“Systems should exist to serve society, and right now our capitalist system is not serving society, it is serving shareholders.” —Jay Coen Gilbert, Co-founder of B-Lab.
How you spend your money matters. We vote once a year for politicians, but we vote virtually every day with our dollars. And how we cast those dollar-votes really, really matters.
Every single time we spend money on a product we are reaching out with our economic power and acting on the world, often in places that are far, far away. Our dollars can support deforestation, the inhumane treatment of animals, pollution, sweatshop labor, or all manner of social ills, but they can also support fair wages, care for the environment, or community development, depending on our spending choices. These are REAL EFFECTS, and they are there whether we choose to see them or not.
An example—if we buy bananas produced by a huge corporation that only cares about shareholder value, then we are likely subsidizing environmental destruction in a place far away, along with poverty-level wages that serve to entrap populations in poverty. By contrast, if we buy bananas that have been certified as “Fair Trade”, then we are supporting companies that focus on environmental protection, sustainable development, higher wages, and better working standards. There is a small price to pay—Fair Trade bananas typically cost about thirty cents more, per pound, than their “industrial” counterparts. That extra thirty cents, however, is very little money for the average citizen of the rich world, and this money gets channeled directly toward improving people’s lives in developing countries. (There are a number of groups that certify products as Fair Trade, such as Fair Trade USA).
This same principle is true for nearly every product that we buy—how we choose to spend or not spend can have a wide range of effects. The trick, as consumers, is to know what choices to make, and this is where a variety of certifications can really help us. None of us has the time to research every single company that we do business with, but we can let certification groups do much of that work for us. For example, some companies have restructured themselves as Benefit-Corporations, or B-corps. Rather than putting shareholder profits first, B-Corporations take into account a variety of factors, including employee well-being, the health of the environment, community involvement, and transparency.
A TED-talk about B-Corporations:
Here are some B-Corps that our family uses (find a B-corp here) —
Seventh Generation—Producer of a wide variety of household products, such as paper towels, laundry detergent, and cleaning supplies.
Green Mountain Power—The largest utility in Vermont; GMP’s progressive policies with regard to net-metering, renewable power generation, and electric vehicles are part of what has made our net-zero house possible.
First established in 2010, B-Corporations are now a legal corporate structure in 30 U.S. states, and nearly 1500 companies in 42 countries have been certified to meet B-Corp standards.
In addition to B-Corps, there are many other certifications that can help guide our purchases. Some examples—USDA Organic, LEED certified buildings, GIIRS-ratings for investments, Gulf of Maine Research Institute sustainable seafood, Energy Star ratings, SFI certified wood products, and many others. These certifications don’t guarantee that we are making perfect spending choices, but they can go a long way in guiding our decisions. And our spending decisions matter, they create or remove demand that rewards or punishes companies for their actions. We consumers have a powerful tool at our disposal, a tool strong enough to change the world. Our spending choices literally help to mold societies and to build the systems we need, whether it’s sustainable agriculture, the humane treatment of animals, renewable energy, recycling, or fair and equitable global trade. Our purchasing choices can even help to end war, as in the case of ivory or conflict diamonds (a moving short film about how the ivory trade funds war here).
In politics, we don’t really mean it when we say, tongue-in-cheek, to “vote early and vote often”. But when when it comes to voting with our dollars, we can, and should, mean every word of it.
(Note, 12 November 2015– That last sentence gives the impression that consumption is good, which wasn’t exactly my intention. The best thing we can do to be sustainable is nearly always to consume less. But, when we do buy things that we have to have, we should definitely “vote with our dollars” and pay attention to where our money is going…)
Top image credit: Noir Kisune, “Fair Trade”, Flickr Creative Commons.