Conscientious Consumption: Voting With Your Wallet

Disclaimer: This post is not about food, or about tuberculosis. So if you were looking forward to hearing my thoughts on either of those topics and will be severely disappointed by anything other than that, then desist now.

Note: I know I’ve got basically two titles, disguised with a colon, but I think that, creatively, this is acceptable. Like ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’, which, incidentally, is a great movie.


Many people are under the impression that the only way that they can influence the political agenda or contribute to changing society in a meaningful way is every four or five years, by going to the ballot-box and voting. Some are even cynical about that (and understandably so). People consider voting to be their civic duty, or at least consider it to be a civic act, and one of the only times that they can be a part of the political process.

For the most of us, our political participation begins and ends at the ballot box, apart from maybe sharing an article on Facebook about Donald Trump’s latest gaffe or signing an e-petition and sharing it with your friends online. This method of political participation is commonly known as “slacktivism”, so-called because of the minimal amount of effort required to partake in it. Some among us might go a bit further, and invest more time into their political engagements. They might leaflet/canvass/campaign (choose whichever you like the best) about certain issues on behalf of a charity or NGO, or during an election campaign, they might write to their local political representative, they might write blogs (hey, I write blogs!), or more impressively they might write for an actual recognised publication (not me). They might even go on protests (can you imagine that?). These are the traditional avenues of political action that we commonly associate with “being political”, the sorts of things that we see some of our connections on social media post about, alongside with the relevant #hashtag for that issue.

Voting is, however, and probably always will be, the primary and most recognised form of political participation. But what is voting? What does your vote mean? What do we do when we vote? Voting is essentially the expression of preferences, expressed through choosing a party that supposedly best represents and shares your interests and values. In most countries, probably all countries that have a democratic system of government, citizens elect individuals to represent them in the day-to-day running of government, in parliamentary/congressional votes. We do this because the majority of us are in full-time work, full-time education, or are unable to work, therefore we need someone whose job it is to decide on political issues for us.

Though the other aforementioned methods of political participation do express preferences, apart from e-petitioning they aren’t measurable or quantifiable in the same way that votes are. They have more of a qualitative and indirect impact, which, though still important, typically does not have quite the same direct influence on political outcomes. And in the case of e-petitions, though they are quantifiable, even if one million people sign one, there is no real incentive or coercive mechanism for governments to transform that support into policy or meaningful change. Simply put: they are largely words unsupported by actions.

Voting is relatively unique in that it is direct and transactional. It is directly communicating with the political establishment, and it is transactional in the sense that you have something that politicians (or political representatives) want and in fact depend on. Your vote is an incentive for them to behave in a certain way. But voting isn’t an entirely unique form of political participation, and politicians aren’t the only influential actors that we can lobby or incentivise to pursue our interests.

It may be too extreme to say that every act is a political act, but it’s not far from the truth. When you take public transport to work instead of driving your car, you’re expressing an interest or a priority. When you buy a book from a bookstore instead of Amazon (or whatever it is that you use in the Netherlands, you crazy Dutch &*$£#@^s, as Dr. Evil would say) you are expressing a political belief, or rather, a belief about the way you think the world should be. If it is too extreme to say that every act is a political act, then it is certainly closer to the truth to say that every monetary act is a political act. This is because whenever you buy something, you are choosing to buy that thing instead of its alternative. The things that you buy, or choose to put your money towards, represent larger values. They represent the corporations or businesses that sell them. They represent values such as how we want workers to be treated, how we want animals to be treated, what things we want money to be invested into, how we want our products to be sourced, how we want businesses to behave. When it comes to the commercial world, your money is your vote. The businesses that we choose to support are the businesses that will succeed. The products that we choose to buy are the products that will be created. Or, to use an analogy, the products and businesses that we vote for are the ones that will be elected if enough of us vote for them.

