In response to the introduction of the Green New Deal resolution last year, a congressman bankrolled by oil and gas interests announced the formation of an “Anti-Socialism Caucus.” “The government will come into almost every part of everyday life, from energy to transportation to literally what you eat,” warned Republican representative Chris Stewart of Utah. The announcement may seem better suited for 1949 than 2019. But its predictable demagoguery hides an important truth: the political struggle to decarbonize the economy and move the United States onto an ecologically sane and socially just footing will be waged on the field of consumption.
As absurd as right-wing fearmongering about the demise of hamburgers lurking in the Green New Deal’s “deep, deep red communist” core is, it also raises important and difficult questions. Any Green New Deal sweeping enough to meet this moment must address what and how we consume. Rapidly phasing out fossil fuels in the energy sector, essential as that is, won’t automatically create the consumption patterns needed to remake our relationship with the planet. And without a clear policy vision that defines sustainable and egalitarian consumption, explains why it matters, and charts a democratic path to get there, a transformative Green New Deal faces long political odds.
Meaningful action against climate change and other ecological problems will require big changes in how products and services are distributed, marketed, sold, bought, used and recycled. This will affect not just billionaires and their outsize carbon footprint, but working- and middle-class people. Precisely what those shifts entail and how to manage them democratically are political questions we have to face.
Consumption is especially crucial because it is deeply entangled with the US media, communications, information, and cultural systems. In making these systems structurally dependent on advertising and commercial activity, corporate interests and their bipartisan political allies have built a powerful engine for increasingly irrational amounts and forms of consumption. It’s no coincidence that this history tracks both the growth of fossil fuel–dependent capitalism and the steady erosion of substance in mainstream political media.
Confronting consumption head-on requires appreciating its profound political relevance, grasping its historical ties to corporate-state power, and developing new policies that use public authority to channel it in sustainable, egalitarian, and democratic directions. Ultimately, a new regime of consumption can support and deepen bold visions for a post-carbon future that enhances human happiness. This moment demands a radical collective politics of consumption no less than a radical collective politics of production.
The Political Economy of Socially Irrational Consumption
The economic (and therefore, ecological) waste inherent to capitalist development has steadily increased over the last century. As Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s landmark 1966 Monopoly Capital argued, large multinational manufacturing firms operating in oligopolistic markets tend to limit competition on price and quality, the hallmarks of a conventionally understood “free market system.” Instead, the corporate giants that ascended after World War II jockeyed for market share through sales-promotion strategies like intrusive advertising, aggressive direct marketing, elaborate packaging, superficial tweaks in product design, and planned obsolescence.
Corporations could accumulate profits and keep consumers buying by offering products that failed quickly and were impractical to repair, and by introducing trivially “improved” versions of popular items. These strategies were legitimated by mass commercial messaging that encouraged us to value newer models of otherwise similar brands and products.
The Big Three automakers exemplified this system in the mid-twentieth century. As Ian Angus points out, government-enabled automobile dependency was a major catalyst for the postwar spike in global greenhouse gas emissions. But the logic that produced the vast array of new products, from televisions to dishwashers, which defined the mid-century consumption regime generated socioenvironmental impacts beyond products’ direct energy demands. As quality, durability, and resilience were sacrificed for amplified sales, shipping capacity expanded and shopping trips increased, boosting emissions and generating more ecologically damaging waste.
This system was reinforced by a burgeoning advertising industry that nurtured amenable consumer attitudes and encouraged leisure shopping. And as corporations and government became increasingly linked, intensive lobbying, campaign finance, and public relations efforts have supported this consumptive regime by blocking and undercutting commercial regulations and protecting public subsidies, like the 100 percent immediate business tax write-off for advertising.
A surprisingly radical consumer movement challenged this consumption model at its emergence. As early as the 1930s, Arthur Kallet, cofounder of the Consumers Union, which would go on to publish Consumer Reports magazine, advocated strict advertising limits and publicly mandated product evaluations that included assessment of labor conditions. By the 1950s, Kallet sought alliances with other left organizations and pushed to expand the regulatory capacities of agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to raise product quality and consumer protection standards. These bold strategies landed Kallet and the Consumers Union on the House Un-American Activities Committee subversives list.
Similarly, educators, unions, religious organizations, and public interest groups fought from the 1920s into the postwar years against surrendering publicly owned radio and television airwaves to corporate interests intent on using them as sales machines for oligopolies. These groups understood that communication technology’s democratic integrity and social potential would be undermined without strong oversight of media firms and robust public investment in noncommercial broadcasting. While corporate lobbying and red-baiting quashed their most radical demands, this activism sparked Federal Communications Commission policies that constrained the system’s worst excesses.
