We may easily feel a sense of worthiness as consumers when we purchase a product that we are told will, say, help fund research toward a cure for cancer. But how do we know our money is actually being used for the cause we are intending to support? This is only one of the troubling questions explored in Shopping for Change, an anthology that sheds light on the ways we disrupt, challenge, and utilize consumerism in the interest of affecting social progress. The anthology is structured around the provocative question of whether consumerism, rooted in capitalism, can actually create social change. Taken in tandem, the pieces in the book demonstrate that there is no easy – let alone correct – answer to this inquiry.
Editors Louis Hyman and Joseph Tohill have assembled a group of essays that cover a wide variety of labour movements, campaigns, and ideologies spanning several decades. Although the resulting collection is at times a struggle to work through, the various authors enliven the content by focusing on memorable examples of consumer activism. The chapters are organized by theme, with vivid characters anchoring each topic. A chapter focusing on the 1984 Burger King boycotts, for instance, introduces a second-grade student named Oriana De Forst, who enthusiastically participated in the protest of the fast-food chain’s use of beef from Central America.
The pace of the book, which lags at times as a result of an overly academic tone, picks up toward the middle with a chapter on the history of black American consumers’ co-operatives in the early to mid-20th century. From that point, the anthology covers thought-provoking subjects such as pinkwashing (an attempt by marketers to promote a good or service as LGBTQ-positive) and greenwashing (a similar attempt to position a product or company as environmentally responsible). One intriguing chapter explores the ways well-intentioned consumers are often ill-informed about their supposedly ethical purchasing patterns.
That the anthology refrains from presenting a monolithic view of consumer activism is one of its strengths. While most of the essays provide relatively neutral or optimistic views of their subjects, one author flat-out rejects the notion that individual consumers are capable of creating social change on their own. By providing a multiplicity of viewpoints on the overarching theme, Shopping for Change leaves us thinking deeply about who is responsible, and who should be held accountable, for creating a more sustainable future.