E.5 Can ethical consumerism stop the ecological crisis?

No. At best, it can have a limited impact in reducing environmental degradation and so postpone the ecological crisis. At worse, it could accelerate that crisis by creating new markets and thus increasing growth.

Before discussing why and just so there is no misunderstanding, we must stress that anarchists fully recognise that using recycled or renewable raw materials, reducing consumption and buying "ecologically friendly" products and technologies are very important. As such, we would be the last to denounce such a thing. But such measures are of very limited use as solutions to the ecological problems we face. At best they can only delay, not prevent, capitalism's ultimate destruction of the planet's ecological base.

Green consumerism is often the only thing capitalism has to offer in the face of mounting ecological destruction. Usually it boils down to nothing more than slick advertising campaigns by big corporate polluters to hype band-aid measures such as using a few recycled materials or contributing money to a wildlife fund, which are showcased as "concern for the environment" while off camera the pollution and devouring of non-renewable resources goes on. They also engage in "greenwashing", in which companies lavishly fund PR campaigns to paint themselves "green" without altering their current polluting practices!

This means that apparently "green" companies and products actually are not. Many firms hire expensive Public Relations firms and produce advertisements to paint a false image of themselves as being ecologically friendly (i.e. perform "greenwashing"). This indicates a weakness of market economies -- they hinder (even distort) the flow of information required for consumers to make informed decisions. The market does not provide enough information for consumers to determine whether a product is actually green or not -- it just gives them a price supplemented by (often deliberately misleading) advertising designed to manipulate the consumer and present an appropriate corporate image. Consumers have to rely on other sources, many of which are minority journals and organisations and so difficult to find, to provide them with the accurate information required to countermand the power and persuasion of advertising and the work of PR experts. This helps explain why, for example, "large agribusiness firms are now attempting, like Soviet commissars, to stifle criticism of their policies" by means of "veggie libel laws." These laws, which in 2001 had been passed in 13 American states ("backed by agribusiness") "make it illegal to criticise agricultural commodities in a manner inconsistent with 'reasonable' scientific evidence. The whole concept of 'veggie libel' laws is probably unconstitutional; nevertheless, these laws remain on the books." [Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, p. 266]

We should not discount the impact of PR experts in shaping the way people see the world or decide to consume. A lot of resources are poured into corporate Public Relations in order to present a green image. "In the perverse world of corporate public relations," note critics John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, "propagandising and lobbying against environmental protection is called 'environmental' or 'green' PR. 'Greenwashing' is a more accurate pejorative now commonly used to describe the ways that polluters employ deceptive PR to falsely paint themselves an environmentally responsible public image . . . Today a virulent, pro-industry, anti-environmentalism is on the rise . . . PR experts . . . are waging and winning a war against environmentalists on behalf of corporate clients in the chemical, energy, food, automobile, forestry and mining industries." A significant amount of cash is spent (an estimated $1 billion a year by the mid-1990s) "on the services of anti-environmental PR professionals and on 'greenwashing' their corporate image." [Toxic Sludge is Good for You!, p. 125] See the chapter called "Silencing Spring" in Stauber's and Rampton's book Toxic Sludge is Good for You! for a good summary of this use of PR firms.

Even apparently ecologically friendly firms like "The Body Shop" can present a false image of what they do. For example, journalist Jon Entine investigated that company in 1994 and discovered that only a minuscule fraction of its ingredients came from Trade Not Aid (a program claimed to aid developing countries). Entine also discovered that the company also used many outdated, off-the-shelf product formulas filled with non-renewable petrochemicals as well as animal tested ingredients. When Entine contacted the company he received libel threats and it hired a PR company to combat his story. [Stauber and Rampton, Op. Cit., pp. 74-5] This highlights the dangers of looking to consumerism to solve ecological problems. As Entine argued:

"The Body Shop is a corporation with the privileges and power in society as all others. Like other corporations it makes products that are unsustainable, encourages consumerism, uses non-renewable materials, hires giant PR and law firms, and exaggerates its environment policies. If we are to become a sustainable society, it is crucial that we have institutions . . . that are truly sustainable. The Body Shop has deceived the public by trying to make us think that they are a lot further down the road to sustainability than they really are. We should . . . no longer . . . lionise the Body Shop and others who claim to be something they are not." [quoted by Stauber and Rampton, Op. Cit., p. 76]

Even ignoring the distorting influence of advertising and corporate-paid PR, the fundamental issue remains of whether consumerism can actually fundamentally influence how business works. One environmental journalist puts the arguments well in his excellent book on "Fast Food" (from the industrialisation of farming, to the monopolisation of food processing, to the standardisation of food consumption it). As he puts corporations will "sell free-range, organic, grass-fed hamburgers if you demand it. They will sell whatever sells at a profit." [Eric Schlosser, Op. Cit., p. 269] He complements this position by suggesting various regulations and some role for trade unions.