Businesses are responsive. They respond to trends, to what is popular, i.e. what people are buying, or what people are “saying” with their money. Money talks (and no, not the film with Charlie Sheen and Chris Tucker), and money speaks louder than words (I thought this was a clever little play on the commonly used phrase, that I’d come up with just now, but it turns out it’s been used in headlines by several major publications *bows head in disappointment*). It’s all good and well signing a petition saying that Walmart should pay their workers more, but if you and everyone else keeps on shopping there, why should Walmart care? Words and beliefs need to be followed-up by actions. Furthermore, we need not only operate in the negative, we can actively support businesses that promote things that we value, or that embody a value or culture that we want to see more of. It’s like Gandhi said (or at least this quote is commonly attributed to him): “Be the change you want to see in the world”, or something along those lines. But in this case, I would amend it slightly to “Pay for the things you want to see in the world”.

The idea of being an “ethical consumer” is something that I’ve only started to take seriously in the last few months, since I’ve moved away from home. I think it’s because I’ve come to have a renewed and unprecedented sense of independence as an adult, probably because of the symbolic power of not living with my parents, and supporting myself through my work that also allows me some disposable income, which means that I can think more about where and how I want to spend my money. Some of the small changes and actions that I’ve tried to make over the last few months include:

  • Paying for things that I value: I listen to many podcasts, and one of the podcasts that I listen to most frequently and obtain the most value from is the public philosopher, neuroscientist and author Sam Harris’ podcast ‘Making Sense’ (formerly ‘Waking Up’). Sam used to have adverts on his podcast but then decided against it, as he felt that it wasn’t in keeping with his brand, which can broadly be summed up as “transparency and intellectual honesty”, and he felt that having adverts excessively jeopardised his perception as an objective and unbeholden public thinker. Because of this, he decided to experiment with relying solely on listener donations to support the podcast. Upon hearing about this, I felt compelled to make a regular monthly donation, or what I view as a voluntary subscription payment, of $7.99 a month. He articulates his specific reasons for not having ads on the podcast and who he thinks should donate and why, far better than I could, in a short seven-minute segment that, for a while, was included at the beginning of each podcast episode. One of the points that he makes highlights the fact that many of us don’t hesitate to pay several dollars/pounds/euros for a coffee nearly every single day, but that when it comes to something such as buying an online subscription for a newspaper, paying for a music subscription (although this appears to be less true nowadays), or, indeed, paying to listen to podcasts, we are far more hesitant. I think that one of the reasons that many of us feel this way, and is actually quite a difficult mindset to escape from, is the absence of any physical or tangible product. I think there’s a cultural expectation that information should be free, an idea that is discussed in depth on one of the podcast episodes with guest Jaron Lanier, considered a founding father of virtual reality. But this expectation is, ultimately, damaging to our own interests, because the less willing we are to pay for things that we use and value, the less of an incentive there will be for the people who create the things that we value to create them. This was seen in the music industry at the dawn of the internet, where people would download illegal copies of albums from various peer-to-peer opensource sites. I remember watching my brother (for legal purposes I won’t name which one) download endless albums, hot off the press, from LimeWire and Kazaa, and not feeling remotely guilty about it. It was a different time. But there seems to be an element of reduced accountability when there is no physical product, there’s less of an obvious victim and less of an obvious crime. Furthermore, you likely feel more instinctively willing to pay for a physical product, like a coffee, because the coffee that you’re buying is then owned by you, and it was made for you. Part of the beauty of information is that it can be shared literally infinitely, but that’s also part of its downfall, commercially. People feel that they’re not taking anything from anybody if they listen to an illegally streamed song, or if they watch an illegally streamed movie (come on, we’ve all done it), because there’s an infinite number of potential copies, but that’s not the way we should be thinking about it. It’s like that PSA that used to play on DVDs before the movie started, that started off with “You wouldn’t steal a car“, which probably convinced nobody ever to not illegally stream movies. The point of not expecting information or digital products to be free is that we would all agree that if no one bought any of these products and the producers of them went out of business that this would be a bad thing. So what we can logically infer when we don’t pay for products like these is that we simply expect that other people will shoulder the responsibility of ensuring the viability of the industry or business in question. People who take this view are called ‘freeriders’. Freeriders abstain from collective responsibility and assume that others