News and Interviews

The Lucky Seven interview, with Joseph Tohill

Joseph photo

Former American Vice President Joe Biden said "Show me your budget and I'll show you what you value". With the philosophy that this is as true for individuals as it is for governments, the movement of conscious consumerism has gained significant traction. From sweatshop free clothing and environmentally friendly products to consumables tied to charity fundraising (such as the Breast Cancer Awareness "buy pink" campaign), ethical consumption means different things to different people.

As the editors of Shopping for Change: Consumer Activism and the Possibilities of Purchasing Power (Between the Lines Books), Joseph Tohill and Louis Hyman explore this trend of participating politically with our dollars, including its limitations. With essays from academics and activists alike, this is a must read book for anyone interested in living their values through their purchases. 

Today we talk to Joseph about Shopping for Change as part of our Lucky Seven interview series. He tells us how the Occupy movement inspired the book, about dealing with imposter syndrome, and, of course, the importance of tea in the writing process. 

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.

Joseph Tohill:

Inspired by the rapid rise and fall of the Occupy Wall Street movement, our editor at Between the Lines suggested the book to us, and we thought it was a great idea. Shopping for Change, which I put together with my American colleague and friend Louis Hyman, came out of a desire to think about how the purchasing power of consumers has been used in the past to try to remake a more just society and how this history could inform attempts to do so in the present. It’s a collection of twenty-four short essays by academics and activists, including Louis and I, that brings together historical and contemporary perspectives on the possibilities and pitfalls of using buying power for justice. Beginning with the nineteenth century “free produce” movement against American slavery, it covers such things as political consumers’ campaigns to “buy local” to revive depression-wracked communities, to “buy green” for the environment, or to “buy pink” to combat breast cancer; to boycott Taco Bell in support of migrant workers or Burger King to save the rainforest.

 

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

JT:

Yes, the central question is, does consumer activism work? Can we overcome the limitations of consumer identity, the conservative pull of consumer choice, co-optation by corporate marketers, and other pitfalls in order to marshal our buying power in support of positive change? Can we, quite literally, shop for change?

All of our contributors address this central question in their own way, though not every one agrees on the answer. Overall, I’d say the book answers with a qualified “yes.” But along with success stories, like the anti-sweatshop campaigns on some university campuses and the building of a successful cross-movement coalition for financial reform in the wake of the Wall Street crash of 2008, the book deals with the pitfalls of political consumerism, such as corporate co-optation, the unintended consequences of green consumption of biofuels on the world’s poor, and the “pinkwashing” of breast cancer activism. 

The other main question that Shopping for Change focuses on is, what lessons for today can we draw from the past? We asked all of our authors to try to think about and answer this question as part of their contribution. 

OB:

Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish? 

JT:

For the most part, the project is what we started with, only a bit lengthier. Louis and I wrote the introduction and each contributed a chapter. We had such a great response to our call for contributors, that we kept more than we originally intended to.

The book took much longer than we originally planned, mainly because of some health-related delays on my end. Luckily, we were dealing with patient contributors and publishers!

OB:

What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

JT:

Tea. Lots of tea. And uninterrupted blocks of time, which are sometimes hard to come by. I write mostly in an office in my home, though occasionally I take a tablet or my old laptop out somewhere to write. I prefer to have my books around me, in case I need to look something up. I like the quiet, too. We recently had to move, and in the process our office space shrunk considerably. I purged about three quarters of my books, which was both painful and liberating (I sold or donated anything I hadn’t used in the eight years we lived in our previous house). My new, smaller desk—a motorized sit-stand model—is amazing, allowing me to alternate between periods of standing and sitting. For standing long periods, a good-quality memory-foam mat is essential. 

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

JT:

As a far-from-perfect perfectionist who suffers from imposter syndrome, I’m familiar with discouragement. A cup (or a pot) of tea helps in the moment. So do walks with our standard poodle, or hanging out with my daughters. And, if I’m in need of procrastinating about writing, there’s always other work to do, since I teach a fair number of university history courses every year. 

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books. 

JT:

That depends on whether you’re talking about fiction or non-fiction, though in either case I like a compelling story, told with equally compelling writing. Since my own work is non-fiction, I tend to read a lot of fiction in my spare time. Feels less like work, and a half hour or so immersed in a fictional world before bed helps pull me out of the day’s stresses. One of my favourites is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, andI love Michael Ondaatje’s early novels, particularly The English Patient and In the Skin of a Lion. Those are all beautifully written books. The latter is also so rooted in Toronto and its history, which appeals to me. I also enjoy the pure escapism of children’s literature, like the Harry Potter series, which I’m currently reading to one of my daughters. 

OB:

What are you working on now?

JT:

I’m working on a book comparing consumer activism in Canada and the United States during the Second World War. In both countries, women mobilized as consumers to support government price control and rationing programs and to try to shape economic policymaking in the interests of ordinary peoples. They envisioned a more humane economic system that would uplift those with the most meagre pocketbooks, give a voice to the voiceless, and democratize economic decision-making, thereby making the capitalist economy itself more democratic. Although their successes were limited and didn’t, for the most part, outlast the war and postwar Red Scare, theirs was a vision worth uncovering and remembering, especially with the current reactionary political climate south of the border.

____________________________

Joseph Tohill writes about and teaches twentieth-century American and Canadian history, including the history of public policy, consumer politics, and consumer activism, at York University and Ryerson University.

Louis Hyman is an associate professor of history at the ILR School of Cornell University, the co-founder of Cornell’s History of Capitalism Initiative, and the incoming director of ILR’s Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. He is the author of Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red Ink and Borrow: The American Way of Debt.

Related reading

Shopping for Change: Consumer Activism and the Possibilities of Purchasing Power

Consuming with a conscience is one of the fastest growing forms of political participation worldwide. Every day we make decisions about how to spend our money and, for the socially conscious, these decisions matter. Political consumers “buy green” for the environment or they “buy pink” to combat breast cancer. They boycott Taco Bell to support migrant workers or Burger King to save the rainforest.

But can we overcome the limitations of consumer identity, the conservative pull of consumer choice, co-optation by corporate marketers, and other pitfalls of consumer activism in order to marshal the possibilities of consumer power? Can we, quite literally, shop for change?

Shopping for Change brings together historical and contemporary perspectives of academics and activists to show readers what has been possible for consumer activists in the past and what might be possible for today’s consumer activists.