Whether it’s a government shutdown or the seemingly endless revelations of misconduct, news about federal institutions is front page right now and the frustration people feel about our leaders and governments is tangible. I can commiserate. Politics and what it can do to change lives (for better or worse) is something that has fascinated me for a very long time. The importance of well-formulated legislation and regulations, and the integrity of our public leaders and institutions, can’t be understated. But government – and this is true in every country and system – is an unwieldy beast. The road to any kind of change is long and bumpy, and few people even try to travel it. Witness the downward trend in the easiest form of democratic participation – voting.
Some of this apathy arises from the belief that only the rich and powerful, especially major corporations, really rule our lawmakers. There is certainly some evidence to suggest this belief is warranted. But what if I told you that corporations may influence government, but you influence the corporations? Every time you buy a hotdog, a bottle of shampoo, or a new car, you’re casting a vote for a product. You’re affecting the bottom line of a business – and the bottom line is what that business is built to protect. Do you realize the power this gives you? Do you realize that every single day you have an incredible opportunity to make or break the course of history?
That’s because each of us wields the power of the purse. Every time to you spend a dollar in the marketplace, you’re casting a vote for the product you buy, and against the one you leave on the shelf. You might not believe me. How does one person making the choice to buy a lipstick not tested on animals, or choosing locally raised produce really affect anything? Let me promise you, it does.
Back in the late 1700s and early 1800s, a group of consumers – mostly women – helped change the course of history in an astounding way. They decided to take on Big Sugar, and not because of an obesity epidemic like the anti-sugar warriors of today, but to fight something even more insidious – slavery. You see, at that time, sugar was an increasingly important luxury commodity, made more widely available by cheap (well, free) labour by slaves in the Caribbean. In fact, sugar was inextricably linked with the slave trade in the West Indies, where hundreds of thousands of slaves were imported to grow and process the crops. It was a horrifically cruel business, but a lucrative one for its owners.
In England, the Abolitionist movement tried to persuade Parliament to legislate against slavery, at first with little luck. What finally started to budge things in the right direction was a long and arduous boycott against West Indies sugar – by housewives who refused to support the product. You have to remember that women, at the time, didn’t even have the right to vote, and their political power was negligible. This was the one way they could assert themselves and make positive change. Sugar producers and merchants who could sell a more “fair-trade” version of the commodity from the East Indies saw the opportunity and seized it, making their slave-free sugar the winning brand. The boycott was part of the overall movement that would eventually turn the tide in abolishing slavery.
This is an example, and a powerful one I’d argue, from a very long time ago. But businesses today actively seek out customer input and use it to get ahead in the marketplace. The world of data gathering and analysis has made this into a science, allowing companies to react to consumer interests and preferences in record time. Admittedly, not all businesses are equally open to change, and some even find it quite painful. However, throughout the system we’re seeing a huge move, even by the stodgiest of old corporate characters, to reflect the growing sentiment of their customer base to evolve their business. In plain terms, to remain competitive they have no choice.
You and I, however, do have a choice – a choice to make buying decisions that are kind to ourselves, our families, to workers, and to the planet. Ultimately, it’s a win for businesses, as well. As the tide changes, largely through consumer action, government policies and regulations will, indeed, catch up. Yes, it’s important to write letters to your representatives, protest, organize with other like-minded individuals to bring about political reform, and mark your X at the ballot box. But, in the meantime, there are decisions you can make, today, that will start the process of change. Ethical products are already widely available, making the switch for the consumer all the easier. Buy them. It’s a vote you’re casting – make it count.