Can We Have Social Justice
In A Commercial Culture?
by Betsy Taylor
Justice. The dictionary defines it this way: moral rightness; equity; fairness; right handling; due reward or treatment. These words are so hackneyed that they lack real meaning, and normative judgments are always viewed with skepticism. But there is something morally amiss in a culture that shows so much callousness towards the millions who cannot demonstrate their personal worth through material possessions. The incessant chase for more has staggering effects on the environment and on our quality of life. Our consumerist ethos takes an especially heavy toll on poor people, both physically and psychologically.
The good life is now defined by many as a life of continuous acquisition. Millions fawn over Bill Gates and Michael Jordan, in part because of what they have accomplished, but perhaps even more because of the greatness of their wealth and status possessions. Human-interest stories that honor unsung servant leaders are lost among the ceaseless stories and advertisements showcasing beautiful people with status goods as the virtuous heroes of our times.
In addition to the psychic cost of living in an excessively consumerist culture, low-income families often take on backbreaking debt. Last year, 1.4 million Americans declared bankruptcy while personal credit card debt skyrocketed. Housing evictions were up and requests for food supplies from private charities swelled. When the good life is defined in terms of huge houses, large vehicles, status fashion, and the most recent technological toys, poor people get trapped by financial realities that won't let a nurse's aide, a teacher's assistant, or a janitor get close to the so-called "American dream."
Backlash Against Brand Identification
Low-income people are also often the targets of relentless advertising and "buy now, pay later" sales pitches. Much of what is being marketed is not tied to quality of life but to status and image. Nike's appeal to urban youth is the most obvious example of corporate marketing of high-cost status goods to lower-income households. NBA basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon worked with Spalding to offer a $35 shoe under Olajuwon's name. "How can a poor working mother with three boys buy Nikes or Reeboks that cost $120?" he asks. "She can't. So kids steal these shoes from stores and from other kids. Sometimes they kill for them."
At a recent anti-violence summit of 800 youth leaders sponsored by the Center for Teen Empowerment in Boston, young people produced a play that critiqued consumerism. One participant, Elizabeth Miranda, spoke up after the play:
People, those sneakers that you paid $140 for won't change who you are. I don't care if Tommy, Calvin, Liz, Donna, Ralph, Kenneth or Perry is written on your clothes - that's not our name. I'm not saying don't buy what you like, but stop buying things that break you or make you do things that you shouldn't. Even though they keep shouting at us from all those ads to buy, buy, buy, we have to stop being so materialistic. Listen, when you die Tommy isn't going to speak with God and get you through those pearly gates. When you are broke and hungry, neither Liz nor Donna is going to spot you. When you're struggling in school, Calvin is not going to tutor you, because these people don't care about you. What they care about is making that cash.
Environmental Justice is Social Justice
The consumer culture intensifies the economic and social isolation of low-income people while also damaging the Earth. Americans are consuming resources and generating waste at an unprecedented rate. The long-term consequences of our consumption threaten the planet's survival, but for poor communities the threat is imminent. They bear the brunt of the consumer culture's lasting legacy: its waste. The mountains of solid, hazardous and toxic waste generated as a byproduct of excessive consumerism are found disproportionately in low-income neighborhoods. This is also a racial equity issue - people of color are almost 50% more likely than white citizens to live in communities with hazardous waste facilities. Three out of every five African Americans and Hispanic Americans live in a community with one or more toxic waste sites.
Finally, under the new rules of global commerce, our consumer economy is dependent on cheap labor. This reality has been documented by numerous academic and governmental institutions, yet the disclosure of these disquieting facts seems to have minimal impact on corporate practices. We are shielded from the environmental and human consequences of our consumption. We neither see the collapse of forests as a result of our voracious consumption of paper products nor the human suffering of those who assemble many of the products we purchase. These costs are unintentional, yet indisputable. Is it possible to have social justice in this context?
There is something unfair about a consumer economy that depends on workers who earn as little as two dollars a day. Ultimately, there is something just deeply wrong about a country and world where the gap between those who consume and those who can't is so vast. The facts about who is and who is not consuming speak for themselves. According to the United Nations, the 20% of the world's people in the highest income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditures, the poorest 20% a miniscule 1.3%.
Valuing People Over Possessions
The "more is better" definition of the American dream is being questioned by Americans from all socioeconomic backgrounds. For some, the questioning revolves around quality of life and the desire to live more simply. For others, it is connected to concerns about the impact of consumption on the natural environment. But increasingly, the debate hinges on a discussion of values. The Center for a New American Dream was founded by leaders from many sectors of our country who shared a concern about the hidden costs of excessive consumerism. The primary impulse behind our inauguration was concern that the planet will not survive six billion people consuming as Americans do.
Challenging the consumer culture and developing a movement of conscious consumers is a prerequisite for protecting the environment for future generations. Perhaps it is also the main work of anyone who wants to grope with the central moral questions of our times. All people would benefit from a culture that encouraged us to sing, garden, volunteer, vote, play, imagine, invent, repair and talk more often with friends. Our democracy would be bolstered by a public discourse that valued individuals for who they are and how they spend their time, not for what they wear, drive or own.
What can an individual actually do about any of this? Can a nascent movement for cultural renewal encourage positive steps? One recent visitor to the Center summed it up by saying we all just need to "pay more attention." What we do as individuals does matter. We can seek to incorporate non-commercial values in our own lives by shunning conspicuous status goods. We can support campaigns that target corporations employing unfair labor practices. We can examine our own consumer choices and ask how often we are trying to meet non-material needs materially.
Gordon Cosby, minister of the Church of the Savior, an independent church serving the inner city poor of Washington, D.C., preaches frequently on the issue of consumer culture. He argues that the most radical act a person can take is developing a personal relationship with someone living on the economic margins. Cosby suggests that this act can dramatically change one's view of the world.
On a personal level, I feel I have a long way to go to live and consume with appropriate consciousness. On a larger scale, there are no easy formulas for engendering and sustaining changes in attitudes and behaviors. I have yet to meet the person who can lay out a clear path to galvanizing enough passionate individuals who together, can influence markets and government policies. But there is enormous evidence of a wave of interest in this work. From inner-city youth challenging perpetual advertising to parents reflecting on the welfare of their children, Americans are churning about the future and about the path we seek to take as individuals. Small steps together. That's our mantra at the Center. There's no one path, no ultimate answer to the question "how much is enough?" But there is one absolute imperative - an overriding need for each individual to ask the question.
Betsy Taylor is Executive Director of the Center for a New American Dream. Pete Byer, a research associate with the Center, provided assistance in the preparation of this article.
Return to newsletter excerpts page