As the state has retreated from responsibility to protect common resources, ensure access to opportunities, enforce worker and environmental protection, and provide for the health and general welfare of citizens, private actors have rushed in to claim the moral high ground in the marketplace. So, for instance, instead of insisting that farms grow safe food under environmentally sound conditions, we satisfy our guilt and concerns by patronizing stores like Whole Foods and celebrating the wide availability of organic products. Thus food that keeps people healthy and the earth livable remains available only to the well informed and affluent.
Because market fundamentalism declares that consumers have “choice” in the market, doing little or no harm becomes just another tactic by which vendors exploit a niche market. Consumers have become depoliticized, unable to see that personal choices to buy Timberland shoes (not made in sweatshops by children) and Body Shop cosmetics (not tested on animals) make no difference at all to the children and animals that suffer supplying the bulk of similar, less sensitively manufactured products to the vast majority of the world’s consumers. Feeling good about our own choices is enough. And instead of organizing, lobbying, and campaigning for better rules and regulations to ensure safe toys and cars for people everywhere, we rely on expressions of disgruntlement as a weak proxy for real political action. Starting or joining a Facebook protest group suffices for many as political action.
Since the 1980s, firms in the United States and Western Europe have found it useful to represent themselves as socially responsible. As states have retreated from their roles as protectors of the commons and mitigators of market failures, firms have found that trumpeting certain policies and positions puts them at an advantage in competitive markets, especially for consumer goods and services.
The problem, however, is that corporate responsibility is toothless. Corporations do—and should do—what is in the interests of their shareholders, and nothing more. We become aware of the voluntary benevolence of certain firms only when it is in their interest to make that benevolence known.
The principal reason why the idea of corporate responsibility appeals to us is that for thirty years, we have retreated from any sense of public responsibility—any willingness to talk about, identify, and pursue the public good. In the absence of the political will to employ state power to push all firms toward responsible behavior, the purported responsibility of one firm is quickly neutralized by the irresponsibility of the rest. Because we have failed at politics, we now rely on marketing to make our world better. That reliance is the height of collective civic irresponsibility. It’s a meaningless pose.