December 1, 2022

anything but your wallet

a gazebo on a little peninsula with ducks floating nearby
photo caption: a gazebo on a tiny peninsula surrounded by ducks, water, and rocks. Thin trees line the background of the photo. If ducks could vote with their wallets I don’t think they’d be getting so much bread.

No matter the activist circle you’re in, everyone wants to bring about change. How do we create the conditions for the world we want to see? Most groups try to court people where they are. If our change includes something the public wants, and we make it somewhat easy to do, then a brand new world is easy. Seems simple, right? It’s not! Change at the individual level is hard to begin and harder to maintain. Anyone familiar with starting a new diet or workout plan knows how hard it is to make change stick.

Another phrase that comes up a lot about painless change is, “vote with your wallet.” This is also known as conscious consumerism (blek). Say you believe that organic vegetables are healthier and better for the environment. If you only buy organic, the theory goes, that creates demand. Spread the word among your friends about the benefits, and they switch too. Farmers will (somehow) see this spike in demand and start growing more organic crops. More and more people buy organic vegetables over time. The price drops and eventually replaces conventional pesticide-laden growing practices.

People who believe in free markets believe they can sway corporations this way. They can bring about change by putting their money into one or another product. Voting with your wallet is a convenient form of protest. Choose to spend money here instead of there. Convince your friends to join you. Chances are high that it won’t make a difference to the local stores you shop at. Those chances are even worse against a billion dollar behemoth.

Capitalism approximates community engagement in this way. People feel good about spending their money in a different way. They’re still spending money; it doesn’t fix the underlying problems with our system. While it might seem harmless, voting with your wallet does more damage than that.

Why doesn’t this work?

One reason is that it requires on individual actions rather than collective power. It’s also unequal. Not everyone has money to vote with. Not everyone has equal access to choose where they shop and what they shop for.

For instance, I don’t like the local supermarket. They’re vehement about their anti-union stance. They are antagonistic against the people living homeless near them. I choose not to shop there when I can help it. But I know that my silent protest has had no real impact to their bottom line. I’ve also lost any real power or access to influence their actions in other ways.

But that’s just me. Beyond that, I have privilege that even grants me that choice. I have access to a car I can drive. I choose to shop for my groceries at a store that’s further from my home. Some people can’t afford to shop at a different store, or they don’t have access to a car or public transit. This market might be their only option. How do they vote with their wallet in that situation?

what can we do instead?

Work to change systems, not people. Lily Zheng wrote about this in recently in an article I can’t stop referencing. Asking for individuals to change takes time and doesn’t always work. Instead, we should focus on changing systems and the people who can change those systems. Is there a policy or regulation that could effect the change we seek? Our energy would be much better spent nudging those decision-makers instead.

Raise public awareness. One of the biggest issues with voting with your wallet is how individual it is. It’s hard to generate enough word of mouth to turn individual acts into collective action. Media coverage can help spread the word, but it isn’t everything.

Divert power to the powerless. Who lacks access to power and authority? How can you share that power? You may not be able to create change with dollars. What would help instead? Input, collaboration, and leadership in making real change.

Try lobbying. Truly the only “vote with your wallet” strategy that works. If you have millions or billions of dollars, it’s super easy to vote with your wallet.

Voting with your wallet is easy to do. It’s great to support the businesses you believe in over the ones you don’t. But it’s in same category of activism as liking or sharing a cause on social media. It can be a part of your strategy, but not your entire strategy. It doesn’t release us from the harder work of pushing for real change.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space