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Are We Shopping Our Way To Powerlessness?

Are We Shopping Our Way To Powerlessness?

“To credit these corporations with being ‘socially responsible' is to stretch the term to mean anything a company might do to increase profits."
- Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor

November 17, 2007 —

In the last decade, American consumers have become increasingly concerned with the ethical ramifications of their purchasing decisions and business has responded with a near universal dedication to so-called "Corporate Social Responsibility." The age of ethical buying and selling has most certainly dawned, but will market trends alone be enough to stem the tide of global warming or make free trade? Two recent books on the subject say no.

In Shopping Our Way to Safety, sociology professor Andrew Szasz argues that the new emphasis on market based solutions to environmental problems allows consumers to isolate themselves in a bubble of good feelings and self-preservation at the expense of social activism. Global warming is, after all, an eminent threat to all life on this planet, and it will take more than gradual, voluntary shifts in the way we do business to achieve significant results. Policy victories, diplomacy, and public awareness must play an integral role if we are to dramatically cut carbon emissions in the near future.

Former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, feels the same way about corporate America's sudden benevolence. In his latest book, Supercapitalism, Rubin argues that money has surpassed democracy as our principle means of social reform. For Rubin, Corporate Social Responsibility not only takes power out of the hands of voters and political leaders, it is also usually duplicitous. Most companies are more interested in "greenwashing" their images than in environmentalism, and they would prefer to move toward it at their own pace rather than one set by government regulators.

Do these arguments mean that ethical shopping is somehow wrong or counterproductive? Readers will have to decide for themselves, but the answer is almost certainly no. What everyone can take from these authors is that politics are becoming more about shopping and less about voting, and for all but the most hardline capitalists, this is most certainly a bad thing. But it doesn't mean that market-based solutions don't have their place, it just means that they shouldn't be the only recourse for the outraged citizen.


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