Blaming Consumers is a Cop Out
[Update: On Orhtheory, Jerry Davis object to my comment (which was the first draft of this post) for claiming that he is calling to blame the consumer.]
[Update 2: Davis also makes his objections in this comments to this post. My response is here]
[Update 3: Jim Naureckas has a good post on this topic: You’re to Blame for Factory Deaths. Well, You and Walmart]
[Update 4: You can take the National Consumers’ League 10 cent pledge here.]
Speaking of the awful Bangladesh factory disaster that killed at least a thousand people, Brayden King at Orgtheory quotes Jerry Davis in the New York Times who blames consumers for working conditions in the Third World. In essence, consumer demand for cheap products are what forces wages down and makes working conditions so dangerous, so the blame lies with those consumers.
I see a few problems with this. First, if the all-powerful consumer was driving this, we wouldn’t see businesses making high profits, because that too raises costs. This is not the case. Second, even with expensive goods, where consumers are willing and even eager to pay high prices, we see similar working conditions (think Apple products).
In addition, “our willingness” to buy products produced under these conditions is an odd way to talk about it. Businesses spend a lot of energy obscuring these working conditions, to tell those who are concerned about it that they have improved them, will work to improve them, or that they aren’t that bad or that they are inevitable. Beyond that, it’s not clear what consumers are supposed to do. If all products were clearly labeled to give us a full sense of the conditions in which they were made, it’s not as if it would be possible to simply avoid such products. Anyone who’s ever spent time trying to do this knows while you can occasionally find something made in fair conditions, it’s next to impossible to do it consistently. Despite the myth that markets always provide broad choice, this is simply not the case.
There’s also the question of where consumer demand comes from. Does it spring immaculate from the unorganized consumers, or do corporations shape it? John Kenneth Galbraith argued long ago that it was the latter, and this makes more sense to me. Did consumers rise up and demand cheaper, lower quality goods? Or did corporations decide this was a better way for them to make money, especially given the wage stagnation of the neoliberal era?
What would this new price increase look like? Here’s Bryce Covert at Think Progress:
So how much would clothing prices rise for the average consumer if all of the costs of upgrading Bangladesh factories were passed on to them?
According to an estimate provided by the Worker Rights Consortium, it could be as little as 10 cents per article of clothing. The group comes to this figure by estimating that building renovation, safety equipment installation, and other related costs would come to about $3 billion, which is says is a high estimate that assumes virtually all factory buildings need major renovations, as some may not. Spreading that cost over five years, it comes to $600 million each year, and tacking 10 cents on to each of the roughly 7 billion garments exported from the country each year would easily cover that cost. After the initial investment in renovations, the group says the costs of maintenance will drop significantly.
Is it really plausible that consumers are so attuned to price that such a small sort of increase would make a difference? And note, this assume the entire cost of the increase would be passed along directly to consumers, while there’s little doubt that the corporations are in a far better position to absorb some of the losses.
While Davis tells consumers it’s up to them to fix this, King only agrees with this “in principle.”
[C]onsumers are actually very inertial creatures. If we put all our hopes in changing the global marketplace in the wallets of people like Joe Schmoe from Brownsburg, Indiana, we’re not likely to see much change. Most changes in supply chain management begin with a few committed activists who are willing to go out and pressure the company through “naming and shaming” tactics. Public humiliation still seems to work.
In terms of the remedy, I think King is right. But it’s not just inertia, but the ability to act – the mass of consumers aren’t organized, and even if they were, it’s almost impossible to buy products that are made in better conditions. That makes voice, as opposed to exit, the more fruitful strategy.
But when people believe that consumers are what drives this, I think they are less likely to engaging in these naming and shaming tactics, because consumer choice is seen as default legitimate.
Blaming consumers, like blaming voters, is a cop out.