Which, of course, is true. It is equally true that we are not forced to buy any specific product, which is why companies spend so much in convincing us to buy their products. Yet even ignoring the influence of advertising, it is unlikely that using the market will make capitalism nicer. Sadly, the market rewards the anti-social activities that Schlosser and other environmentalists chronicle. As he himself notes, the "low price of a fast food hamburger does not reflect its real cost . . . The profits of the fast food chains have been made possible by the losses imposed on the rest of society." [Op. Cit., p. 261] This means that the idea that by using the market we can "reform" capitalism is flawed simply because even "good" companies have to make a profit and so will be tempted to cut costs, inflict them on third parties (such as workers, consumers and the planet). The most obvious form of such externalities is pollution. Such anti-social and anti-ecological behaviour makes perfect business sense as prices fall when costs are passed on to others in the form of externalities. Thus firms which employ debt-slaves in sweatshops while polluting the atmosphere in a third-world dictatorship will have lower costs and so prices than those employing unionised workers under eco-friendly regulations.

The amazing thing is that being concerned about such issues is considered as a flaw in economics. In fact, seeking the lowest price and ignoring the social and ecological impact of a product is "considered virtuousness" by the market and by economists for, as green economist E. F. Schumacher, pointed out "[i]f a buyer refused a good bargain because he suspected that the cheapness of the goods in question stemmed from exploitation or other despicable practices (except theft), he would be open to criticism of behaving 'uneconomically' which is viewed as nothing less than a fall from grace. Economists and others are wont to treat such eccentric behaviour with derision if not indignation. The religion of economics has its own code of ethics, and the First Commandment is to behave 'economically.'" [Small is Beautiful, p. 30] And, of course, such a consumer would face numerous competitors who will happily take advantage of such activities.

Then there is the issue of how the market system hides much more information than it gives (a factor we will return to in section I.1.2). Under the price system, customers have no way of knowing the ecological (or social) impact of the products they buy. All they have is a price and that simply does not indicate how the product was produced and what costs were internalised in the final price and which were externalised. Such information, unsurprisingly, is usually supplied outside the market by ecological activists, unions, customer groups and so on. Then there is the misinformation provided by the companies themselves in their adverts and PR campaigns. The skilfully created media images of advertising can easily swamp the efforts of these voluntary groups to inform the public of the facts of the social and environmental costs of certain products. Besides, any company has the threat of court action to silence their critics as the cost in money, resources, energy and time to fight for free speech in court is an effective means to keep the public ignorant about the dark side of capitalism.

This works the other way too. Simply put, a company has no idea whether you not buying a product is based on ethical consumption decisions or whether it is due to simple dislike of the product. Unless there is an organised consumer boycott, i.e. a collective campaign, then the company really has no idea that it is being penalised for its anti-ecological and/or anti-social actions. Equally, corporations are so interlinked that it can make boycotts ineffective. For example, unless you happened to read the business section on the day McDonalds bought a sizeable share in Pret-a-Manger you would have no idea that going there instead of McDonalds would be swelling the formers profits.

Ultimately, the price mechanism does not provide enough information for the customer to make an informed decision about the impact of their purchase and, by reducing prices, actively rewards the behaviour Schlosser condemns. After all, what is now "organic" production was just the normal means of doing it. The pressures of the market, the price mechanism so often suggested as a tool for change, ensured the industrialisation of farming which so many now rightly condemn. By reducing costs, market demand increased for the cheaper products and these drove the other, more ecologically and socially sound, practices out of business.

Which feeds into the issue of effective demand and income limitations. The most obvious problem is that the market is not a consumer democracy as some people have more votes than others (in fact, the world's richest people have more "votes" than the poorest billions, combined!). Those with the most "votes" (i.e. money) will hardly be interested in changing the economic system which placed them in that position. Similarly, those with the least "votes" will be more willing to buy ecologically destructive products simply to make ends meet rather than any real desire to do so. In addition, one individual's decision not to buy something will easily be swamped by others seeking the best deal, i.e. the lowest prices, due to economic necessity or ignorance. Money (quantity) counts in the market, not values (quality).