will be good enough to pick up the slack. It’s not necessarily that they don’t care about society, it’s just a belief in the general goodness of the rest of humanity, and a reliance on it. We’ve all been guilty of it, but it’s something that we should all seek to do less. Of course, this is easier said than done if you don’t have any means by which to pay for anything, but the point is that if you do have the ability to pay, then you should. Ultimately, things like articles, songs and movies aren’t essential to live, you’re not entitled to them, so if you don’t feel that the price that’s being charged is worth it, then don’t buy it. But if there’s something that you think is good and that you find valuable, then show that you value it or that you appreciate it by paying for it. And if it turns out that it really didn’t give you any value, then hopefully they have a good returns policy! Other small examples of the way in which I’ve tried to adhere to this principle is that I recently made a one-off donation of £3 to Wikipedia. You’ve probably all seen those pop-ups on Wikipedia asking for support to keep it running, and for so long I just closed the pop-up and buried my proverbial head in the proverbial sand, and just trusted that it would keep on existing. But then I thought to myself one day how often I actually use Wikipedia, and the answer to that thought was: quite often indeed! Literally every time I Google something to find out more about it I go onto the Wikipedia page for it, and there’s a Wikipedia page for everything. It’s something that I take for granted but that I actually get a lot of value from. It satiates my thirst for knowledge. No, it may not be perfect, and you shouldn’t reference it in a report or an essay, but as a primer on any topic in existence, it’s a good start, and I believe a global public good. The other example is that whenever I’m in a cafe, I make sure that if I’m going to be there for a while that I buy what I would judge to be a fair amount of coffees, or other edible products. This doesn’t just apply in the case of small independent cafes that I want to make sure don’t go bust, but in any establishment that I choose to plant my laptop. I don’t want to be the guy in the corner who bought a single latte and stayed there for a full working day. I’ve used this analogy in a previous post, but I view buying coffee as paying rent. You wouldn’t go into a cafe, not buy anything, and spend the day there. Similarly, you wouldn’t buy a coffee there one time and think that you can go in there for as long as you want forever. I think this mentality should operate on a scale, a proportional one: the more time you spend in a cafe, the more you should buy. My rough unit conversion scale is that two hours of time spent there equals one coffee, and this is especially true on a busy day. If you want the place that you enjoy spending time at to stay open so you can continue to enjoy spending time there, then pay your damn rent!
  • Switching to more ethical service providers: When I moved to the Netherlands I obviously needed a few things to allow myself to become a functioning citizen in this new country. Among other things, I needed a new phone because I didn’t want to get rid of my British number because all of my friends and family use that, and it was registered to loads of websites and other services, so I felt that it would easier to have both a British and a Dutch number. So I went about looking for an affordable new phone. My first instinct was to look at one of the latest iPhones, because I’d had an iPhone for the last six or seven years so they were what I was used to, and they’re very user-friendly. But something that had nagged me about the iPhone, and Apple generally, is the way that it sources the materials for its products. Apple is infamous for using child labour to extract the minerals and metals that it uses in its products, and for having appalling factory conditions for its workers (so much so that it apparently has a net around its factory to prevent people from committing suicide). This was an example of one of those things where a lot of noise had been made about these issues but where nothing had been done because millions of people were still buying their products. A lot of bark but no bite. So I decided to research into more ethical alternatives and came across something called the Fairphone. It’s made by a Dutch company based in Amsterdam and uses conflict-free materials, meaning that it doesn’t buy its products from sources that potentially acquire them from militias or violent groups further up the supply chain. It also ensures that the people working for its suppliers are paid fairly. One of the students in one of my classes put it best when he said “It’s sort of like a fairtrade phone”. It’s also reasonably affordable compared to other phones, so I decided to give it a go. I’ll admit, it’s not the best phone, and it’s got a lot of irritating features that hopefully will change with the next model, but I feel good about my decision. It’s got a decent amount of memory and it’s got two sim-card holders, so I can use both my British and my Dutch sims simultaneously, which are two pretty handy features for me. Another decision that I needed to make was to choose a bank to open a current account with. I was already aware of some of the major banks in the Netherlands, such as ING, Rabobank, and ABN AMRO, so my default option was to choose one of them. For my last four years of living in the UK I had banked with HSBC, mainly because they offered me a good overdraft and a £60 Amazon voucher for opening a student account with them, but I also liked them because