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Shopping Is Political: A Lesson From '70s Feminists

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The feminist revolution of the 1970s embraced a deceptively simple proposition: "The personal is political." It's a short phrase with sweeping implications. Issues that had previously been considered private matters were suddenly opened up to their wider, social implications. When a woman is defined simply as a housewife or homemaker, things like equal employment opportunities, domestic violence, child-raising, and other issues are never debated publicly. But once those questions were considered in the context of women as full-fledged citizens, the whole discussion changed.

I thought of that history when I recently heard a respected business commentator talk to a booksellers meeting about consumer purchasing habits. The point was made over and over again: "Only two things matter to the consumer: price and convenience." It sounded plausible, but something about it rang false -- or, perhaps, just incomplete. It occurred to me that this generalization about people's purchasing behavior depends upon them defining themselves as "consumers." When they broaden the perception of themselves to include their wider social and political interests, they're likely to act differently. It's the self-definition that's important.

Women in the '70s began achieving political power when they stopped looking at themselves as simply "housewives" -- a narrow term that others had invented to describe them. Maybe that's true of people facing market-place decisions. In the real world they are members of a broader community with diverse values and interests. People are really only "consumers" on the spread-sheet of an economist.

The Illusion of Bargain Shopping

Shopping is seldom a completely rational activity. The only people who follow the strict laws of economics are those who are forced to do so: people who are impoverished. Sadly, the poor usually have no choice in how they make purchases. Often the only accessible place is the local convenience store. The only price they can afford is usually the lowest one on the shelf. It's a life of economic necessity at its most stark.

But for people who have enough money to make real choices, price and convenience are just two of several factors at work. The proof is in the billions of dollars that advertisers spend each year. Only a small part of that money focuses on the price of the product or on the closest place to buy it. The big money is spent on brand recognition, magnifying trivial differences with competing products, or insinuating the image of the product into the buyer's own self-image. Advertisers wouldn't do this, if they didn't have success with this type of subjective motivation.

Even people who pride themselves on being "bargain hunters" rarely do the math to prove that they're saving money. We all know someone who spends $20 on gas and an extra hour of his life to drive to a discount mart on the other side of the county in order to save $15 on a three-month's supply of toilet paper. This is the illusion of bargain shopping, rather than the reality. And for every one of those, there is probably someone like me who passes by two national supermarket chains on a trip to a family-owned grocery store in my home town of Mill Valley. Is there an economic rationale for that? Maybe. But equally important is the fact that the guy in produce tells me what's fresh, the woman at check-out asks how our bookstore is doing, the man in the liquor department tells me what's new from local micro-breweries, and the woman in the deli knows my buying habits well enough to call me "Mr. Prosciutto." Since I probably spend three to four hours a week grocery shopping, I might as well enjoy myself.

Boycotts and Anti-boycotts

The statement that "shopping is political" is both descriptive and prescriptive. It is descriptive in the sense that people often make shopping decisions for reasons that go well beyond the narrow confines of price and convenience. But it's prescriptive in the sense that people could make better use of their purchasing power if they focused more on those wider concerns and made better choices. As a political tool, it probably ranks just below voting but somewhere above street protests.

Americans, in particular, have used purchasing power as a political weapon for centuries. Consumer boycotts have been large and small, organized or spontaneous. The Boston Tea Party grew out of a boycott against British goods. Jewish groups boycotted Ford Motors in the 1920s over its anti-Semitic policies, Hispanics and workers led a successful boycott in the '60s against California table grapes. Human rights groups in the '80s pushed a boycott to force divestment of U.S. companies from South Africa. There are probably many boycotts at any given moment. Boycottkochbrothers.com, for example, is currently trying to convince shoppers to stay away from Vanity Fair napkins, Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups and other Georgia-Pacific products to protest the Koch brothers' right-wing political activities. And small companies can be targets as well. Religious fundamentalists in North Carolina boycotted a local seller of silverware and tableware a year ago when they were incensed over his opposition to a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. But boycotts can sometimes produce anti-boycotts, as when my wife and I remembered that we really needed to purchase some teaspoons to replace those that had gone missing from our flatware set.

There are many groups dedicated to educating shoppers to the social implication of their purchases. Greenpages.org lists thousands of businesses that meet its standards for "fair trade" and "climate action." Ecomall.com recommends many companies that practice "greentailing," which they define as "retailing of environmentally friendly products." Goodguide.com rates well-known brands on a scale that emphasizes "safe, healthy, green & ethical products based on scientific ratings." Price comparisons are hardly mentioned on any of these sites.

Effective? Compared to What?

