My Formulation of the Citizen Consumer

I begin with the assumption that those whom I speak of possess effective demand, so immediately that leaves us with a class bias.  I’m talking about the middle/wealthy class in industrial and developing nations.  This is not to say that working class or poor people are not included or important in this discussion, but it is to say that the omission of these classes is deliberate but not malicious.

The citizen consumer is an idea that is based upon the notion that all consumers are responsible for what they consume.  There is a sort of civic responsibility within a capitalistic framework- nation if you will.  Let’s say this capitalist ideology shapes the world economy, and those who have buying power have the power to influence supply and demand.  At this level, it is purely democratic- until one considers the inequitable distribution of wealth stratified along the lines of race, class and gender.  Those who have more access to wealth and liquidate-able assets  have greater say over what is produced than those who do not.

And even those who have more modest sums of money (which is relatively wealthy, considering the permanent underclass created by  number of socio-economic factors, a history of colonialism, dispossession of land and natural resources at the hands of multinational corporations, and other social ills and human rights violations) have effective demand- demand that impacts the supply and demand chain.

In this world economy, we have a civic nation of sorts- where every participant- consumer and producer- has a vested interest in the exchange of information on the market.  So patterns of consumption become a way of voting with money.

For example:

An American woman in Tiffany’s in San Francisco buys Akoya pearls (cultured in Japan) set in gold (mined in South Africa under likely inhumane work conditions with poor compensation).

I know enough about the distinction between microeconomics and macroeconomics to avoid conflating the consumption pattern of one shopper with the whole.  But let’s just say that this woman is your average consumer- and she is not buying a unique piece of jewelry.  But in buying it, she is complicit in the human rights violations committed in the chain of production.  Think about the underpaid and overworked miners who never receive healthcare for their job-related respiratory illnesses; the water-cyanide mixture (used in the leaching process- this process wastes millions of gallons of water) that if evaporated presents later with seizures, sleep apnea, cardiac arrest, muscle weakness, headaches and vertigo.

Yes, she is complicit.  She benefits from the suffering of the marginalized and poor.  As do we.

The very act of buying bottled water is also fraught with ethical problems.  In many parts of the United States, the quality of the ground water is far superior to most of the water in the developing world (this, however, does not preclude the necessity of bottled water in contaminated areas).  By buying a bottle of Fiji Water- a consumer supports a military dictatorship. A bottle of Fiji water retails for more than twice the value of your average bottle of water, yet the social status associated with that square design and the cool greens and blues of the bottle overcomes any notion of being frugal. Never mind that the company has exclusive rights to Fiji’s aquifers, rendering indigenous Fijians dependent on The August 2009 Mother Jones article says:

Nowhere in Fiji Water’s glossy marketing materials will you find reference to the typhoid outbreaks that plague Fijians because of the island’s faulty water supplies; the corporate entities that Fiji Water has—despite the owners’ talk of financial transparency—set up in tax havens like the Cayman Islands and Luxembourg; or the fact that its signature bottle is made from Chinese plastic in a diesel-fueled plant and hauled thousands of miles to its ecoconscious consumers. And, of course, you won’t find mention of the military junta for which Fiji Water is a major source of global recognition and legitimacy. (Gilmour has described the square bottles as “little ambassadors” for the poverty-stricken nation.)”

This is where conscientious consumerism fails.  Using the system to right a systemic failure is essentially putting a bandage over a gunshot.  When millions die, millions live with malnourishment and die of starvation, and the importation of agricultural produces undercuts the autonomy of local farmers, placing influence over the market price solely in the hands of multinational corporations- this is when the system has failed.  Yes, entrepreneurship has led to growth, but this growth rests disproportionately in the hands of the West, and the poor of the developing world are increasingly dispossessed, having lost all indigenous land and water rights.

And I have not yet mentioned the environmental impact of the transportation of bottled water (likely using petroleum products from the Middle East, which exact environmental damages in and of themselves) and even the bottles the water is stored in- plastic.  Fiji waterbottles are made in Chinese factories powered by diesel- another petroleum byproduct.

What’s my point, you ask?  Well, I’m appealing to you, dear reader, in the hopes of sparking a new consciousness in your consumption.  I am not calling for the overthrow of capitalism, but I am proposing that we consider the true cost of our cheap goods.  Our markdowns are also detrimental to the standards of living for billions of people worldwide.  I’m not asking you to feel guilty for 5 minutes- guilt changes nothing if there is no change of heart or compulsion to act or change the behaviors or situations that cause cognitive dissonance.  I am asking that you consider the cost of your living.

Facts:

-at least 80% of people on this planet live on less than $10/day

-according to UNICEF data, 25,000 children under the age of 5 die each day due to poverty.

-Some 1.1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water, and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation.

-More than 660 million people without sanitation live on less than $2 a day, and more than 385 million on less than $1 a day.

-Half of all children on this planet live in poverty

-The poorest 40 percent of the world’s population accounts for 5 percent of global income. The richest 20 percent accounts for three-quarters of world income.Source3

source: http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats#src3

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