Let’s take a look at some of the biggest industries and money-making labels around: the diet and weight loss industry, the plastic packaging industry, the fitness industry, and the wellness industry, for just a few limited consumerism examples.
I want to talk about something that Abigail and I have been calling “consumer blame.” This is a weird article, and I’ve published it in both our body and sustainability columns because it pertains to so many issues that we want to discuss.
It’s not just about the effects of consumerism or a pros-and-cons analysis about the harms and benefits of consumerism; it’s about how consumerism effects how we view responsibility as a culture.
I believe we’re fed a story of consumer blame.
Basically, I define “consumer blame” as the process by which a consumer is unjustly blamed for the technical or moral failure of a product. In other words, they are blamed for a product failure which is, at least in part, the responsibility of the producer. This consumer blame game is a problem that runs rampant in modern consumerism, and it’s particularly prevalent in discussions surrounding working-class North American consumerism.
Here are a few examples of this blame game.
example 1: all the diets and no democracy
What kind of image of health are we presented with (read: sold) on an everyday basis? What is marketed to us as the image of eternal happiness and youth?
I don’t think this is a trick question, but it tricked me for years. We’re sold a golden standard of health–young, wellness-loving, fitness-enthused, perfectly-dieted, thin, smiling, clear-skinned, usually blonde–and somehow, when we don’t live up to it, it’s implicitly our fault, right? It’s about will power and all that shit, isn’t it?
I mean, if we aren’t toned, young, thin (or at least toned and thin), then we’re doing it wrong. It’s assumed that we didn’t keto diet hard enough (or Atkins hard enough–because that was pretty much Keto 1.0). The marketing rhetoric assumes that our will power or our nebulous inner “character” is to blame.
Of course, this clearly has nothing to do with the fact that diets fail constantly. With such a high product failure rate, this can’t possibly be the fault of diet industries, right? It’s the fault of the user, not the product, clearly.
I mean, a more complex answer to health and wellbeing, like taking on companies that falsely market “healthy” options or put huge quantities of processed, low-nutrient foods in the hands of people who most need uncomplicated whole foods (but not Whole Foods) just can’t be right. That just wouldn’t make sense.
example 2: plastic, consumerism, and status
We know that single-use plastic packaging is extremely damaging to the environment. It kills animals, small children, and other lifeforms. Regardless of your religious persuasion, this is generally categorised as “sad” and, indeed, a little bit evil.
So the corporations label our plastic for recycling and consumers are blamed by society if they don’t recycle. Does their neighbourhood offer accessible recycling? Is responsible waste management seen as a civic duty of every citizen or as a personal choice or status signal? Does the consumer receive comprehensive, scientific education concerning the health and longevity of our planet relative to consumerism (which is totally a democratic concern, as it concerns us and our descendants)?
Nope, companies definitely don’t frame it like that. It’s still the consumer’s responsibility to handle waste, after all. It’s a murky sense of responsibility laced with contradictions, inconsistencies, and a vague sense of a lack of power or status.
Disclaimer: I realise that plastic has enabled marked improvements in food transportation and longevity. However, as the sea turtles would say, we need better solutions.
Case in point: Consumers are buying plastic. But we know need to be “green,” as nearly every greenwashing marketing label makes clear. And obviously, if consumers can’t afford or access recycling systems, then they can probably afford to buy zero waste, bulk goods from Whole Foods, right?
Yeah. Of course. It’s the consumer’s fault for not carpooling to Whole Foods with their backpack full of glass jars after they finish their second shift for the day. That makes sense.
It’s a consumer blame game, a veritable social status Olympics that many in our society could never hope to win, but a game that might cause us all to lose.
Does this upset you as much as it upsets me?
My anger at the systems that profit off of the health of individuals and the planet cannot really be understated. I am overjoyed that many individuals are bucking the tyranny of diet culture and taking noble stands for the planet. When corporations make legitimate moves to be more environmentally friendly, I am relieved if not satisfied.
I am one of those people who cannot afford the time or money to meal-prep for days, shop exclusively at WholeFoods, or ditch plastic packaging and go totally zero waste. That’s my goal–actually, my goal is a permaculture oasis at the base of a mountain where I can climb and ski and write and grow food with my man–but I’m not there yet.
However, I have learned that taking on “consumer blame” is not useful. It’s not just unhelpful, but it’s actively damaging. Consumer blame distracts from real progress and shrouds the real changes that we are making each and every day to be better human beings and to fight for a more sustainable world and future.
Consumer blame distracts us from seeing that the diet industry and, often, the wellness and fitness industries are profiting off of our insecurities rather than addressing the underlying issues of chronic dieting, food insecurity, disordered eating, eating disorders, unhandled emotions, and the fact that food industry that pumps a lot of calorie-dense, nutrient-empty foods onto the shelves of the most affordable stores.
Consumer blame distracts us from questioning the way that corporations package and sell food and household goods in the first place.
We aren’t to be blamed. After all, blame and shame only serves to hold us down. It’s a distraction. It makes us feel that our awareness is “not enough,” that our exhaustion and sensation of helplessness we feel when we look at the social and environmental predicaments is laziness or lack of status. I don’t think this is true. We are not to be blamed. We were born into this social structure.
However, we are still responsible, and we are have more power than we think.
We’re responsible for using our voices, for utilising the democratic systems we are lucky to yet possess. We are responsible for speaking out against the social effects of consumerism and consumer blame that we perceive as damaging to the lives of our descendants.
I think if we went our whole lives knowing we were not to be blamed for the situation but never trying to fix it, we would feel the weight and the guilt of inaction upon our shoulders.
However, I also don’t believe we are entirely responsible for the demand we place on our economic systems. If we’re raised and indoctrinated to constantly consume and demand, that’s what we will likely do. However, once we’ve identified the process of consumer blame, I believe it is our responsibility to take as much action as we can.
For some, that might very well look like going zero-waste and living on a permaculture oasis. For those with fewer financial resources, that might mean being vocal about the shittiness of the options placed in front of us. It means making the best choices that we can within the limits of our resources and taking political action with future generations in mind.
We are responsible. We have more power than we think. Sometimes I’m not sure if this power is enough, especially given current affairs. However, I think it’s premature to give up.