How shopping can help save the planet

The Gunther Report

How shopping can help save the planet

How shopping can help save the world

The activist and filmmaker Annie Leonard, who created an Internet sensation back in 2007 with her 20-minute animated movie The Story of Stuff (viewed more than 15 million times) is back with the new video called The Story of Change.

In the video, she urges “viewers to put down their credit cards and start exercising their citizen muscles” to build a more just, sustainable and fulfilling world.

Turning for inspiration to Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., she argues that buying “green” is no substitute for the hard work of political organizing.

“The solutions we really need are not for sale at the supermarket,” she says.

The movie runs for about six minutes. Take a look below.

The idea that we need to take political action to deal with big environmental and social problem is both inarguable and unremarkable. It should be obvious that we can’t shop our way to the regulation of carbon pollution or to a more equitable tax system.

But I think Leonard has it exactly backwards when it comes to the power of consumers. Like many on the left, she seems to define people as "good" because we pursue health, happiness and well-being and corporations as "bad" because they pursue profits, exploit and pollute. But, for the most part, we get the corporations that we deserve. Those that meet the needs of people thrive. Those that fail to satisfy will wither away. Put simply, the power of consumers is formidable.

Illustration of woman with shopping bags courtesy of Zoom Team via Shutterstock.

That’s why I think environmental and social activists ought to devote more, not less time, to changing consumer behavior. The food we eat, the cars we drive, the size of the houses we build and buy and other choices we make have significant global environmental consequences – particularly because Americans are, on a per capita basis, among the biggest polluters on the planet. [See my 2010 blog post,  Can behavioral economics help save the planet?]

More importantly, conscious consumers can reward companies that are responsible and punish those that are not. Over time, this has changed and will continue to change corporate behavior.

I could offer dozens of examples to prove that point, but I’ll put forward just three.

No. 1: Last fall, Starbucks, a corporate-responsibility leader, formed a partnership with the Opportunity Finance Network, a national network of community development financial institutions, to provide financing for small businesses, housing and nonprofits and thereby help create jobs. [See my October 2011 blog post, Starbucks: We are indivisible] I’m partial to this program because it was the brainchild of two of my friends, Ben Packard of Starbucks and Mark Pinsky of the Opportunity Finance Network, and so I noticed the other day that Starbucks has been selling coffee beans under the Indivisible brand to raise more money.

I emailed Mark to ask him how the fundraising is going. He replied: "We’ve raised more than $11.5 million to date, which multiplies into more than $80 million in new financing, more than 3,700 jobs created and retained, and more than 650,000 wristbands out there somewhere."

That’s real change, driven by consumer behavior and led by a company and a CEO, Howard Shultz, who understand that the power of business can be deployed to do good.

No. 2: I’ve been doing some reporting lately about aquaculture and the efforts by environmental groups working with industry to develop standards and certification systems to separate those fish farmers who operate more sustainably from those who do not. Rigorous new standards for popular species like shrimp and salmon are being rolled out by a group called the Aquaculture Stewardship Council.

Standards, certifications and eco-labels have their drawbacks, of course, but they can be a power lever to change corporate behavior. The Forest Stewardship Council rewards the better timber operations and the Marine Stewardship Council certifies responsible fisheries. They do so because they get backing from big retailers like Staples and Office Depot for paper products and Unilever and Walmart for wild-caught fish. These retailers, in turn, reflect what they believe to be the expectations of consumers that they “do the right thing.”

Imagine what an even more energized consumer culture could accomplish.

No. 3: Enormous political effort has been expended to increase fuel-efficiency standards. Automakers agreed to increase average fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light trucks by 2025. (It’s actually more complicated than that, and we can argue another time about whether fuel-economy standards make sense). None of that would be necessary, really, if people chose on their own to buy small, fuel-efficient, hybrid or electric cars. The automakers would, very rapidly, adjust to meet consumer demands; the entire culture and outlook of the industry would change.

Or, better yet, what if more people chose take buses or trains? Or walked or biked to work? [Here's a great story about biking "highways" in Copenhagen, where about half of the people already bike to work.]

Now, just to be clear, I’m not arguing that personal choices can take the place of political action. But the choice between behavior change and activism is not an either/or. It’s a both/and. People who bike to work are more likely to lobby for bike lanes.

But, please, let’s not underestimate the power of shopping — or better yet, not shopping — to change the world. Corporations are not abstract, evil entities, disconnected from the rest of us. They’re a reflection of who we are and what we do.

This post was reprinted from with permission from the author.