The poor have no power in their wallets

The Poor.001I come from the world of social enterprise and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), movements that strive to make business conduct business in better-world ways. From time to time I come across CSR articles that remind me there are companies working to make a difference.

Such reminders don’t warm the heart as much as they used to.

The people I speak with online about Copiosis, the failing economic system, and what to do about it believe business will in no way appreciably alter our path towards human extinction. That perspective sometimes jades my own.

So much so that when I read Heath Shackleford’s article  “Creating The Committed Consumer, Social Enterprise’s Next Big Mission” I couldn’t help thinking “this is not going to make a difference.”

Shackleford, who is the founder of a “socially responsible marketing consultancy that helps social companies and nonprofit causes succeed” makes an interesting argument in his article. Never mind that such articles perpetuate the status quo by giving Producers a way to feel as though they’re making a difference when they’re not.  Shackleford says companies claiming the Social Enterprise Moniker must find creative ways that help consumers go beyond conscious consumerism and “vote even more powerfully with their wallets.” He says:

But for those of us seeking systematic change, we have to be realists. Our economy is built on consumption, not conservation. It’s driven by short-term success, not sustainability. And if we’re not careful, we’ll wake up one day looking at old pictures of people in Warby Parker shades and Toms shoes, reminiscing about that “do good” fashion trend that swept the nation but ultimately met the same fate as MC Hammer pants and Cosby sweaters from the 1980s.

So, while we can stop and briefly commend consumers for having a conscience, we must quickly start pushing them into the next phase. Commitment.

He goes on to define what commitment looks like:

A committed consumer says, “I want to protect the environment.” Not only does this person consistently follow through on this mantra, he or she thinks and acts much more holistically in pursuit of his or her beliefs. Instead of placing items in recycling bins, they are more likely concerned with not using unnecessary materials in the first place.

Here here. In Portland, there are a lot of people acting from Shackleford’s “commitment.” Other islands of “commitment” exist as well: Vermont I heard has a community as committed as Portland’s for example. There may even be larger bastions in other countries.

Even so, CSR has been around a long time. I can celebrate the advances socially responsible corporations and businesses have made. I can applaud the number of conscious consumers that have emerged in response to their advances. Still, the impact these groups have had on the planet may be too little too late. At best they may result in a kind of self-congratulatory individual change, which Shackleford says would not be a good outcome:

[I]t’s dangerous to let consumers feel good because they own a graphic T-shirt from a brand that gives back. It’s very easy for individuals to feel satisfied, telling themselves, “Hey, I did some good today. Go me!”

There are far too many people and businesses doing exactly the opposite of what conscious consumers and social enterprises are doing. The next new Prius, Tesla or installed CF bulb doesn’t suffice. Glasses going to the poor nations helps them better see the destruction our nation has had on theirs. Shoes going to the same only allows them to wade through our discarded and toxic technology without injuring their feet on our waste.

People earning minimum wage or worse have no power in their wallets. Or very little.

Socially responsible companies aren’t wrong or bad. Those who work in them are in fact playing the game exactly as they were taught. They also are trapped, like you and me, in the psychological hell-hole of “earning a living.” It’s a head-down, all-or-nothing endeavor for most of us, but particularly for the poor and disenfranchised.

Very few of us stand to win the game. Winning means no longer having to earning a living. Does that mean Shackleford’s call is a waste of time? Probably not. The incremental difference those who rise to the call make is a difference. At the same time, however, there must be work at the meta-level, the level were dangerous, establishment-transforming, real change for the better happens, sans violence, coercion and opposition.

For better or worse, we’re all playing game called “representative politics combined with capitalism”. The game sucks for more and more people. Thus the discontent. Change that happens in the context of the game is just more gameplay. Real change changes the rules of the game or changes the game entirely.

Of course, more people are beginning to ask questions about alternative games. A game that frees people instead of enslaving them would be awesome, especially if it did all the things we like about our current game but did those things way better.

That’s our goal at Copiosis. While Shackleford and others urge us to alter the way we play the current game, we’re working to make that game obsolete.

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