they were sleek and stylish, and used to have those really nice adverts that only corporations with massive creative budgets can have. But a massive story broke last year about HSBC helping drug cartels to launder money through its accounts, which left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth, and it wasn’t just the taste of the black coffee that I was drinking whilst reading the article (just kidding, I drink flat whites!). I already had a somewhat negative disposition towards big banks as it was, what with global financial crisis and all, so I decided it was time for a change. I looked up ethical banks in the Netherlands and found a nifty little website that compared every bank according to various metrics, such as transparency, environmental sustainability, investment in arms etc., and found that, on the issues that mattered to me, a bank called Triodos came out trumps. Triodos is, again, a Dutch company, but it has branches across Europe, including the UK. As of yet it doesn’t have English translations on its website, app, or paper correspondence, but that’s a small price to pay, and it might even help me learn a bit of Dutch.
  • Giving to charities that actually make a positive difference: I’ve given to a few charities over the last few years. I donated to the WWF whilst I was at university, because I felt that deforestation and species endangerment were issues that were quite important, both because of climate change and because of the responsibilities that I feel that we have towards other animals on this planet. I donated up until the point when I found out how inefficient the WWF was with its donations, and how much went on administration instead of actually helping the cause. I then went on a donation hiatus for a bit, until I was stopped in the street by a UNICEF volunteer, who made a pretty compelling case as to why I should donate £6.50 a week to them, mainly because of how far your money actually went, and how little was spent on administration. Then a story broke shortly afterwards that UNICEF, along with several other major charities, was implicated in a child-abuse scandal, in which aid-workers for these organisations had taken advantage of people that they had been tasked with protecting and supporting in disaster-stricken countries. I knew of course that it wasn’t UNICEF policy to promote and condone these acts, and I didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but their clear lack of proactivity regarding the issue concerned me, so I decided to cancel my donations. I found the whole problem of trying to find ethical and effective charities frustrating and time-consuming. I didn’t have the expertise or the time to sift through all of the charities for all of the issues and research each one individually to find which were scandal-free, financially efficient, and actually did what they said wanted to do. Fortunately, and coincidentally, on an episode of Making Sense that I was listening to one day, with guest Will MacAskill, CEO and founder of the Centre for Effective Altruism, I was introduced to the concept of ‘effective altruism’, which is essentially the idea of not just trying to do good, but of actually doing your best to make sure that your efforts at being good are successful. Many of us probably donate to a certain charity every month and feel that we are doing our bit. We donate the money to the organisation and that is where our donating journey ends. We leave it with the organisation and trust that they’ll use the money responsibility to make the world a better place. But this clearly isn’t always the case. But it’s also true that it’s reasonably unrealistic to expect the average person to spend time monitoring their chosen charity to make sure that they’re behaving. In the episode, Will mentions an organisation called, quite aptly/efficiently/unimaginatively, ‘Effective Altruism’ (EA). What Effective Altruism does is it allows you to choose a donation amount, specify whether you would like your donation to be recurring or a one-off, and then choose what proportion of your money that you would like to be donated to which funds, namely: Global Development Fund, Animal Welfare Fund, Long-Term Future Fund, and Effective Altruism Meta Fund. I chose to go 50:25:15:10, respectively. EA takes the thinking out of donating, and leaves you with the pure, fuzzy feeling of being a good person, unsullied by the uncertainty of not knowing whether your donation is being used well. It basically defers authority to the experts, which is probably how it should be done. You just…

Set it and forget it


The point of this post wasn’t to virtue signal and show you guys how much of a good person I am, but to demonstrate that there are actually very small, actionable changes that you can make in your spending habits that can make the world a better place. Of course, there are limits to this concept. We all have financial constraints, we can’t all buy fairtrade food all of the time, and there are some industries in which the ethical choice is the unaffordable one, but the point is to do what we can collectively to shift the tide of social change in the direction of the way that we want to see the world be in the future. We all have values and things that we care about, so we should all do what we can to promote those values, and hopefully, if enough of us do this, then the commercial world will take notice and respond to those trends and changing habits. Political participation doesn’t begin and end at the ballot-box, it’s a daily process that we engage in with our wallets, so we should act accordingly.

Dank je wel!

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