Argument: can shopping be a form of activism?

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Argument: Can shopping be a form of activism?

Neal Lawson and Ruth Potts, two campaigners and writers, argue.

Neal - YES

Shopping is a form of activism – but is it effective? I am a left-wing anti-consumer so I’m not sure about consumer activism: when you buy things, you help the consumer industry, even if you’re buying ethical products. But it is definitely good for some activism.

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NEAL LAWSON is Chair of the good society group Compass and the author of All Consuming (Penguin, 2009). He is on the board 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.

This is because we live in a consumer society – shopping isn’t the only thing we do but it’s the main way in which we become part of society. Before, we lived in a producer society. Our jobs defined us and gave us our identity, character and place in society. Now shopping does this instead. So shops have to be a place of resistance, not just of oppression – because they are the main place of living. The media does not report on strikes any more, but it reports on boycotts of Starbucks because of tax avoidance or resistance to workfare at Poundland.

Shopping can be ethical, and ethical shopping can have a big influence. There is a very big effect on supermarkets if large numbers of consumers change to another shop. This affects their business and their reputation. The internet and social media give some power back to the shoppers. If this could be organised better, it could have a very big influence on what companies sell and how they sell. It won’t change everything completely, but for many people it could be the start of action and education.

Ruth - NO

The problem with shopping as activism is not just that it helps the consumer industry. This is important, of course, but also, it does nothing to change our relationship with ‘stuff’, and with other people.

Shopping is the main way that we become part of society, and that is exactly why it is not enough to simply stop shopping at a few places. The US activist Angela Davis said that radical means ‘attacking things at the root’. Getting to the root of consumer culture, I believe, means completely changing our relationship with stuff.

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RUTH POTTS helped start the radical co-operative 'bread, print & roses', and 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, full of debt, wasteful and unsatisfying. It doesn’t have to be that way. Instead, we need a ‘new materialism’. This would develop an active, happy and more respectful relationship with things by making, re-making and caring for the things we have. This could change us from passive consumers into active creators of the world.

Change our relationship with stuff, and we see how a lot of other things could change too.

When people boycott of companies like Starbuck, who avoid paying tax, this is not simply about saying “no” to that company, or to shopping. It is also about us making our own things again: homemade posters, community kitchens, local childcare and schools.

We protest in a shop, but we show how much we can do when we produce the world together and how exciting that can be.

Neal - YES

I think it’s interesting that people are not talking about how important work is as a place of protest. It is important, but it is not the only important place.

Let’s talk about our relationship to ‘stuff ’. Consumption (buying things) completely controls us, our identities and culture. We can define ‘totalitarian’ as ‘controlling the freedom, will or thought of other people’. That’s a good description of consumer society – oppression not by the Nazi boot of fear and force but the Gucci boot of clever seduction.

So what do we do? It is better to be ‘in and against’. We have to occupy and fight the cultural domination and give an alternative. To do this we have to offer many different ways to fight. Maybe you don’t know how powerful boycotts can be. One market-research firm YouGov found that 14 million people in Britain would change bank accounts if it was easier. And it’s going to get easier. This could have a very big effect on finance. But we need to do much more. We have to reduce our consumption – the quantity, and not just the quality, of our shopping.

Ruth - NO

Of course changing where we shop/consume is important, but it is important what we change to. There are good alternatives for banking and energy, for example, at moveyourmoney.org and edfoff.org. Maybe a good alternative is to show how good it would be to shop less and make and share more? Many people now have a different relationship with stuff because of the current crises. This is not about a fantasy return to nature. It is about the possibility of a richer, more active, life for everyone, now. One good example is Cultivate London in Britain. They take over unused land and start urban farms. These farms train unemployed young people, who will run them. They learn very useful skills that will be more necessary in the future as imported food becomes more expensive because of high oil prices.

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Action at Starbucks: Consumer power or homemade protest? (Anthony Collins/Alamy)

There are many advantages from: buying nothing designed to last less than 10 years; developing high-street making and mending centres; investing in skills training and sharing the skills we already have. They reduce the amount we consume, create a lot of skilled employment, support lifelong learning (which increases life satisfaction and length of life – so-called ‘happy life years’). They also promote the values of working together and helping other people.

It is not about saying “no”, but about changing the stuff we have into lifelong friends, not cheap dates that we throw away after we use once. In the words of economist Herman Daly, it is an economy of better, not more.

Neal - YES

That sounds good. The main point here is that we need to value our own lives and the things we have around us. We do not die wishing we had another new washing machine, but wishing we had more time to be with the people we love, doing the things that we love and creating beauty. It is not good to buy rubbish that loses its value before we pay for it on a credit card.

But it’s difficult to make all this happen. All the main political parties want us to buy anything and everything. They will never agree to change.

We have to do all the things you have said. But also, we have to create a good life in a good society – a world where we can be creative about our own lives and the world around us, and develop policies that will help make that happen. We could start with a living wage and a cut in the working week. And a ban to advertising to children and in public would begin to change the popular culture.

People will lead this; politicians will follow. It is people that now have the power to close companies by consumer action. We can’t and mustn’t stop people shopping – but we could get a better balance, I agree.

Ruth - NO

This is a progressive area – a world where we make, repair, re-use, re-imagine and share is a world where there is enough good-quality work for everyone. People will lead this, as they always have. But there is a lot that politicians could do too. If we make manufacturers repair their products, this could help end the big problem of throwing everything away and buying new ones all the time. This does not look possible at the moment. But if governments, in a Green New Deal, invest in local food production and creating a network of small-scale, clean-energy systems and low-carbon transport networks, this would create good new jobs. This would have effects over the whole world. In the North, people would benefit from a society where we produce much more together. In the South, many of the skills and technologies that will be needed for the smaller producer society of the future already exist. If we transfer skills and resources, this could help start to bring a better balance between North and South.

There is a bigger cultural change too: from making music to talks and practical workshops. And with that, a new lively form of democracy has started. This is because of mass consumer action that says “no” to what we don’t want, and shows us a new, different future. But more than that, if we shop less and live more, this might change all of our worlds. For good. Let’s start now!

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: http://newint.org/sections/argument/2013/06/01/shopping-activism-argument/