As spending money becomes easier, it also becomes more natural to forget about the impacts of our spending. All the barriers to buying have been removed; we can spend with a click of a button, and have our orders fulfilled in 24 hours or less. So at what point in the transaction are we meant to think about the ripple effects of that purchase? Who has time for that?
The truth is, whether you like it or not, how you spend your money is one of your biggest lifelong legacies. It’s one of the most tangible ways that you are directly impacting public policy, social welfare, and climate change. You can choose not to think about it; surely it’s much easier to purchase whatever’s cheapest and whichever item qualifies for next-day delivery. But whether you’re mindful of it or not, your legacy is being written with every click of a “buy now” button and every tap of your credit card.
Knowing simply that your spending is impactful may not be enough of a reason to care. What’s compelling is what those potential impacts actually are. Depending on what products or services you are buying, or which companies you are shopping with, you might be helping a minority-owned family business build generational wealth, donating to a nonprofit that removes plastic from the ocean, and funding research on sustainable farming. Or you might be funding the fossil fuel industry, supporting unsafe labor conditions, and adding to the wealth of billionaires through the exploitation of underpaid workers.
“What we take, how and what we make, what we waste, is in fact a question of ethics.” -Yvon Chouinard, Let My People Go Surfing
Because there are limitations on how corporations can finance political candidates, it can be very challenging to follow the money trail to see how your consumer dollars are supporting policy. A lot of contributions are made indirectly by political action committees (PACs), the company’s employees, owners, or members. Websites like accountable.us and opensecrets.org can help citizens identify how corporations are indirectly contributing to legislation and candidates. However, even with tools like these, it can be hard to paint a full picture without doing some extensive additional research.
Some corporations may put out messaging that directly contradicts their contributions. For example, consumer goods companies like Walmart, Coca-Cola, and Home Depot have advertised support for LGBTQ+ pride and simultaneously donated to candidates who oppose marriage equality and trans rights. (Source: Accountable.us)
Another way that corporations can influence policy is through their operations and supply chain. For example, the use of voluntary prison labor may contribute to the viability and profitability of an industry that many believe is a leading motivation for mass incarceration. But, as with corporate political contributions, it can be difficult to identify which companies utilize prison labor at some stage in their supply chains. Corporate Accountability Lab describes the layers of small suppliers, subcontracted labor, and coded terms that make it prohibitive for an average consumer to connect prison labor with a household brand.
It may feel like a real stretch to think about the people employed by a company when you’re grabbing one of the company’s products off the shelf, but the two are inseparable. And it may seem like buying a product is helping those employees because you’re supporting the company that’s writing their paychecks. There’s much more to consider here.
What better example than the current state of working conditions at Amazon? Amazon employees are held to inhuman productivity standards, often reporting that they don’t have time for bathroom breaks. Injury rates at Amazon are higher than industry competitors. Amazon’s former VP of HR has reported that Amazon intentionally limits upward mobility for workers, fearing that employee retention would result in a “large, disgruntled workforce.” (Source: New York Times) Unrealistic productivity standards at Amazon are often attributed to the need to support fast delivery. It’s easy to see, then, how supporting Amazon and their promise of free next-day delivery is directly contributing to unfavorable labor conditions.
A company’s ability to impact the well-being of people is not limited to its employees. A company can also influence labor conditions throughout its supply chain. One example of this is the garment factories that are sources for U.S. fashion brands. In 2013, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed killing over 1,100 workers. The factory was among a group of factories that manufactured goods for Walmart. The public learned after the fact that Walmart had rejected measures 2 years prior to improve factory safety through an increased cost to retailers. This was a glaring illustration of the connection between human welfare and a consumer’s demand for low cost.
As with other issues, a company’s impact on climate change can be a tangled web that is difficult for consumers to unravel. There are numerous ways that a company can impact the environment, but since online shopping is particularly prevalent, we think it’s important to mention the impact of shipping.
Shipping accounts for 2.2% of greenhouse gas emissions. If shipping were a country, it would be the 6th largest CO2 emitter. (Source: Time) And with the rise of online shopping and increased international trade, if no further action is taken, global shipping will account for 17% of all carbon emissions by 2050. (Source: European Environment Agency) The expectation of fast shipping is particularly problematic. As the speed of shipping increases, efficiency decreases; flexibility in delivery time would allow carriers to establish more efficient delivery routes. In 2017, UPS reported that the number of deliveries per mile had decreased, meaning there are more cars on the road and more emissions. In a worst-case scenario, a package mailed with fast shipping is estimated to have 35 times more greenhouse gas emissions than a standard shipment planned for optimal efficiency. (Source: CNN) Some of the country’s largest retailers - Amazon, Walmart, and Target - are now offering free next-day shipping, removing the barrier for customers to select fast shipping, and making it easy for consumers to ignore the hidden cost.
Of course, we’re taking this opportunity to talk about plastic, too. Plastic’s impact on the climate comes from both manufacture and disposal. If plastic were a country, it would be the world’s 5th largest greenhouse gas emitter (right ahead of shipping!). (Source: Environmental and Energy Study Institute) Avoiding plastic products is something that consumers have control over (mostly), and that doesn’t usually require an extensive amount of research. It’s an area where a small act can have a big impact.
How can you take control of your spending legacy?
It sounds simple: be careful about what you buy and the companies you support. We know that in reality, it’s not so simple. We’ve provided a few examples of how companies might be operating in ways that cause harm, and that the typical consumer would have no way of knowing about it.
Here's our shortcut: Focus on the companies you WANT to support, not the ones you don’t. When you identify a type of product you need to buy, try to find it at a local business before you go to Target. Search the goodbuy app instead of Amazon. Read a relevant shopping guide on The Good Trade. Reach out to your friends at Way of Being for suggestions. That’s precisely what we’re here for!
- Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditures Report
- Accountable.us, Despite Declaring Support For Pride, Corporations Spent Big On Anti-LGBTQ Attorneys General
- Corporate Accountability Lab
- Forbes, A Hard-Hitting Investigative Report Into Amazon Shows That Workers’ Needs Were Neglected In Favor Of Getting Goods Delivered Quickly
- The Guardian, ‘I'm not a robot’: Amazon workers condemn unsafe, grueling conditions at warehouse
- CNBC, Amazon warehouse workers injured at higher rates than those at rival companies, study finds
- New York Times, The Amazon that Customers Don’t See
- Wikipedia, Dhaka Garment Factory Collapse
- Time, Planes, Trains and Automobiles Are Cutting Emissions. Will Big Ships Do It Too?
- CNN Business, America’s addiction to absurdly fast shipping has a hidden cost
- Center for International Environmental Law, Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet
- Environmental and Energy Study Institute, The Climate Consequences of Plastics
- Aviation and shipping emissions in focus, European Environment Agency