Every time you spend money, you cast a vote for the kind of society you want

Have you ever seen a thing and thought to yourself, “that thing there is both true and.. kind of disingenuous? Maybe a bit problematic?” Agreed with something while simultaneously thinking it’s fairly dodgy?

Take a look at this quote:

Every time you spend money, you're casting a vote for the kind of world you want

Yep. I can’t argue with the truth of the statement- the fact that our money does support the companies making the things that we pay for is not something that we can get away from. I’m generally in favour of people voting with their wallets. If my money goes toward a sustainable, local business that provides great working conditions from its employees and sources its products ethically? That’s obviously a hell of a lot better than that same money going towards a company that tears apart communities and environments.

But it’s a problematic statement to make, as well. Because- like more kinds of voting than most of us are comfortable admitting- voting with our wallets isn’t something that we can all do.

Can you afford to vote?

When I have money to spare, I buy ethically sourced products and try to be careful about where my money is going. I minimise the amount of my money that goes towards people that I know to be seriously unethical. It’s something that I keep in mind. I do my best.

But I can’t do it all the time.

It’s unavoidable that the people who are most screwed-over by our economic systems are those who are least able to exercise choice in what they spend their money on. If I’m completely broke, I don’t get to decide to spend my money on sustainable products. I need to eat and I need new socks and I get what I can afford. Yes, that means that sometimes I buy things made by people I know to be dodgy. Yes, I would prefer if it wasn’t so. But there’s not much I can do about it.

Except when there is.

Sometimes, of course, I’m not flat broke but I don’t have a massive amount of disposable income. Then I’m faced with only having the basics, all sourced ethically, or else getting some dodgy things and having money for little luxuries. That’s the choice. And a lot of the time, yes, I choose to take care of myself. Most people do.

I’ve heard a lot of people talk (often loudly) about how they only buy things that are organic, free-range, fair-trade, locally sourced, and all of the rest. I rarely hear that from someone who can’t afford not only their basics, but also the odd treat, that way. And yes, affordability is about time as much as it is about money. I can have cakes if I can buy them, or if I can bake them.

If I had enough disposable income to afford the things I need to keep going, the little luxuries that keep me happy, and to do so ethically, I’d do that. But if I have to make choices, then, well.. those choices will depend on a lot of factors. 

And I’m not sure those choices make as much of a difference as we tell ourselves they do.

What are we changing, really?

The idea that we should purchase ethically sourced and produced things from people who treat their workers well is a great one. And it definitely has the potential to make a certain amount of difference. But it’s not going to fix everything.

Not everyone can buy more expensive things that were produced ethically- the very system that makes it important leaves many of us without the resources to do it. When the problem is that people’s resources and work are being stolen from them or auctioned off for far less than they’re worth, are they really going to have much left over for buying things sold for what they are worth? Of course not. The cards are stacked against people from the beginning.

And it’s not going to fix things. Even if everybody in the world bought ethically sourced products from fantastic businesses all the time, we’d have, at best, a precariously balanced kind of good. We still have a system ripe for exploitation. One that would require constant vigilance on the part of, it seems, absolutely everybody in order for it to work to make a decent standard of living for everyone. Even a profoundly flawed system could work okay if everyone in it was decent, upstanding, good people who always work ethically towards the common good. But we don’t live in a world where that’ll happen, and we evidently don’t have a system that is robust enough to work with flawed people without leading to ridiculous exploitation.

Shaming

Oh, I love talking about shame, don’t I? Shame gets on my nerves. A kind of shaming that really gets on my nerves is where people who are privileged to have enough resources to regularly support ethically sourced products and businesses (yay!) seem to think that absolutely everyone has a moral obligation to do the same.

No.

The people who are most messed-around by a system are not those who have the greatest moral obligation to do something about it. They’re the people who often end up doing so, yeah. But that’s mainly because nobody else will.

But people- even people who aren’t in a great economic situation- have the right to make decent lives for ourselves. And blaming the worst-off people for a situation that is not of their making, because in some small way they don’t have much options but to contribute to it? That’s just not okay.

