Small Wins: Why We Shouldn't Stop Trying to Shop Ethically

Why We Should Be Ethical Shoppers
This is a response to Michael Hobbes' article, The Myth of the Ethical Shopper, published July 15, 2015.

Michael Hobbes wrote an article for Huffington Post Highline a few weeks ago that shook the conscious consumer community. In The Myth of the Ethical Shopper, Hobbes outlines the myriad ways buying our way to a better world has failed us. It's well researched, and it's true. Imposing regulations on foreign companies without real oversight or local social change has little long term effect on the well being of factory workers.

If you've been following the movement for awhile, you've probably heard an outline of his argument before, but I encourage you to read it - it's an impressive amount of research. The primary point of the piece is this:

Listening to consumer advocacy campaigns, you’d think our only influence on the developing world was at the cash register. But our real leverage is with our policies, not our purchases...We are not going to shop ourselves into a better world.

In his followup, published last week on the Huffington Post blog, Hobbes responds to commenters who maintain that they are ethical shoppers - by virtue of buying American made or locally sourced items - regardless of what Hobbes has to say about it:

Let me be super clear about this, in words I might have minced in the piece itself: that is impossible. And pretending it's not is exactly what keeps sweatshops from being solved.

Responding to Hobbes is no easy feat, because he's absolutely right. We're spending too much time making shopping lists and not enough time doing the boring, excruciating work of lobbying for better systems. But it's not enough to write a convincing argument that we all suck at being good people. In fact, that's maybe the worst thing we can do. 

In 1984, psychologist Karl E. Weick published a study entitled Small Wins, which explains why large scale social problems are rarely resolved by simply proliferating social sciences research on relevant topics. The reason we fail to remedy social problems, he discovered, has everything to do with how problems are defined in the first place. He found that:

The massive scale on which social problems are conceived often precludes innovative action because the limits of bounded rationality are exceeded and arousal is raised to dysfunctionally high levels. People often define social problems in ways that overwhelm their ability to do anything about them.

Basically, if you're inundated with information about how terrible everything is, your brain is wired to shut down. This may be the reason The True Cost movie hasn't been as well reviewed as one would hope. There are simply too many reasons to give up hope. There are too many problems.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is low arousal, which can occur if you think too much about an issue until it becomes "depersonalized."

Whether one is too aroused or not aroused enough, Weick concludes that the solution is to break down large problems into small, manageable steps. The "small wins" system works, because:

Small wins often originate as solutions that single out and define as problems those specific, limited conditions for which they can serve as the complete remedy...Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win."

Breaking up a big problem into bite-sized pieces makes it possible to digest the whole thing over time. As we solve one thing, we get the confidence to keep moving forward.

All this to say that Hobbes' failure is not in his research but in his approach. It's one thing for an "insider" like myself to read an article like this, process it, and reorient myself toward a better way of doing ethics. It's another thing entirely to release it into the hands of the general public. If you're teeter-tottering on the edge of making more conscientious choices, even a little poke in the center of your chest can send you backward. The global manufacturing industry is corrupt - it's a Big Social Problem - but it cannot be remedied by just hollering about how big and terrible the problem is. You can't very well gain followers by telling everyone they'll never measure up.

Hobbes probably knows this, but his failure to mention it and his unwillingness to see the negative repercussions of his rhetorical strategy warrants a kind-hearted calling out. It may be true that we will never change the world through shopping, but it's just as true that we will never resolve serious social issues until we can learn how to break them down into smaller problems with concrete solutions.

In his followup blog post, Hobbes briefly mentions his "fair-tradey friends" who respond to his critiques with "it's better than nothing." He scoffs at this, saying that if we're going to do something, we should make it something that really counts, like donating money to pro-union NGOs. He pretends for the sake of argument that buying fair trade and donating to NGOs are mutually exclusive ways of being. But the reality is that there are lots of ways we can do better, and be better. And if I stop buying stuff from Ten Thousand Villages so I can really fix the world by donating money to an organization, I might not be in a better place than where I started. Things are more complicated than that.

Voltaire is credited with popularizing the saying: 
The perfect is the enemy of the good.


It's certainly true for the conscientious consumer movement that waiting for the best keeps us from working toward the good. It's easy to fixate on the huge, giant, impossible problems in the world and decide that they're un-fixable. And, you know, maybe they are. But we have a responsibility to do something and it could very well start with buying something from a fair trade shop instead of the local Wal*Mart. We need some nice gateway drugs into the movement. We need some smooth, solid stones marking the pathway to justice.

So, keep finding ways to shop, and live, ethically; you'll get better over time. Let your ethics trickle through every aspect of your life. Don't stop until the work is done. It isn't easy, but know that each step forward is a small win.

What else can we do about all this?

Brands and Bloggers: Stop pretending that buying stuff will fix anything. As the fair trade movement becomes trendy, we have to make sure that we're being honest about the type of impact a purchase will have, and the limits of the fair trade model.

Conscious Consumers: Try to detach your identity from the Capitalist system and see what you can see. You can't curate your way to joy and wholeness.

Skeptics: Consider that your choices have a domino effect and that, whether or not you have the tools to change the world, you can change something. What else do you have to live for?

And let's all consider donating to NGOs and organizations that empower people to lobby for themselves and improve their communities. Check out The Note Passer's Resources page for links to international labor organizations.

7 comments

  1. Hi Leah,

    Skimmed through this, but I have to say that you have written a very well thought-out response. When I read Hobbes' article, I too was disappointed at the lack of appreciation for the "little man", and the ways in which we all can personally get involved by buying less, reusing/recycling more, buying local where necessary, and working with certifiably "fair" independents for the rest. It seems he is addressing the issue as a whole, and on that basis he is as you say, completely right. But to the general public, this article could be very harmful and dissuasive at worst.

    Keep up the good work blogging about ethical alternatives, and hopefully inspiring bouts of new conscious consumers.

    Besma (Curiously Conscious)

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    1. Thanks. Yeah; it's complicated, because of course we need to know exactly what's going on and call out problems, but we have to do it gently if we want to get more people on board.

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  2. Excellent points Leah! Very well written! I hope he reads this.

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    1. Thanks. I tweeted it to him, but he hasn't responded.

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. The concept of small wins echoes that Mother Teresa saying, 'We can do not great things only small things with great love'. Great article Leah, well said.

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