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Shopping With Your Values In Mind


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, a federal judge says Detroit is eligible for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. And that means pensions could be on the chopping block. We'll talk about what exactly all this means for people in the Motor City.

But first, we want to talk about our personal economies, what kind of difference our spending or not spending can make on issues that are important to all of us. There were boycott threats last week at some of the stores that opened their doors early on Thanksgiving Day. People said workers and shoppers should stay home and enjoy time with family and friends. Earlier this year, there were also calls to boycott clothing stores like Gap and Banana Republic after a factory collapse in Bangladesh killed more than a hundred people. And surely you remember the Chick-fil-A dustup. That's when an executive spoke out against same-sex marriage, and many people said that people should boycott the chain to oppose that point of view there. We wanted to know whether shopping your values actually works and how you can actually do it. So we're joined now by two people who've thought about this. David Sirota is a nationally syndicated columnist. He's a reporter for the website PandoDaily. Also with us is Mario Loyola. He's a contributor to National Review Online. He's also a regular in our Barbershop conversations. Welcome back to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

DAVID SIROTA: Thanks for having us.

MARIO LOYOLA: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, David, let me start with you because you recently wrote about this in an article for Salon. You wrote that consumerism and political activism can go hand-in-hand. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

SIROTA: Yeah. I mean, I think that especially in the age of ubiquitous technology where people can have all sorts of information right on their cell phone right when they're shopping, there is a potential for people to have a better understanding of who they are patronizing when they are in a store, where their money is going to, what the politics and the values of the producers of goods really are. There's an app, for instance, called Buycott - B-U-Y-C-O-T-T - a play on boycott, which you can use a bar scanner to scan the number of a product and get something of the company that produced its political profile, where it's giving some of its political contributions.

And there's the Environmental Working Group, which allows you to go on and look at different products in terms of their chemical makeup and where they're sourcing their products from. I mean, here's the thing, you can definitely go crazy with this. You can go down the rabbit hole and never come out because there's just so much information out there. So I don't see us doing that. But I do think it's definitely empowering for consumers to have at least some semblance of an idea - if they want to have that idea - to know where their money is actually going and what it's actually going to support.

MARTIN: Mario, what about you? Where do you stand on this?

LOYOLA: Well, Dave says that it's good for there to be more information out there. But, I mean, the potential here is that there's not going to be nearly enough, right? I mean, because when a consumer decides that he's not going to purchase a piece of clothing made of Lycra because it comes from the Koch brothers, they might instead buy something made in a sweatshop in Southeast Asia somewhere, right? And so the potential for hypocrisy here is really huge, right?

I mean, and that's just inherent in when you go after particular people over particular issues instead of advocating for universal human rights, right? When you organize a campaign against a particular person or a particular issue, you better be really sure that you're right because otherwise you're not an agent of social justice. You could just be an agent of what amounts to persecution, right?

MARTIN: Is there an example of where you think that has happened, Mario, because as we discussed in the introduction here, there are people with all different political perspectives who have used their consumer power to make a point, like the Chick-fil-A example?

People from both sides of the political spectrum decided that they wanted to respond to those statements by that executive, either by supporting the business - I mean, you saw in some parts of the country and in some stores, people made a particular point to eat there and on a particular day in order to say - either show support for the executive's right to have political opinions, even if ones - that people don't agree with. And other people made a point of, you know, not shopping there or, you know, making other statements to show that they disagreed with those statements. So...

LOYOLA: Yeah, look, I mean, I - at one level, this is a personal choice thing, right? And a lot of people, you know, would look at it as a moral thing. I mean, for example, there's a Cuban restaurant in Austin that has a picture of Che Guevara on the wall, which, you know - which is sort of like putting a picture of Hermann Goering up in a German restaurant. The owners know that it's going to be offensive. They're Cuban. They know that it's going to offend people. And it does, so I don't go there because I don't, you know - because I don't want to see a picture of Che Guevara up on a wall while I'm eating. But it's not - but I'm not going to organize a campaign against them.

MARTIN: But why not?

LOYOLA: You know what I mean?

MARTIN: Maybe you're not, but why...

LOYOLA: Because they have a right to - they have a right to, you know - they have a right to put whatever picture they want up there. And, you know, there are people who think that the Cuban Revolution's great, chiefly people who don't know anything about it. And they can go to the Cuban restaurant and enjoy their Cuban food. I mean, there's a kind of intolerance in this kind of thing, you know what I mean? I mean, it's not - I mean, take the example of the campaign against Russia's anti-gay laws, right?

I mean, it's not obvious that every nation on earth should have exactly the same norms on these social issues at exactly the same time as we have them, right? And the other thing is that it's very - is what I said, the potential for hypocrisy when you go after a particular person, right? I mean, the people that are organizing the campaign against the Russian government for their anti-gay laws - you know, if they were really so concerned about the treatment of gays around the world, they would have gone after the Palestinians first, right? Because the Palestinians...


LOYOLA: ...In Palestine, they treat gays a hundred times worse than in Russia, right?