Then there is the matter of sourcing of secondary products. After all, most products we consume are made up of a multitude of other goods and it is difficult, if not impossible, to know where these component parts come from. Thus we have no real way of knowing whether your latest computer has parts produced in sweatshops in third-world countries nor would a decision not to buy it be communicated that far back down the market chain (in fact, the company would not even know that you were even thinking about buying a product unless you used non-market means to inform them and then they may simply dismiss an individual as a crank).

So the notion that consumerism can be turned to pressurising companies is deeply flawed. This is not to suggest that we become unconcerned about how we spend our money. Far from it. Buying greener products rather than the standard one does have an impact. It just means being aware of the limitations of green consumerism, particularly as a means of changing the world. Rather, we must look to changing how goods are produced. This applies, of course, to shareholder democracy as well. Buying shares in a firm rarely results in an majority at the annual meetings nor, even if it did, does it allow an effective say in the day-to-day decisions management makes.

Thus green consumerism is hindered by the nature of the market -- how the market reduces everything to price and so hides the information required to make truly informed decisions on what to consume. Moreover, it is capable of being used to further ecological damage by the use of PR to paint a false picture of the companies and their environmental activities. In this way, the general public think things are improving while the underlying problems remain (and, perhaps, get worse). Even assuming companies are honest and do minimise their environmental damage they cannot face the fundamental cause of the ecological crisis in the "grow-or-die" principle of capitalism ("green" firms need to make profits, accumulate capital and grow bigger), nor do they address the pernicious role of advertising or the lack of public control over production and investment under capitalism. Hence it is a totally inadequate solution.

As green Sharon Beder notes, green marketing aims at "increasing consumption, not reducing it. Many firms [seek] to capitalise on new markets created by rising environmental consciousness" with such trends prompting "a surge of advertisements and labels claiming environmental benefits. Green imagery was used to sell products, and caring for the environment became a marketing strategy" and was a "way of redirecting a willingness to spend less into a willingness to buy green products." This means that firms can "expand their market share to include consumers that want green products. Since manufacturers still make environmentally damaging products and retailers still sell non-green products on shelves next to green ones, it is evident that green marketing is merely a way of expanding sales. If they were genuinely concerned to protect the environment they would replace the unsound products with sound ones, not just augment their existing lines." Moreover, green marketing "does not necessarily mean green products, but false and misleading claims can be hard for consumers to detect" while the "most cynical marketers simply use environmental imagery to conjure up the impression that a product is good for the environment without making any real claims at all." Ultimately, green consumerism "reduces people to consumers. Their power to influence society is reduced to their purchasing power." It "does not deal with issues such as economic growth on a finite planet, the power of transnational corporations, and the way power is structured in our society." [Global Spin, pp. 176-80]

Andrew Watson sums up green consumerism very eloquently as follows:

"green consumerism, which is largely a cynical attempt to maintain profit margins, does not challenge capital's eco-cidal accumulation, but actually facilitates it by opening a new market. All products, no matter how 'green', cause some pollution, use some resources and energy, and cause some ecological disturbance. This would not matter in a society in which production was rationally planned, but in an exponentially expanding economy, production, however 'green', would eventually destroy the Earth's environment. Ozone-friendly aerosols, for example, still use other harmful chemicals; create pollution in their manufacture, use and disposal; and use large amounts of resources and energy. Of course, up to now, the green pretensions of most companies have been exposed largely as presenting an acceptably green image, with little or no substance. The market is presented as the saviour of the environment. Environmental concern is commodified and transformed into ideological support for capitalism. Instead of raising awareness of the causes of the ecological crisis, green consumerism mystifies them. The solution is presented as an individual act rather than as the collective action of individuals struggling for social change. The corporations laugh all the way to the bank." [From Green to Red, pp. 9-10]

"Ethical" consumerism, like "ethical" investment, is still based on profit making, the extraction of surplus value from others. This is hardly "ethical," as it cannot challenge the inequality in exchange and power that lies at the heart of capitalism nor the authoritarian social relationships it creates. Therefore it cannot really undermine the ecologically destructive nature of capitalism.

