Michael Hobbes wrote an article for Huffington Post Highline a few weeks ago that shook the conscious consumer community. In The Myth of the Ethical Shopper, Hobbes outlines the myriad ways buying our way to a better world has failed us. It's well researched, and it's true. Imposing regulations on foreign companies without real oversight or local social change has little long term effect on the well being of factory workers.
If you've been following the movement for awhile, you've probably heard an outline of his argument before, but I encourage you to read it - it's an impressive amount of research. The primary point of the piece is this:
"Listening to consumer advocacy campaigns, you’d think our only influence on the developing world was at the cash register. But our real leverage is with our policies, not our purchases...We are not going to shop ourselves into a better world."
In his followup, published last week on the Huffington Post blog, Hobbes responds to commenters who maintain that they are ethical shoppers - by virtue of buying American made or locally sourced items - regardless of what Hobbes has to say about it:
"Let me be super clear about this, in words I might have minced in the piece itself: that is impossible. And pretending it's not is exactly what keeps sweatshops from being solved."
Responding to Hobbes is no easy feat, because he's absolutely right. We're spending too much time making shopping lists and not enough time doing the boring, excruciating work of lobbying for better systems. But it's not enough to write a convincing argument that we all suck at being good people. In fact, that's maybe the worst thing we can do.
In 1984, psychologist Karl E. Weick published a study entitled Small Wins, which explains why large scale social problems are rarely resolved by simply proliferating social sciences research on relevant topics. The reason we fail to remedy social problems, he discovered, has everything to do with how problems are defined in the first place. He found that:
"The massive scale on which social problems are conceived often precludes innovative action because the limits of bounded rationality are exceeded and arousal is raised to dysfunctionally high levels. People often define social problems in ways that overwhelm their ability to do anything about them."
Basically, if you're inundated with information about how terrible everything is, your brain is wired to shut down. This may be the reason The True Cost movie hasn't been as well reviewed as one would hope. There are simply too many reasons to give up hope. There are too many problems.
Read the rest on Style Wise.