Don’t give up on doing good.

What to do about capitalism?

From the environment to governance, we’re starting to see what happens when you let inequalities and externalities run amok, and many of us are not pleased. Last year, a Harvard University study was released which found evidence that over half of millennials don’t support capitalism. The study was held up as proof of the system’s failings by many who want to do away with capitalism. More nuanced interpretations suggested that millennials do support capitalism, but want to reform how it works. Plenty of millennials are now actively speaking to the idea of “conscious capitalism”, and building businesses they believe can be a part of the shift. From B-corps to ESG investing to sustainable SCM, old tools like fair trade seem passé compared to the social innovation we’re seeing in business today.

Which gets us precisely to Newton’s Third Law. The critique against the movement has arrived. A recent op-ed in Quartz from self-proclaimed “sustainable lifestyle blogger” Alden Wicker explained to readers that “Conscious consumerism is a lie.” The crux of her argument is this:

Making a series of small, ethical purchasing decisions while ignoring the structural incentives for companies’ unsustainable business models won’t change the world as quickly as we want. It just makes us feel better about ourselves.

In a sense, she’s not wrong. There’s some amount of delusion that goes into thinking that your purchase of one sustainably produced t-shirt is going to make a dent in the climate change problem. But framing consumer decision-making as this simplistic and naive is not only insulting, it’s also dangerous.

One of the main reasons that Wicker’s argument is correct is that the current choices that most corporations give us aren’t truly sustainable, but to jump to the conclusion that sustainability is impossible within a capitalist system seems premature and unjust. There are, in fact, technological innovations that are surely moving us towards sustainability (think Tesla), and, frankly, telling consumers that their purchasing choices don’t matter outright undermines the efficacy of those technological interventions and their ability to scale.

When we say that consumer choices don’t matter, what we’re saying is that there isn’t value in consumer activism. History, both recent and not, would tell us otherwise. In her book, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, Lizabeth Cohen (coauthor of the famous history textbook, The American Pageant) outlines many cases of citizens, primarily women and African Americans, using consumer activism as a key political tool in the postwar era. For example, “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns in Chicago directly resulted in many companies hiring black employees for the first time, including Woolworth’s, Sears, Roebuck, A&P, and Walgreens Drugs.

Consumer activism lives on in the 21st century. This year we’ve already seen Wells Fargo lose over $3 billion in investments from the cities of Seattle and Davis, CA in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock. We’ve also seen Uber CEO Travis Kalanick step down from Donald Trump’s advisory council after pressure from a consumer boycott.

Aside from being unfounded, undermining consumer choice is dangerous because it demoralizes and disengages people in a place where they already feel (and, admittedly, often are) without a lot of power. From a purely strategic standpoint, demoralizing and disengaging is the last thing you want to do if you’d like people to help you solve a challenging societal problem. Wicker attempts to amend her cynical viewpoint by offering up ideas for interventions that are *just as easy as purchasing green!*, but they’re not necessarily that easy — it’s up for debate, but I might argue that changing federal policy is a lot harder than making a purchase decision at the grocery store.

Whether we like it or not, it’s important to remember that in a capitalist society it is remarkably difficult to move big levers (like federal policy) unless the economic incentives align. Some believe that the burden for economic proof is part of the problem, but it’s assuredly part of the reality. Fortunately for consumers, their collective action is one of the best tools for making these economic incentives align, because consumer behavior is one of the main ways that corporations predict economic opportunity.

Of course, part of the cynicism and part of the critique comes from being let down. As with Kashi or Volkswagen, it’s not uncommon to be excited about the social mission of a brand only to find that they’ve fallen short on their promises or outright lied to consumers. One of the most recent examples of this type of betrayal came from Miki Agrawal and her allegedly feminist period underwear company THINX. Both the THINX brand and Agrawal’s personal brand were so deeply built around the ideas of feminism that both quickly grew a zealous following of young progressive women, but last month Racked drew back the curtain on Agrawal’s decidedly un-feminist workplace policies and practices. It started with low-pay for female employees and subpar maternity leave, though the claims against Agrawal have only gotten worse.

It’s important that we call out business leaders and their businesses when they fall short of their social promises, partly because their deceptions and shortcomings hurt the viability of all social enterprise. Though when we let the failure of one business stand as proof that social business can’t ever work we ourselves become complicit in making conscious capitalism unviable. It begs the question, what is the outcome we are really hoping for? The THINX drama is so disheartening is because it undermines the legitimacy of the type of female driven businesses we want to see in the world. It is a good thing that the press is looking deeply into what’s happening at THINX, and it is a good thing that they are shedding light on the missteps they’ve taken, but to use the scandal as a way to altogether write off the possibility of functional, feminist, female-run businesses is to hurt our own cause. There are plenty of women doing great work supporting other females in plenty of industries, but there’s also plenty of criticism.

Take Sarah Ngu’s critique in Jacobin Magazine, which argues that, “the ethical failings of the socially conscious company THINX point to the inherent pitfalls of ‘benevolent’ capitalism.” Many of the questions Ngu raised are extremely important and need to be deeply examined — How do we make workplaces personally fulfilling when there are inherent power dynamics? How do you negotiate pay when you’re in a cause-based work environment? — but we need space, time, experimentation, and discourse to answer these questions.

To say that these hard questions can’t be answered is to put us in a very grim place. It can be easy to criticize the movement to make capitalism more responsive to our shared values and shared needs, but when we take the movement off the table what options are we left with? From what I can tell, the only other two options that have really been given are a) completely unconscious and actually exploitative and extractive capitalism, or b) communism. To be explicit, option a is not an option I am here to discuss, and if we keep it up the rest of humanity won’t be here for it either. As for option b, there are some people who are willing to speak about what we can learn from communism, but political feasibility of that option in the United States (and much of the rest of world) is way lower than for conscious capitalism. Besides, there’s plenty of evidence that communism can be just as if not more exploitative than capitalism.

Of course the current system, even inclusive of conscious capitalism, has its fair share of challenges. One of the biggest problems might be how to move sustainable choices from premium to mass market. Jennifer Jacquet explains the problem in her book, Is Shame Necessary?:

Markets might even undermine norms for more serious environmental behavior… The rest of the industry can continue to use pesticides, or unfair trade, or destructive fishing gear — and sell those products at lower prices. The next steps — rules to change an entire industry — are missing. This is all implicitly part of the plan, because the main incentive for producers to do the right thing — like grow organic foods or fish in sustainable ways — is a higher price for their product. To get a price premium, those products have to be the exception and not the rule, which means the market could ease the consciences of a few consumers but avoids making any imposed, long-lasting changes to the industry.

This is a problem that likely won’t be solved from one side of the equation. Yes, ethical and sustainable production is often expensive, but that doesn’t have to be the case for all eternity. Production costs are often an outcome of the systemic choices we’ve made in the past. For example, we’re now living in a world where renewable energies are becoming cheaper than fossil fuels. Meanwhile, more and more research is showing that supporting women in the workplace can help drive profits.

The challenges and hiccups of building an economic system that is ethical, conscious, and responsive to our values and needs can be daunting. These are the kinds of things we should be discussing and debating and trying to solve, rather than writing off because they’re hard or haven’t been solved yet. Perhaps at the end of the day we’ll find that conscious capitalism doesn’t actually work, but do we really want to make that assumption prematurely? Do we really want to get in the way of our own efforts to make it work? Please don’t stop critiquing, and please don’t stop asking hard questions, but unless you have a tractable and comprehensive alternative solution, please don’t kill this movement with your cynicism.