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Dec. 23 2009 - 2:44 pm | 29 views | 2 recommendations | 8 comments

Attention Christmas Shoppers: What You Buy Is Not A Moral Choice


Image by Getty Images via Daylife

At the dawn of this decade, President George W. Bush invited heaps of scorn when he exhorted Americans to “go shopping” as a patriotic duty. My, how things have changed in the ensuing nine years! For the same bobo elites who chortled at Bush’s crass plea for more commerce now treat their shopping habits as profound moral choices.

To be sure, since at least the European early modern era, people have defined themselves in part by their consumer habits. Simon Schama’s magisterial history of the Dutch golden age, The Embarrassment of Riches, for example, describes how the elite public sphere in seventeenth century Holland defined itself by its sense of “taste” – that is, by what it consumed. (How else can we explain the use of the word “taste” to describe consumer preferences that extend far beyond food and drink?)

But there is a stark contrast between the way those choices are viewed today, and the way they were in times past. For until very recently, consumer choices were considered aesthetic choices – ones’ taste in food, clothing, or art said something about how refined ones’ palate was. Today, consumer choices are meant to say something about the morality of the buyer. This is a profound and disturbing shift.

Consider the way our major corporations shill their products these days. Boutique retailers like American Apparel and the Body Shop have long marketed themselves based on dubious claims to a higher morality, but these days, even the most mainstream of corporations are getting in on the act. Target’s brand image is partially based on its reputation for social reponsibility. Even the dread Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in America, positions itself as a force for social good now: it claims that its presence helps to lower costs across the country, and that it is now officially a “green” company.

Our elite media organs further amplify this attitude. I’ve long used the online magazine Slate as a barometer for whatever trends are currently en vogue among the squishy American center-left. Sure enough, just yesterday, the ostensibly contrarian magazine ran a piece describing how to “support a worthy cause by buying cool products.”

All of this obscures the plain fact: shopping choices are not moral choices. They’re just what they the term indicates: shopping choices. Nothing more. And to add insult to injury, many of the allegedly “moral” choices people make with their dollars do harm rather than good. Consider: the ‘buy local’ movement is a self-righteous mask for tribalism, a retrograde attitude that has bedeviled humanity for far too long. And the push to buy products made in America is predicated on the toxic notion that Chinese workers are less deserving of work than Americans.

Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that “shopping” has become a cheap and easy substitute for real, meaningful social change. If you think you are doing good by merely opening your wallet, what is your incentive to actually get in the trenches and do the hard work of activism? As Yours Truly put it in the New York Press earlier this year, “fair-trade” coffee fanatics “believe that they can satisfy their craving for improving the world by simply satisfying their craving for a latte.”

Christmas is two days away. So, to quote our much maligned former president: go shopping! Enjoy yourself! And don’t fret about the “morality” of the products you purchase.

Merry Christmas to all.


3 T/S Member Comments Called Out, 8 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    It’s definitely healthy to be skeptical of corporate claims of social responsibility, but your argument lacks substance.

    If two companies charge the same amount of money for the same product, but one gives 10 percent of the purchase price to your cause of choice, that’s not a moral choice? Why? You never actually provide a reason for this, other than because you say so.

    Has shopping really become a “substitute” for social change? Is there data that suggests people have stopped giving to charities since now they can just “give” by buying crap?

    This sounds like the hackneyed kids-these-days argument you see in virtually every opinion piece about something someone doesn’t like. When was this great period of civic engagement that has been substituted with this ersatz activism?

    Also, I’m not trying to refute your characterization of American Apparel et al’s claims of “higher morality” as dubious, but without any sort of context (howabout a link?), they seem, well, dubious.

    The only linked evidence you provide is a piece that says aligning themselves with the communities they operate in has been good for Target’s business. So what, exactly, is the problem? Should businesses not profit off social engagement? That sounds downright anti-business. Are Target’s claims disingenuous? You hint at it, but don’t come out and say it.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that there’s no information in this post, and the thesis is that since a lot of companies use social responsibility as a marketing tool, we should all just spurn products tied to causes and go back to good ol’ conspicuous consumption.

    It would be really interesting to see an investigation into how the actual actions of companies compare to their claims of social responsibility. At least your buddy at NY Press linked to a CS Monitor piece exposing some damning stuff about fair trade.

    But you just put up some strawmen (who are these bobo elites that are patting themselves on the back? Can you link to them? Surely they have blogs, since they love themselves so much) to take down with your own counter-smugness.

    I share your skepticism, but not your partisan but-when-Bush-did-it-you-chortled hyperbole.

    • collapse expand

      Nice reply, but your argument helps point to a generational divide.

      I don’t think the sentence “Target’s brand image is partially based on its reputation for social reponsibility” hints at disingenuosness. It’s a particle of information toward painting a bigger picture about the lack of real activism today.