Structural critiques of irrational consumption and commercial media subsided in the Cold War chill, but reform movements were revitalized in the late 1960s. Spearheaded by Ralph Nader, consumer activists and attorneys exposed the Federal Trade Commission’s feeble regulation of commercial advertising. The FTC was empowered during the Nixon administration by adding new bureaus that clamped down on deceptive ads and exposed the links between oligopoly, product pricing, and advertising. Corporate media and commercial culture also came under renewed pressure, resulting in federally supported public broadcasting and new policies to diversify media ownership and boost community news.
Neoliberal Consumption and Digital Technology
This brief era of public interest oversight ended as neoliberalism overtook the US political economy. As the Reagan Revolution swept Washington, Congress hamstrung the FTC’s authority, and the agency dropped its major deceptive advertising and antitrust cases. Neoliberals also steadily stripped or neutralized most of the FCC’s already limited legal authority, technical capacity, and political will to check commercial media and telecommunication firms.
It was in this corporate-friendly regulatory environment that the consumption regime was reshaped through rapid advances in information, communications, and logistics technologies. These technologies leveraged neoliberal trade policies to facilitate retail supply chains linking hyper-exploited labor abroad with US consumers under pressure from stagnating wages. Advances in inventory management and consumer data analysis, while promising to sync supply and demand, have actually amplified capitalism’s environmentally destructive tendencies.
Walmart emerged as a leading driver of irrational consumption in the neoliberal era, eroding product quality by driving down production costs through squeezing suppliers. Moreover, as the giant retailer’s bargain-price, high-turnover model drove out competitors, brand-name manufacturers scrambled for its shelf space by introducing endless streams of superficially differentiated products backed up by ad campaigns. With some thirty-five million different items powered through Walmart’s supply chains, excess inventory is a chronic problem, especially in categories like fashion where short product cycles are the norm.
In Big Retail as across the economy, sales promotion has continued to grow as corporations work to separate people from their dwindling disposable incomes — or drive them deeper in debt — through a commercial propaganda blitz that reinforces carbon-intensive consumption culture. At the same time, neoliberal communication policies have made broadcasters and online services more available as sales conduits, encouraging ever-bigger media firms to cut costs by disinvesting in substantive programming and boost revenues via increasingly ubiquitous and sophisticated advertising.
In the 2000s, Amazon raised the stakes for regressive consumption by embarking on its grand strategy to dominate e-commerce. Like Walmart, Amazon has built its carbon-intensive logistics infrastructure on a high-volume, low-margin model that undercuts competitors’ pricing and swallows market share. This strategy also generates staggering levels of waste. Belying the much-touted efficiencies of its inventory management systems, Amazon systematically trashes huge volumes of surplus product, reportedly destroying as many as three million unsold items in France alone in 2018.
And the shipping traffic necessitated by this business model further stresses the climate. Convenient use of a centralized database to buy a wide range of products that can land on doorsteps in a day or two masks the ecological destruction caused by Amazon’s supply chains, while simultaneously reinforcing consumer expectations and practices that support the system.
Online communication and social media bolster irrational consumption by folding targeted advertising into everyday communications. Given the economic and political power that flows from the ability to secretly influence consciousness and behavior, it’s not surprising that consumer data now rivals oil as the world’s most valuable commodity. Horrendous as it was, the Cambridge Analytica scandal just scratches the surface of the regressive political effects from commerce in personal data.
Beyond such abuses lies the influence of commercially dependent media, which legitimizes the consumption regime by churning out low-cost, sales-friendly “disposable news” defined by cheap drama, personal immediacy, and simplicity. The substantive deliberation, inclusive debate, investigative reporting, and long-term thinking necessary to foster critical public consciousness about the climate crisis is largely stifled.
The corporate architects of this consumption regime have intensified their political activities to reinforce the system. Lobbying by the communications and electronics sector has outpaced even energy and natural resources industries since the late 1990s. Google spent nearly $22 million on lobbying, and Amazon made almost $14 million in federal campaign contributions in 2018 alone. Capital’s leverage over sociopolitical communication and cultural horizons presents big obstacles to questioning destructive consumption, let alone imagining, discussing, and planning an ecologically sane, socially just future.
Toward a New Politics of Consumption
Building that future requires bringing consumption under public, democratic control. At the same time, a new vision of consumption is essential to making a post-carbon economy and society politically sustainable. Unless Big Tech, Big Telecom, Big Media, Big Retail, and the interlinked firms that control twenty-first-century advertising are confronted directly, many Green New Deal initiatives — from converting the energy grid and encouraging sustainable land use, to renewing ecosystems and nurturing small businesses and farms — will be under relentless political threat.
Imagine a Sanders (or, someday, an Ocasio-Cortez) administration backed by a progressive-socialist-majority congressional bloc. What might the FTC and FCC look like? Here, we push left policy boundaries by sketching a strategy with two principle aims: raising product quality and sustainability standards, and breaking our information and communications systems’ commercial dependency to bolster democratic alternatives.