One way to view the political and economic history of our society over the last few decades is to see it as a drastic weakening of the power of ordinary citizens to influence the institutions of government and the economy. Political institutions have gotten weaker, workers' rights have eroded, data about individuals has become ubiquitous and centralized, reactionary partisans have become entrenched, and the rule of big money goes almost unchecked. No one would seriously argue that the political system is currently responsive to people's needs.

In this context, how effective is shopping as a political tool? The best answer is: compared to what? The purchasing power of individuals is probably as strong any other political weapon that ordinary citizens possess. And it has one important advantage: entrenched economic interests still have to convince people to purchase their goods and services in order to make the system work.

If people change the way they shop, institutions can change. There are enough people now looking for organic food that the organic food business has begun to gain a foothold in the economy. It's an uphill battle, but can anyone really say that fighting the food-industrial-complex through the political system is any easier? The one-two punch of political lobbying and political shopping is probably the best strategy the average person has to bring about electric cars, solar power, and any number of other environmental changes. As other issues come to the fore, more opportunities will arise for politically motivated shopping. It doesn't take much to foresee people diverting their purchases away from companies that invest in assault rifles or that manufacture products in Bangladeshi sweat shops.

And it's not just what you buy but how you buy it. Part of the impetus behind the growing "buy-local" movement is the significant quantity of carbon emissions -- and, thus, global warming -- generated by excessive, unnecessary shipping of goods for long distances. For most of human history, this wasn't a problem. Your food was grown near where you lived, and the shop where you purchased it was probably just around the corner. But now, according to Bill McKibben's Deep Economy, "The average bite of American food has traveled more than 1,500 miles before it reaches your lips, changing hands an average of six times along the way." This is an argument for strategic shopping, with an eye towards the broader needs of society. According to McKibben, "The Swedish Food Institute ... discovered that growing and distributing a pound of frozen peas required ten times as much energy as the peas contained." Once I heard that, the fresh peas grown by the farmer across the county looked a lot tastier.

The political impact of "buy local" is not confined to what you buy or even to the distance that the goods travel to get there. Shopping locally shifts a significant amount of economic power to the local community that would otherwise be lost. The last few decades have seen a radical consolidation of retail business into a handful of regional superstores. According to Stacy Mitchell at the Institute of Self-Reliance, Walmart alone "has about one-third of the U.S. market for numerous household staples, such as toothpaste, diapers, and shampoo. According to industry analysts at Retail Forward, Walmart is on track to control 35 percent of the U.S. grocery market within the next few years."

When you shop at Walmart or another super store, you are, in effect, casting your vote for further consolidation of retail power in the hands of a few super-companies that give back little or nothing to the local economy. Several studies show that for every $100 spent at locally-owned independent businesses, approximately $68 is recycled back into the local community. By comparison, national chains and superstores generate only about $43 in the local community -- a substantial drop-off. And if you only shop online with out-of-state retailers, none of that money gets recycled into the local economy -- in many cases, not even the sales tax

To put the same issue in a more positive form, a study commissioned in San Francisco concluded that a 10 percentshift in consumer spending from chains and on-line businesses to locally owned retailers, would create nearly 1300 new jobs and over $190 million in increased economic output within the city.

The Political Dimension

When you look at a purchase from the point of view of a consumer you get one result. But if you expand the perspective to cover the purchaser's wider interests, you may see something dramatically different. This has become clear in the business that I know best - bookselling.

How convinced are you that the government and large corporations will treat information about you responsibly?

That's the question you have to ask whenever you make the seemingly simple choice of whether to buy a book or an e-book.

When you buy a printed book, it's yours. You can read it, hide it, or flaunt it. You can sleep with it under your pillow, lock it up in your closet, or display on your bookshelf. You can mark it up, save it as a collector's item, give it to a friend, or resell when you're done with it. The contents of the book are yours, and you decide how much -- or how little -- to share with others.

None of that is true with an e-book. An e-book exists only on the cloud, and it is not yours to re-sell or give away. Your purchase of the book and your buying habits are intensely data-mined, and that data is used for all sorts of purposes. Probably the most dramatic feature of e-books is that on-line vendors can monitor your reading of the book - noting when you started, when you stopped, and what pages you tended to linger over. And the information that vendors possesses about their readers is only a subpoena away from some curious government official.

When it comes to books, it's no exaggeration to say that a simple shopper's choice -- button A or button B -- can determine society's relationship to a large data base of personal information about the reader. For some book buyers, the lower price and ease of use of e-books may be worth it. For others, the threat of potential abuse of that information is too big a risk to run.

Either way, it's a broad, political dimension to the act of shopping -- an activity that is no longer as private as it once appeared to be.