’s caught on in the last 10 years, but it was not only predated by the green consumerism of the 1990s, it’s also the driving argument behind all consumer activism from the tea-in-the-harbor get-go.

What is newish, however, is the phenomenon of sustainable shopping and widespread availability of ethically made, eco-friendly goods — where consumers concerned about climate change, for instance, “live their values” vis a vis their plastic-free purchases.

“It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when we saw consumers trying to make positive environmental change in their shopping,” says Emily Huddart Kennedy, University of British Columbia sociologist and author of Putting Sustainability into Practice: Applications and Advances in Research on Sustainable Consumption. Data analytics company Nielsen called 2018 “The Year of the Influential Sustainable Consumer,” adding that “it’s soon to be the decade of the sustainable shopper.” Sustainable product sales reached $128.5 billion in 2018, up 20 percent from four years prior; Nielsen projects 2021 to cash in on $150 billion worth of sustainability sales.

There are several theories, says Kennedy, on what caused the shift, including mistrust in government to adequately address climate change and the growing “sense of doing something in the face of these huge sustainability crises,” as she puts it. Kennedy’s research has shown that conscious consumerism’s popularity can also be tied to its elite nature — in part because of high price tags, in part because of championing among celebrities, in part because of its en vogueiness, “it’s seen as a ‘high-class’ thing to do.”

Consuming consciously is aspirational, both for individuals and for the planet. University of Toronto sociologist Josée Johnston, a colleague of Kennedy’s, found that nearly two-thirds of consumers resonated with the statement, “shopping is a powerful force for social and environmental change.” Elaborates Johnston’s survey report in the Journal of Marketing Management, “This suggests that the majority of the shopping public believe that their shopping dollars can promote a social and environmental alternative to the status quo.”

Consumer activism, for all its prevalence, might be an unintentional misdirect, say critics

Activists for any one particular cause are in no way united that consumer activism is the most effective way — or even an effective way — to enact change. The main criticism is that individual product swaps do nothing to impact legislation and corporate responsibility.

That’s not a new argument; many abolitionists disagreed with their Free Produce Movement cohorts. As Glickman writes in Buying Power, “Critics accused free produce activists of overvaluing private rectitude to the point where it had little connection with the public good.” Maybe wearing wool and eating maple makes you abolitionists feel better, Free Produce critics seemed to say, but it does squat to end slavery.

Twenty-first century shoppers face, in spirit, the same conundrum.

“Conscious consumerism is a lie,” writes sustainable fashion expert and frequent Vox contributor Alden Wicker for Quartz, quoting a speech she delivered at the 2017 UN Youth Delegation. “Small steps taken by thoughtful consumers — to recycle, to eat locally, to buy a blouse made of organic cotton instead of polyester — will not change the world.” Instead, she argues, conscious consumerism is an expensive distraction from the real work at hand.

A crowd of Amazon employees at a walkout carry signs that read, “Amazon, let’s lead: Zero emissions by 2030!” and “Amazon, let’s raise the bar, not the temperature.”Karen Ducey/Getty Images
Amazon and other tech employees walk out during the Global Climate Strike on September 20, 2019, rallying the company to be more sustainable.

Sure, vote with your dollar, the criticism stands — but you do a whole lot more by simply voting for politicians who give a damn that the Earth is melting. Only 46.1 percent of voters aged 18-29 voted at all in 2016, 55 percent of which voted Democrat. Nielsen found that 90 percent of millennials (aged 21-34) are willing to pay more for eco-friendly and sustainable products. These stats don’t necessarily provide a one-for-one since there’s a gap in the age categorizations, but if the entirety of that 90 percent of conscious consumer millennials had gone to the polls and voted how their dollar votes … We don’t have to spell it out, right?

With more opportunities to be a conscious consumer — thanks to more and more “leading brands that compete to see who is greener,” as Joel Makower, author of 1990’s The Green Consumer, writes for GreenBiz — so too do opportunities for economic existential angst mount. Ditching plastic straws, in the grand scheme of things, will do diddly for the planet, representing less than 1 percent of our sweeping plastic problem.

