As our nation debated President Obama’s health care legislation, the CEO and founder of Whole Foods, John Mackey, presented his own proposals for a free-market health care system. In doing so, he slammed the Obama plan. Given the perception of Whole Foods as a haven for progressives, many customers were stunned that its leadership would take a position opposing health care reform. A “Boycott Whole Foods” page on Facebook quickly had more than 16,000 members.
This past week, the Governor of Arizona signed into law a controversial immigration law. Within minutes, calls were being made for opponents of the legislation to boycott Arizona tourism.
These are the times in which we live. On a regular basis, consumers are called upon to boycott companies and products that support policies we find offensive. More than ever, we are told to vote with our checkbook or perhaps in a more modern fashion with our credit cards and PayPal accounts.
For those who believe that the political consumer battles of the 21st century have significance, THE OVERLOADED LIBERAL by Fran Hawthorne may be your shopping guide. In a light, breezy and sometimes humorous style, Hawthorne confronts the dilemma of applying contemporary political values to everyday market decisions, which are not as simple as many would think.
The aforementioned Whole Foods and its competitor, Costco, exemplify the quandary created by principled shopping. By classic definition, Costco is the big-box behemoth that progressive shoppers should avoid. Through pricing and size, it has destroyed many small independent merchants. Whole Foods labels products by country of origin. The produce is organic, additive-free and clearly marked for consumers. Yet Costco is a more labor-friendly organization than Whole Foods. Therein lies the rub: Do you buy at Costco, the more labor-friendly store, or do you support the smaller merchant where prices may be higher? No one said that politically active shopping was easy.
THE OVERLOADED LIBERAL is honest enough to recognize that strict application of progressive values might paralyze shoppers altogether. It is difficult to purchase clothing that was not manufactured in a country where workers are treated in a fashion that Americans would consider deplorable. But one person’s sweatshop is another’s desirable job that, by local standards, produces a more than adequate standard of living. Do you protest the poor working conditions by boycotting the merchandise? If you do, then your wardrobe will be very limited.
Hawthorne does not provide readers with an easy answer to shopping in an age of political activism. But that was not her intention in this book. Pointing out that these decisions are not easy and often have wide-ranging implications open the reader’s eyes to the difficulty of consumerism in this era. As another example, joining food co-ops with volunteer workers may mean that grocery stores will cut jobs and workers will lose salaries. Selecting foreign organic products over chemically produced domestic items may seem beneficial, but those foreign items come at the cost of carbon emissions from shipping them around the globe. There is a cost for everything, often measured in something beyond dollars.
This is a thoughtful and provocative book. By the way, the issues raised here are not solely for those on the left side of the political spectrum. Many conservatives confront similar moral dilemmas as they purchase food, clothing and appliances. But finding common ground on this issue has become as difficult as every other political debate. Regardless of your political views, THE OVERLOADED LIBERAL will help you address consumerism in the era of politically active shopping.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 14, 2011