April 3, 2008

The Responsible Shopper as Do-Gooder

One of my pet peeves is the notion that consumers who attempt to shop responsibly are merely vain and somewhat hypocritical shoppers who seek elevated do-gooder social status. The Wall Street Journal plainly asserts this in an otherwise valuable report on "eco-fur," i.e., fur taken from invasive species. Here's the passage in its full editorializing splendor. But it's in the style section, so perhaps that explains the opinionizing:
Luxury commerce is urgently pursuing do-gooder status. We have already seen organic clothing and vegan shoes. Vacations to faraway South Pacific islands are sold as eco-luxury; Lexus's hybrid SUV is billed as environmentally friendly. Of course, plastic sandals billed as "vegan" or "vegetarian" could just as easily be called "petroleum-based." Furthermore, some of the claims of environmental benefits are a stretch. Bamboo is sold as eco-friendly because it's quickly renewable, but bamboo fiber requires heavy processing, and the clothing often undergoes baths in toxic dyes.
Okay, okay, there's probably a lot of hypocrisy in this industry. Still, the author here, Kristina Binkley, makes a sweeping assumption when stating that these consumers aren't really interested in making a difference since they're buying SUVs etc. Instead, they're disingenuously pursuing some kind of luxurious eco-chic image. Maybe in some cases that's true. But it could also be that they're beginning to confront the reality of the social impact of their purchases. If so, there's nothing shameful about that.

And a couple of weeks ago, David Brooks wrote a positive but rather patronizing column on social entrepreneurs titled Thoroughly Modern Do-Gooders. Here's a highlight:
These thoroughly modern do-gooders dress like venture capitalists. They talk like them. They even think like them. That means that aside from the occasional passion for heirloom vegetables, they are not particularly crunchy. They don’t wear ponytails, tattoos or Birkenstocks. They don’t devote any energy to countercultural personal style, unless you consider excessive niceness a subversive fashion statement.
The condescension is palpable. Why must people systematically trivialize progressive behaviors with the "do-gooder" label that really is nothing but an implicit put-down? Of course, that question is rhetorical. Both of these authors are writing for a conservative audience (although Brooks is at the center-left New York Times, he along with Kristol, is one of their conservative columnists). Using this term implies that this kind of thing is done purely as an image booster and/or is naively altruistic. The thinking seems to be that while such activities are well-meaning, it's neither necessary nor realistic to expect them to ever dominate the marketplace as a whole.

To me, this view represents and reinforces the cynical notion that people generally are (and should be) acquisitive self-interested utility-maximizers. This narrow view of human nature, famously espoused by Milton Friedman, has been widely discredited by most philosophers, ethicists, psychologists, and even now, by economics if not economists themselves. For example, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting's PBS and NPR would not even exist if this theory were true. And no one would ever donate anything anonymously, since all such donations would be merely to obtain elite do-gooder status. Why wouldn't anyone who values public television for example simply leach on as a free rider instead by letting others pay for the service? That would be the most rational self-interested thing to do. It's a good thing everyone doesn't think that way.

Indeed, the tragedy of the commons, initially pointed out by geographer Garrett Harden, shows that purely self-interested users of any natural resource will tend to over-exploit that resource to the point of collapse. And history is rife with examples as another geographer (this one with the Pulitzer) Jared Diamond reminds us in his excellent latest book Collapse. But he also shows how just as many societies have been able to overcome such cataclysmic scenarios. The truth is, what so-called do-gooder consumers and social entrepreneurs are attempting to do is precisely that. By shopping and conducting business in ways that are both sustainable and adding durable value to society, they're showing that the tragedy of the commons is not inevitable.

What are these do-gooders concerned about? Poverty, global warming, public health, etc. Are these merely altruistic concerns? Not in the least. They may have been once upon a time, but today, these are real cancers that are threatening our very survival. Close to 2% of the U.S. population is incarcerated and high school graduation rates in the largest U.S. cities have plummeted to below 50% in many cases. Our diets have become so toxic that we are in a public health crisis. Michael Pollan reports in his New York Times bestseller The Omnivore's Dilemma and now his latest In Defense of Food, that more people on the planet are now suffering from over-nourishment than under-nourishment. And on global warming, if the Chinese begin driving the same cars we've become accustomed too, there will be severe climatological devastation. A great read on reversing these trends, in part via responsible shopping and business behaviors is Bill McKibben's latest book Deep Economy.

Responsible business behavior either at the consumer, employee, or management level may merely feed some kind of ethical vanity is some. But it's certainly part of a much greater movement that should not be trivialized by the condescending "do-gooder" moniker. In fact, it's likely to be the only thing that will save us from ourselves. Indeed without that kind of cultural will, politicians aren't very likely to write encouraging legislation in that direction. So let's stop poking fun at it and get to reinforcing it.