Does Voting With Your Wallet Work?

It may not change the world; do it anyway

K M Brown
K M Brown
Oct 29, 2019 · 8 min read

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. ~ Excerpt from the “Paradoxical Commandments of Leadership” by Kent M. Keith, frequently misattributed to Mother Teresa

Voting with your wallet (VWYW) is the practice of spending in a way that is consistent with your values. If you don’t like the way Amazon treats its warehouse workers, as an example, you can stop giving Amazon your money. If you don’t like the way your leftovers are being enveloped in Styrofoam at one restaurant, you can quit eating there and start frequenting the ones that use cardboard instead. If you don’t like the way animals are brutalized by factory farms, you can stop enriching the people who run those operations by not buying their meat.

VWYW is one way to put your money where your mouth is. It allows you to embody your principles, and that has value in and of itself. But implicit in the VWYW movement is the hope that withholding support for unethical practices will encourage business owners to change them. At times, it seems to have that effect.

For example, shortly after a consumer boycott brought attention to the conditions under which Ivanka Trump’s clothing line was being produced, she pulled it off the market (or said she did, who knows?). In this case, withdrawing support for sweatshop labor seems to have made a difference.

However, Caille Millner, writing for the SFChronicle, doubted the power of VWYW in this case. She pointed her finger at what she saw as a likelier cause of the brand’s demise — the clothes Trump sold were shit-styles, anyway (I’m paraphrasing). That’s more in line with the thinking of Paris Marx, who says the narrative of consumers driving the marketplace with their actions is “a great myth.”

…it’s not the way the economy really works. Not only is the economy not a democracy, but your individual purchasing decisions mean next to nothing in the big scheme of things — unless you’re a billionaire (or very close to it). Paris Marx in A Dollar is Not a Vote

Marx is right when he says our individual purchasing decisions mean next-to-nothing in the big scheme of things. But then, if you think about it, neither do any of our other decisions.

Whether you marry or not, buy a house or not, have children or not, none of that means squat in the big picture. You’re just one person. Your life choices aren’t going to make or break the system.

But that’s no reason to throw up your hands and withdraw into nihilism. Even if your actions have no meaning in the big picture, they’re absolutely oozing with meaning in the personal realm.

Marx contrasts voting with your dollars to voting at the polls by saying that at least at the polls, it’s one person, one vote. The same can’t be said for VWYW practices when some of us have lots of dollars to vote with and some, only a few.

I see the wisdom in that perspective. When people don’t have the weight of a bulging designer wallet to throw around, their influence on the marketplace is small.

I know a little about how that feels. As a resident of Atlanta, sometimes described as a blue island in an ocean of red, I knew my vote for Hillary Clinton wasn’t going to “count.” It was going to disappear into the morass of the electoral college and be transformed by that system into a vote for Donald Trump.

I voted anyway.

A lot of people didn’t. Many of them probably justified their inaction by saying that their vote wouldn’t count. Washington is corrupt; all politicians are only out to line their own pockets; nothing ever changes, no matter who’s in charge. Not to mention that electoral college thing. Why bother to take a stand?

I took a stand, anyway. I took a stand because it felt like the right thing to do, no matter the outcome. I voted so I could be a participant in the democratic process (such as it is). I voted so I could throw my support toward the first female nominee of a major political party (Yay, us!).

It felt sweet AF, too, for a few hours. Until the nausea set in.

No, my vote didn’t change the world. It didn’t mean Clinton emerged as a winner that election day. But it meant that I did.

It’s disempowering to be told that our choices don’t matter. So why do some people opt so energetically to do just that?

I can think of a couple of reasons.

I was at dinner with a friend recently and at the end of our meal, she asked for a to-go container for her leftovers. When she was handed a Styrofoam clamshell, she snapped, “You guys need to stop using Styrofoam. It’s bad for the environment.”

Yes, they do. And yes, it is. But it’s also ridiculously easy to carry your own container from home in with you when you go out to eat. And it’s easy to tell the restaurant’s proprietor that you won’t be back because of their choices. It’s easy to find another place to eat.

It’s unlikely that my friend will make those choices, though. And Sarah Mock, ag writer extraordinaire, says that’s why the VWYW movement won’t work — people can’t or won’t “shop ethically.” She’d like to shift responsibility for making the hard choices from consumers onto business.

