Joel Salatin, now in his mid-50s, is the owner of Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley:
“I think we live in a victimhood culture…in which everybody’s trying to absolve themselves of responsibility. ‘I didn’t do it; they did it.’ … And so I think the first thing is to realize that when I plunk my nickel down, I’m responsible for what the nickel patronizes. I mean whether it’s a stock and bond or whether it’s a latte, or whatever it is. I’m responsible for that nickel. I think that’s where we have to start.”
Joel is not your typical farmer. He describes himself as a “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-farmer” and is featured in Michael Pollan’s best-selling book, the Ominvore’s Dilemma, for his unique and sustainable farming practices. Nor is he your typical consumer, but the point he makes is universal: every purchase that we make – of a product or service – has downstream consequences. Again, these consequences are not all bad. I teach a course every year called Sustainability Inspired Innovation & Design. We start every semester exploring the history and present state of capitalism, and we begin by understanding the incredibly positive impact that our modern economy has had on promoting the health and wealth of society. The facts are pretty clear that despite its many flaws, including the uneven distribution of wealth, our economic system in the developed world is the most productive and efficient in human history. There are important differences between countries of course, but the point is that consumption is essential and not inherently bad. However, we shouldn’t ignore the negative impacts of our modern lifestyles and the effects of our own consumption choices. How we consume, and how much we consume, can have very negative effects on workers, communities, and society as a whole. Yet, our consumption can have very positive effects, too.
Liz, a small-farm owner in her 30s:
“I guess ever since at least I was in college, I really believe like you vote with every dollar you spend for the kind of world you want to live in. So like I don’t have a lot of dollars that I spend, but when I spend them, I want them to be someplace that I care about…I don’t want it to be for sugar-flavored water. I want it to be for like people in my community who are providing jobs to other people. I guess people who spend a lot of money, they maybe don’t feel the power of each dollar. But … I don’t spend a lot of dollars. So I feel … when I do it’s like I’m voting for you, for what you’re doing with this money. Like I believe in this. So to me that’s really important. I think a lot about voting every time I spend a dollar. I’m not great for the economy, but it makes me feel good.”
And, of course, our decisions have unmistakable impacts on our ecology and environment (the Consumer Wisdom habit of Sustainability addresses this directly). And there is no simple, one-size-fits-all solution. Each of us has different values and priorities, and those won’t magically align even when we have a shared understanding of the many problems of consumption (which we don’t). Instead, Responsibility means that you recognize, as much as possible, the effects that your choices can have and you act on them in line with your value system. Responsible consumers don’t compartmentalize their choices, assuming that being a good person is independent of being a good consumer. In fact, making good consumption choices is one of the most direct, impactful, and available ways for you to promote your values.