A new politics of consumption might center on the creation of a robust product standards enforcement system with high thresholds for quality and durability, environmental impacts, and labor conditions. A revitalized FTC, FDA, and Consumer Product Safety Commission might collaborate to raise the quality of consumer goods and end destructive practices like planned obsolescence and the production of the cheap, plastic, throwaway products. Such aggressive regulatory measures draw from the 1930s consumer movement, which was able to push to the floor of Congress a bill directing the FDA to seize goods and potentially prosecute firms for violating new advertising standards that prohibited misleading consumers “by ambiguity or inference.”
This product quality standards regime could be supported by a grading and labeling system that provides clear and accessible information about the origins, makeup, and impacts of consumer goods — another key demand of New Deal and World War II-era activists. The point isn’t strictly to help us make individually rational purchasing decisions, but to foster public momentum for a new consumption regime: by deflecting manipulative advertising and providing leverage for organized groups to demand high-quality goods, a grading and labeling system could bolster popular support for publicly enforceable product quality, packaging, and promotion standards. A new product standard regime could compel retailers like Walmart and Amazon to redirect supply chains to higher-wage manufacturers using cutting-edge sustainable production systems. Public subsidies could also be channeled to democratically structured small- and medium-sized retailers to encourage a more far-reaching shift in how we get basic consumer goods.
This new system would require strong, comprehensive, accountable government action — mandating and enforcing corporate information disclosure along supply chains through legislative and executive action backed by popular pressure, re-staffing and reequipping regulatory agencies with independent expertise and enforcement capacity, and democratically empowering civil society groups and ordinary consumers to help build out and oversee the system.
A product quality system could work in tandem with vigorous new data privacy protections and tough restrictions on commercial advertising and the digital surveillance practices that feed it. But a new consumption regime also requires broader efforts to democratize communications systems to open space for public discourse and strengthen grassroots control over Green New Deal initiatives.
For example, the FCC could support democratically governed municipal media hubs, in a regionally federated structure, with significant authority to implement communications policy. Federal funding could be allocated to remake underused spaces in public schools, community colleges, libraries, and abandoned buildings into cutting-edge centers for popular media creativity and civic digital media education. These hubs might provide hardware, software, training, and technical support for citizens, civil society groups, and grassroots organizations.
Hubs could also offer subsidized communication facilities for citizen-journalists and creative workers, and incubate noncommercial, worker-owned/-operated media co-ops, such as online news organizations and documentary collectives. Substantial, accountable, and responsive state support for democratic communication could provide concrete leverage against corporate media and Big Tech, challenging (and eventually displacing) their control of news and public information. This idea for media hubs advances existing reform proposals such as Sanders’s plan to use new advertising taxes to fund noncommercial media.
Proposals like these also require an infusion of expertise into government to support and elaborate the visions of elected officials and popular groups with specialized analysis, motivated by a commitment to public interests. Rejecting the neoliberal reliance on insulated technocrats applying minor, corporate-friendly system adjustments, a new politics of consumption would put computer scientists, telecommunications specialists, supply-chain analysts, consumer attorneys, creative workers, and others in close contact with diverse publics through new democratic institutions. This kind of project presents opportunities to channel growing progressive activism among tech industry employees and gathering generational skepticism of Silicon Valley claims to improving the world. A politics of consumption for the Green New Deal would learn from the New Deal by again making public service attractive to talented and capable people who seek meaningful work tackling interesting and important problems.
The massive public investments that a transformative Green New Deal requires should reach beyond energy production and distribution to reshape government’s role in the interlinked areas of commerce, communication, and consumption. Policy and institutional reforms like these can undercut business models that feed ecological destruction, nurture political spaces to defend against corporate backlash, and create launching points for further progress. Public action to raise wages, reduce working hours, and eliminate consumer debt combined with initiatives to raise the quality and sustainability of consumer goods, strengthen privacy rights, weed out pernicious advertising, and democratize our political discourse. These moves would help foster concrete improvements in everyday life that can produce lasting popular support for the broader left political project.
While we have focused here on the United States, reimagining and reshaping consumption in the world’s most economically powerful and ecologically destructive nation has global implications. For one thing, cutting wasteful consumption in the Global North is essential to offset increases in essential consumption in the Global South demanded by social justice and human dignity. And beyond the existential menace of climate change, current consumption patterns exacerbate a host of global socioecological ravages, from the islands of plastic-choking oceans to the mountains of toxic e-waste that endanger the world’s poorest and most marginalized people. Even if every megawatt of US electricity came from zero-carbon sources and every transportation mode ran on green power, serious efforts to build a world where most people can flourish require a new politics of consumption.