Buying our way to utopia? Not so much.

By Lisa Frack

Hi, my name is Lisa and I spend more time reading labels than ballots. There, I said it. Why do I spend so much time reading labels? A bit of introspection tells me that there are 3 main reasons:

  1. To prevent toxic chemicals from affecting my children's health,
  2. To support companies that value the environment and the people affected because I want my money to do good, not harm, and frankly,
  3. To keep my money out of the hands of companies who are trashing the environment and communities where they work - and profiting all the while. I really don't want them to think I like what they're doing.

Can we change the world, one purchase at a time? I don't hunt down 'greener' products specifically to force the market to serve me better or to change public policy, but I do believe a little in what Diane MacEachern coined my Big Green Purse.

I am American, after all, and aren't we trained to shop our way to change? Trained to be satisfied by an indirect, needle-in-a-haystack message to manufacturers from the cash register? It's so dang handy to buy what I need and send a political message simultaneously. So great to multi-task! Getting political and buying milk all at once! If only it were working.

I mean, I've been buying organic produce and less-toxic stuff for years, yet - surprise! - the problems persist. Sure, I'm not expecting to buy my way to strong environmental and health-protective policies single-handedly, but even if a whole lot of us join forces (we have already, haven't we?), I am very skeptical that buying organic peaches and BPA-free water bottles for the next 10 years is going to alter, say, the backwards U.S. farm subsidy system or ensure that the chemicals allowed in children's products won't give them cancer or prevent them from having children. You?

Lessons from Food, Inc. on Huffington Post When I read Susanne Friedberg's piece on Food, Inc. on Huffington Post last week - Vote Now, Eat Later - I was struck all over again by the argument that the current obsession (mine included) with buying our way to safe food and toxic-free products is getting in the way (yes, getting in the way) of the real political work it will take to effect the significant and long-overdue regulatory change we need to ensure safe products and food and create manufacturing and agricultural practices that value people and land and animals.

How is it getting in the way? Simple: It's easier to read labels than to try to make systemic policy change, it's more convenient to incorporate change-making into activities in which we're already engaged, it's time-consuming to research and locate safer products, so we have less time for political meetings, and it gives us a false sense that we are making change, when really we're not.

Ms. Friedberg tells us, and I couldn't agree more, that it's going to take far more than shopping (sorry) to get out of this one, so roll up your sleeves and let's get political. She actually covers 4 reasons why market-driven change is NOT the answer:

  • It's an impractical and unfair burden on consumers.
  • It only delivers changes that the market finds profitable.
  • Being a safer alternative doesn't guarantee anything else (like living wages and the rest of it).
  • It is fundamentally undemocratic to suggest that money spent on safer products is a potential vote for change.

She wraps up short, sweet and to the point:

Informed consumer buying power is not trivial. It is also no substitute for political actions to empower everybody to worry less about and enjoy it more.

Don't stop reading labels: That's our goal but we're definitely not there yet Oh, I'm not recommending that you quit reading labels. Not a chance. Just suggesting that when the ballot comes, when a pro-environment candidate runs, when a representative is ready to cast a vote in your state legislature or in Congress, when your county gets ready to spray pesticides on the roadsides, it's time to make some time for the democratic process of making - and reforming - public policy.

And you can start right here, with the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act. What can you do? So glad you asked:

These are the actions that will take us where we want to go, to a place where we don't have to read labels because (imagine, for just a moment) our products and food are safe.

[Thanks to robholland & Flickr CC for the shoppin' pic]

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