“...it’s the consumers that actually burn and demand the fossil fuels that these companies provide. The companies may have some responsibility for their product...but some responsibility ought to fall on individuals, households, and corporations"
-Richard Heed, Co-director of the Climate Accountability Institute
How much influence does a consumer have?
We run our lives on phones made possible by forced mineral mining labor. We’re served plates piled high with the ghost of animal cries, half of which we may toss in the trash. We’re made mobile by cars that bleed our neighbor’s land of oil and belch plumes of CO2.
It’s not great, but are we individual consumers really responsible for bringing change? Or does the oneness fall on the companies who sold us goods from suffering?
Is it a company’s responsibility to make “MOGO” products—products that do the MOST GOOD and cause the least harm for the planet and the beings who share it—or is it our responsibility as consumers to demand MOGO products with our buying behaviors?
While many people believe we should hold companies accountable, it seems not all individuals feel a sense of responsibility or think their actions have impacts, or maybe just aren’t convinced that the consumer voice is powerful enough to cause change. So let’s take a deeper look into how consumers do make an impact, and therefore have responsibility.
Your dollar vote actually matters
As Zoe Weill says in her TED Talk on Solutionaries (<— recommend), every time you buy a product, your dollar tells the company that crafted it to “do it again.” Whether you’re saying “pollute again!,” ''chop down again,” “kill again?,” or “exploit again”…your dollar vote supports whatever means got the product into your hands.
Perhaps the term dollar vote is getting a bit oversaturated, but might your dollar vote—at times—be more powerful than your vote vote when it comes to influencing matters of human rights, animal protection, and environmental sustainability?
Here’s an example from the dairy industry that makes me think your dollar vote can be more important than your actual vote…
The dairy industry subjects cows to forcible impregnation, separation from their babies who are often sent to slaughter, and nasty mastitis. The dairy industry also subjects farmers to low wages and long hours and exposes the public to antibiotic resistance and gastrointestinal issues. It pumps methane into the atmosphere. Basically, it’s not a great situation for animals, people, or the planet and–when pressed on it–consumers may realize the industry uses practices that they don’t want to support.
Good news: change is happening. According to Mintel research, non-dairy milk sales increased 61% over a five-year period (from 2012-2017...and I imagine the upward trend continues). During the same period, dairy milk sales decreased 15%. Decreased dairy sales leads to less dairy production and fewer practices that harm animals, people, and the environment. And what accomplished this? Consumers are purchasing more alternatives
Could this decrease have been accomplished through literal voting? Consider that the dairy industry has a long history of government subsidization. In reciprocity, the dairy industry donates to congressmen and women who vote in favor of dairy in bills like the DAIRY PRIDE Act, which stops plant-based alternatives from using the term “dairy” for fear of misleading customers.
"If it's not milk, don't call it milk. Same goes for yogurt, butter and cheese. Only real dairy products from actual dairy animals deliver key nutrients and are held to extremely high FDA standards. Idaho's dairy farmers are rightfully proud of their high-quality dairy products. It's only fair that dairy terms be reserved for genuine dairy products," said Sen. Risch
According to Open Secrets, Sen Risch has received $10,345 from the dairy industry. In fact, individuals and PACs associated with the dairy industry made $5.1 million in federal contributions during the 2020 election cycle. This is tough for individual voters to compete with, even if the opportunity to vote on dairy industry policy made it to our dockets (which it doesn’t). But don’t fret because voting on the matter is making it to a grocery store near you!
The point of this whole dairy tangent: sometimes your dollar vote has a higher spending power than your regular vote.
*I’m not advocating that you don’t also vote vote. Like, use everything you got, right?
**If you’re saying, “what about the dairy farmers you’re voting out of a job?!” Right on, these are humans we need to think about, too. But consider this short op ed exploring shifting roles in agriculture.
If you be the chicken, they’ll be the egg
...so to speak
Marketers influence consumers to buy products. Consumers influence the products that businesses make. It’s a two-way feedback loop! Your purchases, posts, reviews, and complaints are primary research for business and marketing teams scheming up their next best sellers. When you use these tools, it’s like reverse-marketing and it puts you the consumer in the driver’s seat.
When consumers nudge companies to keep up with the times, companies spend time and resources innovating and adopting. They create green technology, they pay employees better wages, they stop using products made out of chinchillas, or do whatever they were or were not doing that got them boycotted or on viral twitter. If consumers aren’t demanding kinder (potentially slower, more expensive) products, why the hell would companies go to the trouble of making them? Even if there are well-meaning change makers on the inside of companies, the corporate mentality may be “if not broken, don’t fix.”
To come back to my ironic metaphor, instead of playing the what-comes-first game, consumers should just call themselves the chicken and start laying down some higher standards.
The nefarious side of consumer responsibility
Businesses and the capitalist economy did have a heavy hand in shaping consumer culture. They also helped shape the idea that a product’s disposal and associated emissions are a customer’s responsibility. For example, learn about the Coca Cola-endorsed PR campaign that passed the responsibility of managing prolific amounts of plastic bottles to consumers. Ick.
Another example is the creation of the concept of an individual “footprint”—especially as it relates to carbon—as a method to shift the blame from producer to consumer. The term “carbon footprint” was actually coined by BP (British Petroleum), here is an origin story.
Thankfully, organizations like The Corporate Accountability Lab are holding companies accountable for their impact on the planet and people (where the animals though, y’all?). Still, a culture is made up of individuals who can take responsibility for their individual and collective impact without absolving companies. In a VOX interview specifically about consumer impact on climate change and renewable energy, co-founder and co-director of the Climate Accountability Institute Richard Heed says,
“...it’s the consumers that actually burn and demand the fossil fuels that these companies provide. The companies may have some responsibility for their product — for lobbying in favor of the carbon economy, and for getting subsidies and arguing for subsidies — but some responsibility ought to fall on individuals, households, and corporations. What the companies do is produce the fuels, extract and market the fuels, so that we can use them.”
And while that may seem like it lets companies off the hook, it’s true. No one is going to extract fuels that there’s no demand for. No one is going to kill animals whose carcasses won’t sell. No one is going to exploit mining labor if the materials extracted aren’t desired.
I feel like I teased that last point out longer than necessary. Like, you get it and I don’t mean to insult your intelligence I just really want to illustrate all the ways we’re giving feedback with our everyday lives.
Takeaway action for consumers
Companies should be responsible for creating and marketing MOGO products, and consumers need to be responsible for encouraging them to do so. Let’s hold companies accountable for the harm their products do to the environment, to people, and to animals. The best way to do this is to speak their love language: money <3 $ <3
Think about your transactions as a conversation about what we want our society to value…and choose your words wisely.
Check out some suggestions for the best ways to do that over on the consumer considerations page.
And I hardly touched government and regulator roles here, but “conscious government” just doesn’t have the alliteration I’m going for and whenever someone tries to spell that plan out it just goes all Animal Farm on everyone. I’ll let someone else pick up that thread, thank you.
What do you think?
Does it seem right to hold consumers accountable? How else might we move companies to do more good and less harm? Share your thoughts below.