New Internationalist

Argument: Can shopping be a form of activism?

June 2013

Neal Lawson and Ruth Potts, both campaigners and writers, go head-to-head.

shopping trolley [Related Image]
Rick Harris under a Creative Commons Licence

Every month we invite two experts to debate, and then invite you to join the conversation online.

Neal

Shopping is a form of activism – the issue is, is it effective? As an anti-consumer Leftie I’m suspicious about consumer activism – isn’t buying stuff still oiling the wheels of the industrial consumer complex, even if you’re buying the most ethical products? But let me explain why we can’t ignore it as a basis for some activism.

NEAL LAWSON is Chair of the good society group Compass and the author of All Consuming (Penguin, 2009). He serves on the boards of UK Feminista and We Own It, is a contributing editor to the journal Renewal and is an associate member at the Bauman Institute at Leeds University.

We can’t because we live in a consumer society – shopping isn’t all we do but it’s the prime way in which we are now socialized. We used to live in a producer society where work defined us – our identity, character and social place. If consumption now plays this dominant role, then shops have to be a site not just of oppression but resistance – because they are the prime site of life. The media no longer covers industrial action, but it will cover boycotts of Starbucks over tax avoidance or resistance to workfare at Poundland.

I know I’m stretching the definition of shopping here to shops as a site of struggle, but even if we take ethical consuming I think the potential for action and influence is huge. The supermarkets in particular are enormously vulnerable to large numbers of consumers switching shops, not just because of their business model, but also because of the reputational damage of boycotts. The internet and social media put at least some power back into the shopper’s basket. If this could be mobilized effectively, then the influence on what and how companies sell could be huge. It’s not a game changer, but for many people it could be the start of further action and education.

Ruth

My concern with shopping as activism is not just that it oils the wheels of the consumer industrial complex. It matters, of course, but it leaves our relationship with ‘stuff’, and with one another, fundamentally unchanged.

Shopping is the prime way that we’re socialized, and that is exactly why it is not enough to withdraw selectively our consent. The US activist Angela Davis said that radical means ‘grasping things at the root’. Getting to the root of consumer culture, I believe, means transforming our relationship with stuff.

RUTH POTTS is a co-founder of the radical co-operative bread, print & roses, and of the eco-feminist collective, the Hoydens. She is a co-author of The New Materialism, has an MA in Economics for Transition from Schumacher College, ran communications and campaigns for the New Economics Foundation, and helped to organize and launch the Green New Deal

Consumer culture has made our relationship with things (and services) passive, debt-fuelled, wasteful and ultimately unsatisfying. It doesn’t have to be that way. Instead, a ‘new materialism’ in which we develop an active, pleasurable and more respectful relationship with objects by making, re-making and caring for the things we have has the potential to transform us from passive consumers into active creators of the world.

Change our relationship with stuff, and we see how much else might change too.

Theatrical boycotts of tax-avoiding corporations like Starbucks have not just been about the withdrawal of consumer consent: from homemade banners, to community kitchens, crèches and makeshift schools, protest has been as much about a return to ‘making’ as an opposition to ‘shopping’.

The site of protest may have been consumer culture, but the mode has been to demonstrate just how much we can do when we produce the world together and how exciting that can be.

Neal

What I find interesting is the lack of debate about whether work matters as a site of struggle. Of course it does, but no longer decisively.

Let’s explore the depth of our relationship to ‘stuff ’ and what we do about it. Consumption’s grip on us, our identities and culture is simply awesome and we are just at the foothills of it. One definition of the word ‘totalitarian’ is ‘exercising control over the freedom, will or thought of others’. That feels like a good description of consumer society to me – oppression not by the Nazi jackboot of fear and force but the Gucci boot of cunning seduction.