And as such, conscious consumerism can deliver unearned complacency, house-on-fire calm akin to “This Is Fine” dog. As Jim Leape, co-director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions told Stanford Report, “The risk is that banning straws may confer ‘moral license’ — allowing companies and their customers to feel they have done their part. The crucial challenge is to ensure that these bans are just a first step.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren homed in on this very point during CNN’s recent climate change forum, following a series of questions to Democratic candidates on regulating lightbulbs, banning plastic straws, and encouraging people to cut down on red meat, as reported by Vox’s Li Zhou:

“Oh, come on, give me a break,” Warren said in response to the lightbulb question, in one of the breakout moments of the night. “This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry wants us to talk about. … They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your lightbulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers, when 70 percent of the pollution, of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air, comes from three industries.”

There’s an added tension when it comes to green shopping and movements like Fridays for Future and the Sunrise Movement, that conscious consumerism’s prescribed solution is antithetical to sustainability’s aims.

“The idea of ‘shopping’ your way to sustainability is fundamentally flawed,” says sociologist Kennedy. “That is, if we need to slow down growth to protect the environment, then we can’t rely on ‘better’ consumption — we also have to reduce consumption.” To her point, climate activist Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN’s Climate Action Summit on September 23 addressed world leaders but zeroed in on an oft-repeated delusion that cutting emissions by 50 percent in 10 years will do the trick. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you.”

There are alternative ways that consumers can “do something” impactful with their money, writes Wicker in Quartz: Donating to activist organizations and donating to politicians who vow to vote for green initiatives (i.e. passing a Green New Deal) and holding big corporate offenders accountable are good places to start.

Okay, okay, but does consumer activism do … anything?

In a word: sometimes! In more words, whether or not consumer activism and conscious consumerism “work” depends, really, on the definition of success.

Historian Glickman likes to differentiate between short-term and long-term goals. Sociologist Kennedy separates material benefits from ideological gains.

“Almost every boycott fails to achieve its punitive goal,” says Glickman. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, he adds, is a rare example of an “unambiguous victory,” where the boycott attained its demands: hiring black drivers, promising respectful drivers, and first-come first-seated policy. The SoulCycle boycott is another: Last month’s consumer activism over Ross’s Trump fundraiser did in fact dent SoulCycle’s attendance. But these are notable exceptions (the former inarguably more impactful than the latter) to the rule.

Adds Glickman, “A lot of times boycotts of big corporations don’t really affect the bottom line of that corporation. Oftentimes the boycott starts with a great deal of enthusiasm and ends with a whimper.” For instance, Amazon: Despite calls year after year to boycott Amazon Prime Day over factory conditions (and this year over contracts with ICE), the retail behemoth repeatedly manages to smash its sales record.

In terms of the material benefit of product swaps, “the jury is out,” says Kennedy. Yes, phosphate-free dish detergent can curb water pollution, she says; but Kennedy’s research shows that conscious consumers often maintain very large carbon footprints themselves. “Conscious consumers tend to be well-educated,” explains Kennedy, “and well-educated people typically earn a good income,” income that buys them nice cars and tickets on commercial planes and air conditioning units and so on.

“The ideological benefits are not much more conclusive, unfortunately,” adds Kennedy. “I think it’s fair to say that conscious consumption has made more people think about the resources that go into the stuff we buy and about what happens to our stuff when we throw it away.” This, in effect, is consumer activism’s long-term goal, what historian Glickman calls “a transformation of consciousness.” On the other hand, Kennedy says, “When people obsess about the environmental impact of their goods, that can let companies and governments off the hook. So it’s a mixed bag.”

Where and how we spend our money does matter. But how much it matters depends on what else we do with our money and what governments and corporations do with their (considerably larger) pots. At best, the rising popularity of conscious consumerism, for instance, suggests that the buying public will at least spend their way to a healthier world; the big problem, though, is that individual monetary action — even when performed collectively — is only the beginning.

“I can’t imagine that the world is worse off because of conscious consumerism,” says Kennedy, “but I doubt it will be enough to save the planet.”

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Author: Stephie Grob Plante

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