      It’s not the kids, it’s everyone. Matter of fact, the kids are well aware that their generation is being thrown under the bus, what with the total lack of any sane progress on the fronts of climate change and national debt.

      Let’s go there: healthy nonsmoking 20somethings will be mandated to pay for health insurance, with Boomers receiving the benefit of a lower age requirement for Medicare, isn’t that so, or has the Medicare thing been written out of the bill? (Or does anyone really know?)

      Regardless, “Don’t trust anyone over 30″ has never rung more true for a generation. Epstein’s core messages, in case your (quite good and thought-provoking) posturing as devil’s advocate kept you too busy to notice, is that there’s no substitute – none – for real activism. Consciously choosing – not that anyone really does, let’s be real – to buy your socks from Target instead of Walmart because Target might donate a few wrestling mats to the local high school (which, come to think of it, will be full of well-off white kids, if I’m correctly smelling the elitism in Target’s preference of “successful” communities in which to sell their foreign-made bullshit) is about as proactively progressive as watching The Wire and thinking that your tsk-tsks will somehow save Baltimore. As a giant corporate entity that exploits all phases of labor and runs over the mom-and-pops, Target is part of the problem, you see, not some sort of “progressive choice.”

      Nothing personal. And Merry Christmas, like my generation used to say when we was kids.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    While I somewhat agree with your “consumerism is consumerism” rant, you ride off the rails with your “tribalism retrograde” crack.

    When did things start to go wrong for our species (and, by extension, the planet)? About the time enough bodies were bred to enable large tribes to war on other, smaller tribes (generally enslaving when not killing the target.) This is how larger tribes led to cities, states, and empires.

    Your veiled and misplaced praise of Big Humanity effectively invalidates your main point. “Consumerism” wouldn’t exist without so many deluded hairless apes to pitch product to; the primary reason there’s such a market for you to lament the moralizing of is the infrastructure created to support so many of us beyond the tribal grouping.

    With peak everything just around the corner, we’ll likely have to return to tribalism just to survive. You may want to re-think your Small Humanity prejudice (unless you plan on escaping by consuming a Virgin Galactic ticket.)

  3. collapse expand

    Mr. Epstein,

    Your posts have the unhealthy habit beginning with strawman position or situation which is called “liberalism”. The posts then seem to disagree with this cartoonish caricature but do not quite come out and say so. The reader is then unclear what the point that is trying to be made is.

    In this case, the post begins with the supposed attack on President Bush by some unnamed but presumably liberal opponents for his suggestion that Americans should shop in response to 9/11. However the linked page was not a critique of the suggestion per se, or from “liberal” political opponents, but from a historian who argued that it was emblematic of Mr. Bush’s larger errors of not asking Americans to sacrifice in response to 9/11. The critique was the Mr. Bush too the easy route of “borrow and spend” to fund the “War on Terror” and not raising taxes to keep the budget balanced while fighting al Qaeda. There was no vast “chortling” at the time of Mr. Bush’s statement nor after. The point was about balanced budgets and not “commercialism”.

    Then it is suggested that now the same unnamed and uncited liberals are advancing exactly the same commercialism but with a focus of moral superiority. In fact it is politically conservative forces like the cited Wal-Mart, Target, and other bastions of free enterprise who are marketing themselves as corporate “good citizens”. The posting insinuates that there is something wrong with gigantic corporations run by political conservatives that market themselves as being socially responsible but does not actually say so. If so, was then George W. Bush advocacy of commercialism as a response to 9/11 wrong or was his commercialism good because it was non-socially responsible? If socially responsible commercialism is OK, then there is nothing wrong with what Wal-Mart and Target are doing the post has no point.

    Confusing matters further, you attack people who buy socially responsible products for thinking that they are a substitute for real social progress. There is tet another straw man offered, no one thinks that drinking a latte will solve the worlds problems and no one who is socially active will stop being so because of which coffee they drink.

    The whole posting is total muddle.

  4. collapse expand

    I usually enjoy a writer who mocks the left, but you come across as a whiny runt who was always picked last for kickball. I would suggest trying to come across less geeky.

    Incidentally Ayn Rand strongly promulgated that purchasing by a consumer was a moral choice (and hence linked capitalism with democracy) and she is not one typically referred to as a member of the “squishy center left”.

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    About Me

    I'm a writer based in Portland, Oregon. My work has appeared in the Weekly Standard, the American Spectator, the New York Press, The Big Money, sp!Ked online, the Epoch Times, the Daily NK, and others. From 2005 to 2007, I wrote a column on culture and politics for the (alas, now defunct) Seattle-based Internationalist Magazine. In so doing, I filed dispatches from Berlin, Seoul, Paris, New York, and, yes, Reno - among other places. In 2009, I reported on business from Shanghai. I attended Reed College, in Portland, Oregon.

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