 

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Every time you spend money, you cast a vote for the kind of society you want
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9 thoughts on “Every time you spend money, you cast a vote for the kind of society you want

  1. 2

    Excellent piece Aoife. Something myself and my friend were actually discussing the other day. We’re both struggling financially, and we feel bad for shopping in certain supermarkets which don’t give farmers the best deal, but unfortunately, if we want to eat, we have to. It’s easy to have principles but generally speaking these have to go out the window when you can’t afford to have them.

  2. 3

    Yup. Yup yup yup.

    I also really dislike the hypocrisy associated with these sentiments a lot of time. Getting told off for shopping in Primark by someone who owns Nike or Tommy Hilfiger. Getting judged for drinking a Coke by someone who buys Nestle. The fact is – unless you take yourself off into the mountains to live exclusively off goats and root vegetables and weave your own clothes from hemp – at some point, your money is going to be going towards companies who are giving their workers a shit deal, or damaging the environment or running dodgy marketing campaigns with no regard for anything except more profits. Most the time there’s no way to tell where your money’s actually going, because well… http://www.upworthy.com/graphic-these-10-companies-own-so-much-they-even-own-this-graphic

    So then you have to ask, “If I disagree with the actions of a parent company, do I then boycott all the subsidiaries? Even though some of them might actually be operating fairly independently and doing good work for the communities they effect?”

    Like you said, for a lot of people, it’s not financially viable, but it’s also not practically viable. Time poverty is a real thing and decision making fatigue is something that disproportionately effects people with low incomes. Being rich is, in essence, the freedom to make fewer small survival decisions on a daily basis, thus freeing you up to think about the big issues. I often hear the line, “well, you should make your own toothpaste/grow your own vegetables/bake your own bread and then you’d be saving money as well as consuming ethically!” But if you’re working a sixty hour week to cover your rent, this just isn’t feasible. All these things take time and energy, not to mention resource gathering and the learning curve involved. It’s not just a money thing.

    All any of us can do is our best. Sometimes this means we can’t vote with our wallets, but we can agitate and write and sign petitions and raise awareness among those who can.

    1. 3.1

      This is a great comment. The concept of decision making fatigue is something I have to explain again and again to importers when they complain about regulations banning this or that substance and why should they have to worry about it can’t people just make these decisions themselves. I usually pick the most obscure of the banned substances and ask them what it does to the human body and where in their products it’s likely to be found. They look at me blankly. Then I ask how is a carpenter or an estate agent or a civil engineer supposed to know if the imoprter doesn’t know. I usually follow up by asking them how their drinking water is processed. (Which neither of us has a clue about). Then I ask would they rather have expert government health inspectors looking after the cleanliness of their drinking water or would they prefer to make those decisions themselves.

      tl;dr Regulations are created to reduce decision making fatigue and ensure that everyone gets the fairest deal possible.

  3. 4

    And it’s not going to fix things. Even if everybody in the world bought ethically sourced products from fantastic businesses all the time, we’d have, at best, a precariously balanced kind of good. We still have a system ripe for exploitation. One that would require constant vigilance on the part of, it seems, absolutely everybody in order for it to work to make a decent standard of living for everyone…. or standards for the industry could be introduced so government does the policing and we don’t have to ? … I live in a Utopian dream bubble

    Also I think the quote is also highlighting an issue with poor people.. ie if you are poor you have less votes and less of a say on what you can buy… that is how I see it anyways

  4. 7

    […] “The people who are most messed-around by a system are not those who have the greatest moral obligation to do something about it. They’re the people who often end up doing so, yeah. But that’s mainly because nobody else will. But people- even people who aren’t in a great economic situation- have the right to make decent lives for ourselves. And blaming the worst-off people for a situation that is not of their making, because in some small way they don’t have much options but to contribute to it? That’s just not okay.” Every time you spend money, you cast a vote for the kind of society you want – Consider the Te… […]

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