Can We Shop Our Way to a Better World?

Over the years, I’ve noticed two distinct groups of people among my friends and allies:  “Activists”, people who strive to change policy, who organize campaigns and protests, who get involved in elections; and “localists”, folks who focus on what they do in their own households and communities, often including efforts to build better local economies and food systems.   One of the things that differentiates these groups is the question of how we shop and how we eat.  Localists tend to see that as a very important issue, both morally and practically.  Activists tend to downplay the significance of shopping choices in building a better world, or just as often, simply don’t think about it.


I know many folks who defy these categories, people who are both politically engaged yet very conscious of what they do in their local economies and how their shopping impacts the world.  And I love you guys!  But unfortunately, you’re the exception to the rule.  In my experience, most localists avoid (or even abhor) politics and social change work, while most activists minimize or ignore the importance of our shopping habits.


Briefly then, here are five things I hope you’ll consider:


1.     Localism works, helping to support and build better food systems and more diverse local economies.  But it’s not enough, as we surely can see from our present state of politics and public discourse.  It hasn’t “added up” to a more just and democratic world.

2.     Activism, for social change, for justice and workers, for the environment is critically important, now more than ever.  But…

3.     While activism tends to happen in spurts, in campaigns, we eat – and for most of us, shop – every day.  We participate in the marketplace almost constantly and most of what we earn pays for the goods and services other people/companies produce.

4.     How we participate in the marketplace, what, where and how we shop is about more than just fulfilling needs or meeting preferences.  It is our investment.  When we buy from Amazon, we are investing in one of the largest, most powerful and dominant corporations on the planet.  Only slightly less so for Walmart, Tyson, CVS and others.

5.     If we want our localism to add up to a better world, we need to get engaged in the social and political world, to move our elected representatives and policies to support the healthier, more resilient communities we’re working to build.  If we want our activism to have impact, we need our shopping habits to embody and support the policies we’d like to see.  It’s utterly counterproductive to protest Monsanto and call for challenging monopoly power in the US while buying from – investing in - Amazon or the corporate food system we so dislike.


Changing habits isn’t easy, and there’s no doubt that shopping locally, responsibly is both more challenging and more expensive in many of our communities.  But for a lot of us, local farmers markets are a great place to start.  And don’t just go there for a couple of items.  Go there to shop, to buy as many of your groceries as you can.  And while you’re in town, visit and support other local businesses.  Let’s invest much more in our neighbors, much less in corporate giants.