Use Caution on the Slippery Slope of Activist Consumerism
By Joanne Costello at Apr 10, 2010
I was recently introduced to the DoGooder browser plug-in which replaces generic advertising on the Internet with campaigns related to green initiatives and social causes. DoGood Headquarters then donates 50% of the profits earned from said campaigns to environmental movements, charitable foundations and non-profit organizations.
Faisal Sethi, Head DoGooder and Co-Founder of DoGood Headquarters, claims that "The DoGooder encourages people to transition from social and consumer pacifists to social and consumer activists. Not only can individuals support good causes on a daily basis with zero effort, they also can learn about social and environmental issues, receive tips on sustainable living, and ultimately have complete control over what, when, where, and how they consume online advertising."
I've downloaded the plug-in and my experience so far has been relatively good. I appreciate having mainstream advertisements blocked. Interesting facts and statistics are provided and link to relevant articles and organizations. For instance, the statistic that "33% of personal care products contain at least one chemical linked to cancer" links to a related article on natural skin care.
I am, however, less than impressed with the aw-shucks life advice on doing good, such as: "old denim jeans can make a good skirt" and "sheltering a homeless kitty cat is a pretty good idea." Moreover some of the life advice is questionable. Given the exploitation of women and workers' unpaid labour, there are many legitimate challenges to the idea that it is good to donate your time.
The organizations and causes promoted by DoGood may have fundamentally different analyses of social and environmental issues. Indeed, the DoGood Headquarters seems to suggest that partnership is available to any group who believes that they are "doing good."
So, while I am enjoying the plug-in, I am concerned about the dangers of the slippery slope of "activist consumerism." Certainly, I cringe as I imagine Calgary's so-called "eco-celebrities" salivating over DoGood as a new green trend and medium for marketing their businesses.
While anti-capitalists have promoted conscious consumption, greenwashed capitalists are eager to capitalize on the rhetorical and symbolic power of social movements to promote products. The result is the strengthening of existing power structures through shallow, lifestyle activism that makes for profitable niche markets.
In his discussion and analysis of Heartfield's book "Green Capitalism," Frank Furedi writes,
The strength of Heartfield's Green Capitalism is its critique of green consumerism. In a well-argued section, Heartfield argues that the outward expression of anti-consumerism tends to coexist with a new obsessive fixation on the act of consumption. So although green consumerism appears to represent a rejection of materialism, in practice it is no less preoccupied with buying things than are those brand junkies chasing the latest fashionable product. Arguably, as Heartfield implies, shopping means more to green consumers than it does to the shallow brand-fixated consumers they so despise. For a start, green consumers imagine that their purchases are meaningful ethical acts. ‘Ethical shopping flatters us that our everyday buying is doing good’, argues Heartfield. Such ethical transactions represent a form of ‘status affirmation’. And as is the case with all forms of status affirmation, these green shopping habits are acts of social demarcation. Through adopting the identity of an ethical shopper, someone who cares and who reflects on what they purchase, green consumers are self-consciously marking themselves off from their moral, and incidentally their social, inferiors. Their denunciation of their fellow human beings who wear trashy throwaway cheap clothes and eat cheap food is a modern-day version of the paternalistic lectures made by Victorian do-gooders.
Ironically, green protest against consumerism doesn’t represent the rejection of consumption, but rather its moralisation. From a sociological perspective, green consumption can be seen as a new form of conspicuous consumption. This is consumption for effect. Consumption apparently must no longer be an impulsive act of buying – rather it has become a massively over-examined experience, and both a moral statement and an affirmation of status and identity. In the nineteenth century, theories of commodity fetishism noted the growing tendency for people to live through things – commodities appeared to acquire a life of their own through the working of the market. In the world of green consumerism, the fetish of commodities acquires an unprecedented significance. Things are assigned human and ethical significance. Thus we have the stigmatisation of certain foods as ‘evil’ and the rendering of other products as ‘ethical’.
James Heartfield does an excellent job of alerting us to the importance of the economic reorganisation that is taking place under the environmentalist imperative. But it is far from clear to what extent this process represents a new dynamic towards the construction of scarcity. It is useful to recall that capitalism is continually reorganising its method of production and the way it relates to the market. Frequently it undermines what it achieved in the past, but through an act of ‘creative destruction’ it tries to restore profitability and guarantee itself a new phase of accumulation. Paradoxically, it may well be that green ethics will provide the market with unprecedented opportunities to expand consumption through the creation of new demands that are harmonious with the status-conscious but very conspicuous and ethically-addicted consumer.
I like you DoGood. Please figure out a way to save yourself from turning into a wolf in sweatshop-free clothing.