…reassigning responsibility to consumers, or any other group, is a great way for companies to wash their hands of guilt. “We’re just giving people what they want,” is a great excuse, because the subtext is, “We don’t have a choice.” But food companies do have a choice. They could cut their marketing budgets and pay for more ethical farm practices. They could raise the price of fruits and vegetables flown in from overseas to accurately reflect the cost of cleaning up the carbon emission from jet travel. They could get smaller, allow for greater competition in the food space, stop buying up every upstart food company that in anyway threatens their existing products, and let a really free, competitive market reign that allows innovation to bloom. They could make those choices, but they don’t. (Not to mention that research on how much food purchasing is driven by packaging, labels, and even placement in stores illustrates that companies have an incredible amount of control over “what we want” anyways, and it’s almost always the products that make the most profit.) Buying into the “consumers are responsible” narrative just reinforces their fictional lack of agency, and somehow gets you to pay them more. ~ Sarah Mock in Stop Trying to Vote with Your Fork

All reasonable assertions. But now, let’s flip that script.

Reassigning responsibility to businesses is a great way for individuals to wash their hands of guilt. “We’re just buying what they give us,” is a great excuse, because the subtext is, “We don’t have a choice.” But we do have a choice. We could vote with our wallets. We could pare down our clothing budget (one of the ways we “market” our desirability) and use the savings to pay for more ethically-produced food. We could buy local to reduce the cost of cleaning up the carbon emission from jet travel. We could live smaller instead of buying up every consumer good we think will make us happier, more comfortable, and better entertained because a part of us knows that’s never going to work anyway. Buying less would put us in a more competitive and secure position.

We could make those choices, but we don’t. We have an incredible amount of control over what we buy, and we can make good choices. Buying into the “companies are responsible” narrative just reinforces our fictional lack of agency, and somehow gets us to keep paying them for crap when we could be voting with our dollars instead.

Is the second version any less true? And if we can change the world with our buying choice, why don’t we do it?

I have a friend whose cognitive dissonance gets triggered by my vegetarianism. A part of him knows that eating meat is not the kindest choice he could make but he badly wants to see himself as a kind man. So he works hard to defend his actions when he’s with me even though I’m not trying to get him to change.

We’ll be talking over breakfast and he’ll say something like, “Pass the bacon. I need plenty of protein to make sure my brain can retain memories as I age” or some kind of bullshit like that. And even though I want to ask him if he’s read any of the research that points toward processed meat’s contribution to all kinds of age-related diseases, I don’t. I just smile and say something non-committal, like, “Um-hmm.”

And recently, he said, “You know, if everyone went vegan, cattle would go extinct. Did you ever think of that?”

And I wanted to say, “Yes, I’ve thought of that. In fact, I’m the one who fed you that line hoping it could help you quit being so defensive about your choices.”

But he doesn’t remember our previous conversation, apparently. So even though I want to say, “I guess all the protein you’re eating isn’t helping your memory as much as you thought it would, now is it?” I don’t.

And even though I want to say, “If cows go extinct,” maybe the planet will recover, and some of the other species, like say, human beings, will actually survive the coming shit-storm. Did you ever think of that?”

But I don’t say that either. I just smile and say “Um-hmm.”

I know vegetarians and vegans have a reputation for being strident and some of that is deserved. But from my experience, most of the voices you hear that tell you how horrible you are for eating meat aren’t coming from me. They’re coming from you.

I’m not trying to shame you. You’re just ashamed.

A part of you knows how much brutality you’re supporting with your purchases. Only you can decide what to do about that. And you do have the power. You can VWYW.

See how nasty I sound? I’ve written elsewhere about my struggle with judging people who have different viewpoints. It’s the painful world that eggs me on.

I don’t so much feel the need to defend myself and my choices as I feel called to defend the defenseless. I want to defend the rabbits who are being blinded in cosmetics research and the piglets who are torn from their mothers’ teats. I want to defend the overfished oceans and the baby albatross, choking down microplastics from its mother’s beak. That shit makes me crazy.

And since it’s so painful to see, I want to strike out. And when I do, I risk hurting someone who might be just as vulnerable as the little lambs I want to shield from the butcher’s knife. I could hurt a person. Then how can I call myself kind?

I’ll keep voting with my wallet. But I want to get better at voting with my words, too. When the world hurts me, I’m going to try saying “Ouch” instead of swinging wildly, making things worse and worse.

It may not change the world. But I’m going to do it anyway.

Photo by Sandrachile . on Unsplash

The Conscious Dollar

Reflections on the impact of mindful awareness on earning, spending, saving, and investing.

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