10 March 2010

The Illusion of Choices

In American society, we value a multitude of choices because choices mean freedom. When we’re faced with two choices, any normal Joe would choose the one that makes them happier. Yes, there is a certain anxiety we feel when we’re presented with too many decisions like where to eat, what career to take, what song to listen to and all the other choices we make on a daily basis. But choices are often indicators of development. For example, if you have more choices to a career, your economy is healthy. If you can choose to buy a tropical fruit in the still of Vermont’s winter, trade is active and the power of your dollar goes far. Being able to choose between 40 varieties of cereals gives us the power to design our diets. However, in a capitalist society, have we come to appreciate the quantity of choices more than the quality? I especially want to explore this question in terms of our everyday consumer related decisions.

The ironic side behind the millions of consumer choices we make is that they all trickle down from a few producers. In a time of a growing organic movement and an increasing amount of organic products, we think that our money is finally going to companies outside of General Mills, Johnson & Johnson and Pepsi but they are also slowly shifting into the hands of these giants.

Large scale corporations are catching onto the organic craze. In her exposure of these corporations, Andrea Whitfill observes, “Organic farming began as a grassroots movement to produce food that was healthier and better for the land. But it is now a huge, $20 billion industry, increasingly dominated by large agribusiness companies.” Tom’s of Maine belongs to Colgate. Kashi is now owned by Kellogg’s. Pepsi bought Naked Juice in 2006 for $450 million. Burt’s Bees was bought by Clorox; the formula has remained the same yet the profits still go to Clorox. Horizon Organic milk was bought out by Dean Foods Co., the largest dairy company in the U.S. Coca Cola owns Glaceau. Glaceau in turn, is the maker of Vitamin Water, Fruit Water, Smart Water and Vitamin Energy. Kraft Foods bought the natural cereal maker Back to Nature. Kraft, by the way is a subsidiary of Altria, which also owns Philip Morris USA, one of the world’s largest producers of cigarettes. What do cigarettes and cereal have in common?

On the labels of these packages, it is rare that a consumer can find the names of these companies. It is because they don’t want their organic consumers knowing that their favorite brands are being handed over to the very companies they don’t want to buy from. Once these small organic and natural companies fall into the hands of huge businesses, it is hard for them to remain sustainable. David Korten, in his book, When Corporations Rule the World, explained how sustainable business "should be human scale -- not necessarily tiny firms, but preferably not more than 500 people -- always with a bias to smaller is better." These corporations will market and sell to organic buyers the most they can. Mass production, however does not give much room for sustainability. Big companies are not only taking over the organic movement, which was fueled by people and morals who were against them, but they also play a tremendous role in government lobbying.

In Thailand, there are similar giants. The company CP is the Thai equivalent of Purdue, using Tyson style production techniques. What is scarier about CP is that they also run a seed modifying company and have businesses in cable television, internet service and convenience store super chain, 7-Eleven. The organic movement hasn’t hit Thailand yet, but CP is similar to these companies in that they can make a moral or a value into a commodity. CP has managed to make Thai food culture into a commodity, turning agriculture into a huge agribusiness and marginalizing farmers.

In a meeting on protecting the livelihoods of Thai farmers, P’Thoy explains, “Capitalism is complex because huge companies have hidden themselves under many layers and names.” We believe we have many choices because companies just want us to buy more. There is a constant feedback loop between producers and consumers, where producers respond to the needs and wants of consumers and consumers show their (dis)approval by pulling out their wallets. But producers have brainwashed consumers with methods such as marketing, lobbying, skewed research and grandiose claims. These methods have created a loophole in the feedback loop; producers are beginning to make our choices for us. We are spoon-fed choices and don’t think much of them. Instead, we just exchange our dollars, thinking that we deserve this after a hard day’s work. Beyond diet or not, chocolate or vanilla, total care or whitening, consumers need to understand further what they are choosing. Through a raised consciousness, we can reclaim our right to quality choices and our values. That is a better version of freedom.

Amy Saekow
Middlebury College


CGE said...

Very interesting comments. In Mexico, we’ve encountered similar issues. Coca Cola and Wal-Mart reign supreme. In one rural community we visited, Coke is significantly cheaper than water. Babies are often seen drinking bottles full of soda rather than milk or even water. This leads to a variety of cultural and health issues. We’ve also talked at length about the creation of a dominant “corporatocracy” in which corporations have the upper-hand over democratic governments. This idea has been promoted by the United States’ neo-liberal economic policies, especially the North American Free Trade Agreement. One of the most striking articles in NAFTA is Article 11 which outlines the idea that corporations can sue governments for future lost profits. This has manifested itself in Mexico in communities where corporations have sued to eliminate labor and environmental standards, arguing that these policies hinder private economic gain. Globalization has brought the world to a point where private corporations are more powerful than the politicians we vote into office.

Martha Clarke, Bowdoin College

charlieg said...

This is Barrie..

This blog post really resonated with me. I was immediatly curious about your post when I first read, "choices mean freedom." I too have been thinking alot about this and how this is part of a much bigger picture. In the context of development it is an interesting perspective that choices is an indicator of development. The fact that our choices directly affects other peoples lives is an idea that is hard to fathom. many people have yet to recognize the consequences they have onto others. The fact that our choices are basically pointed in a direction because of big companies is a scary thought. Even when we think we are buying organic most often we are still caught in a choice that negatively affects another person. My question is how can people realize this if they have no relationship and are blind to the people they are affecting? This is something I have been thinking about alot lately.

Cyril said...

Commodification of morality, what a wild idea. I picture a group of industrious young professionals sitting around a conference table, each holding a venti frappuccino, figuring out how to make money off of our beliefs. “Since they think they want to support small business, let’s make them think we’re a small business. We’ll buy out all the small companies but keep their names so no one notices. Since there’s an organic food trend, let’s lobby to make USDA criteria more flexible so we can mass produce organic food.” But, as this post points out, big companies manipulate far more than our fashionable values. Freedom is point of pride for Americans: it is, probably more than anything else, our unifying belief. This post does a wonderful job of showing how big companies have exploited even this belief for higher profits. With the illusion of choice, big companies convince us we are free. We never consider that our choices are created by these same few big companies.

Michelle Nguyen said...

Hi Amy,

I really appreciated the research you put into this blogpost, i.e. the little tidbits about what conglomerates own what. I simultaneously love and hate knowing things like that. It seriously freaks me out how little we know about where are food comes from. It also really disturbs me that buying "organic" in the U.S. still benefits big companies. Is nothing safe from the grasping claws of capitalism?

It's so strange to think that when we go into a supermarket, regardless of the variety of labels and different packages, it all goes to the same dozen/two dozen companies. This not only demonstrates the failure of markets in general. Although our country champions economic liberalism, it becomes clear that there are serious flaws in supporting an ideology that is based on the assumption that “markets are perfect.” In reality, nothing is perfect. In fact the market is highly imperfect and can be used for monopolization and exploitation. They can easily be manipulated to limit choice behind disguises of labels.