MARTIN: OK, all right. Well, let's hear from David on this. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about the whole question of shopping your values - what does that mean? We're hearing from people with two very different perspectives on this. Columnist Mario Loyola - that's who was speaking just now - and David Sirota. David?

SIROTA: Well, I would say that - a couple things. There's definitely - Mario's making a two-wrongs-don't-make-a-right argument, or I would say he's making that. I would say two wrongs don't make a right. I mean, if one company's doing one thing bad and another company is doing another thing bad, then consumers should try to know - or should at least have the ability to know - all of that information, and the more information the better. I think that, ultimately, major companies don't actually respond and change their business practices until their bottom lines are affected. And I think that this is a way for consumers to both buy the goods that they believe that they need and also make sure that their dollars are being spent in a way that adheres to at least some of their values.

And I think that is really - I think that really empowers consumers to make the choices that they should be empowered to make. I mean, if information is out there about what a company is doing - and I think there should be laws on the books that make sure that that information is out there - then consumers who want to know that information should have the ability to use that information. And I think that's a good thing because otherwise what we're really saying is - is that the market, even though it is a very political instrument - that where your dollars go is supporting all sorts of business practices and politics.

Without that information, what we're saying is the market should supposedly be depoliticized at the consumer end. The consumer should just have to spend blindly. And the people getting that money - collecting that money - should then be able to use that money in an overtly political or value judgment kind of way. And I think this actually brings - the consumer purchasing with politics in mind, or at least the ability to, brings those two things into line, where the market has at least an understanding of the politics of where money is actually going.

MARTIN: David, do you think it actually makes a difference? I mean, you see that this kind of shopping-your-values perspective, at least on the part of - well, actually I think people on both sides have ridiculed people on the other side for their willingness and desire to do this. I mean, we have seen this. I mean, we've seen, for example, on the right that people have urged people to insist that store clerks say Merry Christmas and not happy holidays because they believe that Christmas is being deemphasized. And you've seen people on the left ridicule that. On the other hand, you've seen people ridicule the concern that a lot of progressives have with, like, where their food is sourced, for example...

SIROTA: Yeah, well, let me give you an example...

MARTIN: ...Or whether the animals are free range. Go ahead.

SIROTA: I mean, I do think it works. I'll give you an example from Wal-Mart. I mean, Wal-Mart, as an example, has been responding to - and you can take issue with whether it's responded effectively or not - but it has certainly responded to the push from consumers who want to buy organic and who want to support more sustainable farming practices. And Wal-Mart has responded to that consumer demand by making - or at least saying that it's making - more of its produce come from organic sources. Similarly, with all sorts of light bulbs and energy efficiencies, Wal-Mart has responded. Now, again, I think you could say that Wal-Mart should've responded even more strongly than it has. But my point here is clearly businesses respond to consumers when consumers in mass decide to start buying with their political values in mind.

MARTIN: And, Mario, is your chief concern or objection to this that - not that people do it, but that they kind of do it as a fad without really thinking it through? Or do you think it's ineffective? What is your chief objection to this idea?

LOYOLA: Yes, well, first of all, I mean, I think it's great that people eat organic. I myself prefer to eat organic produce, you know. And so there's that personal choice. And it's great when demand evolves and the market responds to it. My concern with it - it's the potential for misinformation to be animating the entire campaign, right? I mean, it's one thing to say, you know, we think that soda is bad for people. We think that agribusiness produce is terrible. So I'm going to try to raise awareness about how great and happy you will be if you have organic produce instead.

I mean, there your campaign is targeted at the particular product involved and the politics of that product. It's quite a different thing when you say, I'm going to target the business - I'm going to target the business of these 10 companies because they're supporting someone else because of their political views, right? And because of political views that I'm attributing to them that they may not even have.

MARTIN: OK. Let me just - we're almost out of time, so I want to give each of you a final thought. And you've actually - each of you have been addressing this in your own way. But the last question is, if there is someone who's listening to our conversation who does want to embrace consumer activism - if we can call it that - who wants to be more conscious of making shopping decisions that are in line with his or her values - whatever those values are - advice? Mario, you were giving that advice. Go ahead.

LOYOLA: I would say, tend your own garden. I mean, I don't think that you're going to make that much of a difference with these attenuated, sort of indirect political action stuff. But definitely, if you think that organic produce is better than agribusiness, then don't shop at these big supermarket chains. Go down the street to your local farmer's market.

MARTIN: OK. David?

SIROTA: I would say get online and look for the technology that can give you some basic information, some information that may not be the entire picture of a company, but certainly representative. You can go to Open Secrets and find out campaign contributions from companies. You can use that app called Buycott. You can go to the Environmental Working Group to look at some of the components being put into your products. There's plenty of information out there. And I think even having an incomplete picture - but more information is better than having no information.

MARTIN: That was nationally syndicated columnist David Sirota. He's a reporter for PandoDaily. He joined us from his home office in Denver. Also with us, Mario Loyola. He's a contributor to National Review Online. He's a regular also on our Barbershop roundtable, with us from our bureau in New York. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

LOYOLA: Thank you, Michel.

SIROTA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.