In addition, since capitalism is a world system, companies can produce and sell their non-green and dangerous goods elsewhere. Many of the products and practices banned or boycotted in developed countries are sold and used in developing ones. For example, Agent Orange (used as to defoliate forests during the Vietnam War by the US) is used as an herbicide in the Third World, as is DDT. Agent Orange contains one of the most toxic compounds known to humanity and was responsible for thousands of deformed children in Vietnam. Ciba-Geigy continued to sell Enterovioform (a drug which caused blindness and paralysis in at least 10,000 Japanese users of it) in those countries that permitted it to do so. Many companies have moved to developing countries to escape the stricter pollution and labour laws in the developed countries.

Neither does green consumerism question why it should be the ruling elites within capitalism that decide what to produce and how to produce it. Since these elites are driven by profit considerations, if it is profitable to pollute, pollution will occur. Moreover, green consumerism does not challenge the (essential) capitalist principle of consumption for the sake of consumption, nor can it come to terms with the fact that "demand" is created, to a large degree, by "suppliers," specifically by advertising agencies that use a host of techniques to manipulate public tastes, as well as using their financial clout to ensure that "negative" (i.e. truthful) stories about companies' environmental records do not surface in the mainstream media.

Because ethical consumerism is based wholly on market solutions to the ecological crisis, it is incapable even of recognising a key root cause of that crisis, namely the atomising nature of capitalism and the social relationships it creates. Atomised individuals ("soloists") cannot change the world, and "voting" on the market hardly reduces their atomisation. As Murray Bookchin argues, "[t]ragically, these millions [of "soloists"] have surrendered their social power, indeed, their very personalities, to politicians and bureaucrats who live in a nexus of obedience and command in which they are normally expected to play subordinate roles. Yet this is precisely the immediate cause of the ecological crisis of our time -- a cause that has its historic roots in the market society that engulfs us." [Toward an Ecological Society, p. 81] This means that fighting ecological destruction today must be a social movement rather than one of individual consumption decisions or personalistic transformation. These can go on without questioning the ecocidal drive of capitalism which "will insidiously simplify the biosphere (making due allowances for 'wilderness' reserves and theme parks), steadily reduce the organic to the inorganic and the complex to the simple, and convert soil into sand -- all at the expense of the biosphere's integrity and viability. The state will still be an ever-present means for keeping oppressed people at bay and will 'manage' whatever crises emerge as best it can. Ultimately, society will tend to become more and more authoritarian, public life will atrophy." [Bookchin, "The Future of the Ecology Movement," pp. 1-20, Which Way for the Ecology Movement?, p. 14]

All this is not to suggest that individual decisions on what to consume are irrelevant, far from it. Nor are consumer boycotts a waste of time. If organised into mass movements and linked to workplace struggle they can be very effective. It is simply to point out that individual actions, important as they are, are no solution to social problems. Thus Bookchin:

"The fact is that we are confronted by a thoroughly irrational social system, not simply by predatory individuals who can be won over to ecological ideas by moral arguments, psychotherapy, or even the challenges of a troubled public to their products and behaviour . . . One can only commend the individuals who by virtue of their consumption habits, recycling activities. and appeals for a new sensibility undertake public activities to stop ecological degradation. Each surely does his or her part. But it will require a much greater effort -- and organised, clearly conscious, and forward-looking political movement -- to meet the basic challenges posed by our aggressively anti-ecological society.

"Yes, we as individuals should change our lifestyles as much as possible, but it is the utmost short-sightedness to believe that that is all or even primarily what we have to do. We need to restructure the entire society, even as we engage in lifestyle changes and single-issue struggles against pollution, nuclear power plants, the excessive use of fossil fuels, the destruction of soil, and so forth. We must have a coherent analysis of the deep-seated hierarchical relationships and systems of domination, as well as class relationships and economic exploitation, that degrade people as well as the environment." ["The Ecological Crisis, Socialism, and the need to remake society," pp. 1-10, Society and Nature, vol. 2, no. 3, p. 4]

Using the capitalist market to combat the effects produced by that same market is no alternative. Until capitalism and the state are dismantled, solutions like ethical consumerism will be about as effective as fighting a forest fire with a water pistol. Such solutions are doomed to failure because they promote individual responses to social problems, problems that by their very nature require collective action, and deal only with the symptoms, rather than focusing on the cause of the problem in the first place. Real change comes from collective struggle, not individual decisions within the market place which cannot combat the cancerous growth principle of the capitalist economy. As such, ethical consumerism does not break from the logic of capitalism and so is doomed to failure.