Art & Commerce: Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Buyers are capricious; values clash at the cash register
The tear gas clouds in Seattle had barely dissipated before op-ed pundits united to dismiss the startling demonstrations against the World Trade Organization-not to mention Niketown and Starbucks-as wrong-headed, misinformed, contradictory, elitist and crackpot.
The Seattle protesters were so muddleheaded, their critics claimed, they failed to understand the power of consumers. Yes, the WTO declared a U.S. ban on tuna caught with nets that trapped dolphins is an illegal restraint of trade, the free traders conceded. So what? If consumers feel strongly about saving dolphins, all they need do is stop buying tuna that isn’t certified dolphin-safe.
The very Third World countries that challenged that ban at the WTO will rush to join the Dolphin Defense Fund once they realize environmental responsibility is the path to American pocketbooks. If there are intolerable injustices or unsupportable economic practices anywhere in the world, consumers will set them right.
Globalization itself is a consumer choice, the argument goes. Economist Paul Krugman insists that the global spread of McDonald’s is not a corporate conspiracy against indigenous cultures but a consequence of a hard-wired human taste for fat.
Consumers, after all, are the ultimate rightful authors of economic policy-aren’t they? Every time they venture into the marketplace they cast a vote; globalization has been declared the winner the world over.
This the-consumer-has-chosen polemic is also used against the critics of urban sprawl, another consumer society hot button. If cow pastures are bulldozed to make way for big stores, the argument goes, it’s because that’s what consumers want.
If people think Wal-Mart is so terrible, why are its sales figures showing double-digit increases? According to this viewpoint, there can be no democratically inspired debate over issues such as sprawl or globalization because the people have spoken. We know their will from what they buy-and who are tree-huggers, unionists and anarchists to say differently?
As heretical as it sounds, I think this view levies a heavier burden than the shopper can bear. It’s true consumers effect social change through their dollars alone. Did the consumer-driven economic isolation of South Africa help defeat apartheid? Certainly. Did consumers pressure Nike into improving its labor practices? Probably. Yet these are exceptions; consumption’s focus is individual not collective consequences.
It is not the consumers’ job to worry about the commonweal; their business is satisfying their own needs.
True, some causes become fashionable, and brands and consumers alike embrace them. But as the fall and rise of fur demonstrates, fashions change. The beauty of fur and the many who can afford luxury trumped the formally unforgivable facts about where the stuff comes from.
Consumers are concerned first with how things are consumed, not how they’re produced. If we are counting on consumers alone to right the wrongs of the world, we’ll be waiting a long time.
Second, one should not confuse consumer behavior with civic approval or assent. There are plenty of patrons of exurban Home Depots who, if they had a choice, would prefer to live in a community in which the road had not been widened, the traffic light not installed and the trees not cut down-even if it meant doing without one-stop shopping.
But once the damn store is there, why not patronize it? How many patrons feel that way? You’ll never find out by tracking sales volume. That’s what political battles over sprawl are for. Consumer behavior is not the last word on the will of the people. If I choose to go to Wal-Mart, I’m not voting, I’m shopping.
Contrary to received wisdom, we aren’t what we buy. We have values and desires that are satisfied at the cash register, but also clash with it. Which is why Jos Bov , the b’te noire of the Big Mac, is a hero in France-even as French McDonald’s franchises prosper. And why I suspect many sippers of Starbucks latte felt a twinge of sympathy when they heard one of its Seattle storefronts had been trashed.
Despite the dismissals of wise critics who claim to know better, the battle over globalization is just heating up. K