Surely you’ve heard the argument that with each dollar we spend, we cast a vote for the kind of world we believe in. Anna Lappe gets credit for the quote but I think the idea has surfaced often over the last few decades in various arenas of the public and academic sphere. I take issue with this line of argument in many ways. For one, it is dangerous to confuse voting with shopping. They are not the same thing, nor should they be. But more importantly, it evades the important question of what is placed on the ballot in the first place.
To be clear I believe there is a place for ethical consumerism and that choosing more carefully where we spend our money can effect some degree of change. Buying local or buying green products helps to slowly expand the market for these kinds of items and perpetuates the values they derive from. Certainly boycotting a particular brand or product can similarly help to shrink a market and encourage alternatives. However, we cannot shop our way to better, more sustainable regulation and legislative action. Spending every Saturday morning at the farmer’s market doesn’t do enough to demand a change in factory farming practices. Outfitting your roof with solar panels, while a fantastic demonstration of conscience, doesn’t stop the coal industry from trudging on. And no matter how many times you eat lunch at Chick-fil-a, clicking your proverbial heels, you’re never going to walk back out into a world in which gay people don’t exist.
Moreover, we cannot shop our way to less consumption. We can work to harness our waste, treat our property well so that it lasts as long as possible, and be a bit more discerning about our purchases making wastefulness a part of the criterion used for making ethical decisions while we shop. Still, if our desire is to vote with our money, we’re inevitably going to be forced to sacrifice some values in order to “stand up” for others. Not to mention, we’re going to be out-spent.
That being said, it strikes me as significant that so many companies with merchandise for sale in our country find it acceptable to lie, deceive, and otherwise try to hide the contents of their products from the consumers who buy them. California’s proposition 37 has really brought this issue to fore in recent weeks. With corporate agribusiness exceeding $32 million in dollars spent fighting the initiative that would require genetically engineered foods be listed on product labels and that would forbid such products from being marketed as ‘natural’, one cannot help but shake their head at the state of our food industry. After all, the measure is far from oppressive allowing exemptions for alcoholic beverages, restaurant food, hospital food, and probably even school lunches. Our meat would still be packaged as usual – – no label changes for animals fed GM foods. No label changes for foods whose weight contains .5% or less of GM ingredients either. A rather approachable initiative, if anything I would argue it does too little, not too much.
It is no surprise that Monsanto has taken the lead in opposing this proposition. The bigger surprise is the list of allies Monsanto has found in their information war.
Rights of the consumer aside, people have a right to know what is in their food. We have a right to know what we’re eating, where it comes from, and how it was grown. There is a reason chicken farms don’t let folks stroll in and snap photographs. Its the same reason companies like Conagra, Dean Foods, and General Mills don’t want customers knowing what goes into their organic milk products and ‘natural’ granola bars. They’re not afraid of going out of business, they’re afraid of having to change their business practices.
It is ironic that some on the far right can claim America is not business friendly. With all the corporate outcry against the costs new labeling laws would force upon them, the unaware citizen might be surprised to know that 50 countries around the world already require GMO labeling, including all of Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, India, and China.
Although the new labeling laws won’t go into effect until July 2014, I believe proposition 37 is an important step for our country. If the legislation passes in California, it will likely open up the gates for new labeling laws across the country. So, please, California: vote yes on Proposition 37. Stand up for our right to know.