It’s easy to get lured into the illusion that you have a limitless amount of choice as a consumer, or that somehow, one person buying free trade or organic food or buying from local businesses instead of big box stores will make an impact on the environment or the lives of workers. Making ethical shopping choices might make you feel better about your own role in the world, but how much change can one person do?
The fact is, we actually have very little choice. Even if we avoid the “bad” companies that we hear about on the news or through some social media campaign, many products —from the clothes and shoes we wear to our phones, our appliances — make us complicit in really bad wages and conditions for workers around the world.
It’s also really easy to be a hypocrite about buying decisions. For me, it’s pretty easy to boycott Walmart, a store I’ve only shopped at maybe twice in my life. But Target, whose wages for their retail staff are comparable? I admit that I find it difficult to avoid Target, which sells certain things I don’t know where to get anywhere else. And don’t get me started about Apple products. I’m a victim, I admit it. But is buying a phone or a computer from some other company that much better?
Historically, some company boycotts have worked, but they have to be very focused and organized. And it’s difficult when it’s not just one company but many companies employing the same bad practices, and often, as outlined by the CTUL campaign, which had a protest on Black Friday, it’s not even the big companies that are paying so low but the contracting firms they hire out, so it gets really complicated.
Raising the minimum wage is a start, at least for the workers here in Minnesota. I’m so sick of hearing about America’s “entitlement problem.” when one way to lessen that supposed problem is to pay people a living wage, so they don’t need to go on welfare if they are working a full time job. Other policy changes that affect company’s policies on union organizing, both here in the United States and in other countries, need to be put in place as well.
Ultimately, I think it is the government’s role to ensure that people aren’t being exploited. Going to a store or not going to a store, while it may have a small effect, is not going to bring about the massive changes we need to start making a dent in income inequality.
Related article: Protest for living wages ends in 26 Black Friday arrests in St. Paul (The Uptake, 2013)