Consumer culture has made our relationship with things (and services) passive, debt-fuelled, wasteful and ultimately unsatisfying. It doesn’t have to be that way – Ruth

So what do we do? A strategy of ‘in and against’ is the most apt. We have to occupy and contest the cultural sites of domination and pose an alternative. To do this we have to offer a variety of different ways in which people can resist and prefigure. Here, you may be in danger of underestimating the power of withdrawal. According to market-research firm YouGov, 14 million people in Britain would switch bank accounts if it became easier. And it’s just about to get easier. The implications for finance could be huge. But we need to do much more. We have to reduce the level at which we consume – the quantity, and not just the quality, of our shopping.

Ruth

Of course switching is important, but it matters what to. On banking and energy for example, moveyourmoney.org and edfoff.org offer transformative alternatives. Perhaps posing a vibrant alternative means focusing on how very much we have to gain by shopping less and making and sharing more? A different relationship with stuff is already emerging in the space created by the necessity and flux of current crises. This is not reclaiming production as a return to some bucolic fantasy. It is about the potential for a richer, more engaged, life for all, now.

In Britain, to give just one example, Cultivate London takes over abandoned land, setting up urban farms that provide training for, and will eventually be run by, young people who are not in employment or education. These are skills that can’t be taken away, and there will be plenty of need for them as high oil prices make imported food ever more expensive.

Anthony Collins/Alamy
Action on Starbucks: Consumer power or homemade protest? Anthony Collins/Alamy

Buying nothing designed to last less than 10 years; developing high-street making and mending hubs; investing in skills training and sharing the skills we already have: all of these deliver multiple benefits. They reduce the amount we consume, create ample skilled employment, support lifelong learning (which increases life satisfaction and longevity – so-called ‘happy life years’), and promote the intrinsic values that decades of psychological research tell us are more likely to mean that we engage in altruistic, communitarian behaviour.

It is not about denial, but rather about constant reinvention of the stuff we have as lifelong companions rather than as cheap, disposable dates. In the words of economist Herman Daly, it is an economy of better, not more.

Neal

That feels like a really rich and practical agenda. The heart of all this seems to be valuing both our own lives and the things we have around us. We tend not to die wishing we had another new washing machine, but to have had more time to be with the people we love, doing the things that we love and creating lasting beauty. Buying crap that becomes physically or emotionally obsolete before the credit card is paid off isn’t such a great deal.

I’ll sign off with the difficult issue of how we make this happen. All the mainstream political parties want us to get us back in the shops buying anything and everything. They are a million miles from this agenda.

We used to live in a producer society where work defined us. If consumption now plays this role then shops have to be a site not just of oppression butresistance – Neal

Inch by inch we have to do all the things you have said. In addition, we have to paint a compelling picture of a good life in a good society – a world where we can be truly creative about our own lives and the world around us, and develop policies that will help make that happen. A living wage and a statutory reduction in the working week would be a start, while banning advertising to children and in public spaces would begin to change the popular culture.

People will lead this process; politicians will follow. It is people that now have the wherewithal to shut companies down through mass consumer action.

We can’t and mustn’t stop people shopping – but we could get a better balance. I’d buy that.

Ruth

This ought to be rich territory for progressives – a world in which we make, repair, re-use, re-imagine and share is a world where there is ample quality work for all. People will lead this process, as they always have. But there is much that politicians could do too.

Obligations on manufacturers to repair goods could help end the scourge of built-in obsolescence. It may not look likely at the moment, but a Green New Deal where governments invest in re-localizing food production and creating a vibrant network of small-scale, responsive clean-energy systems and new, low-carbon transport networks would create skilled work where it is needed most. There are global implications too: I’ve outlined some of the benefits of the shift to a society where we produce much more together in the North. In the South, many of the skills and technologies that will be needed for the closed-loop producer society of the future already exist. A transfer of skills and resources could help begin to rebalance disparities between North and South.

A broader cultural shift is under way too: from making music to the popularity of talks and practical workshops. And yes, alongside that, a new vibrant form of democracy has emerged through mass consumer action that both withdraws our consent and paints a picture of where we might go instead. But more than that, if we shop less and live more, it might just change all of our worlds. For good. Let’s get going!

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 463 This feature was published in the June 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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