Updated: Jan 30
We are marketed a world driven by ‘consumer power’, 'customer choice' and ‘consumer driven demand’. "The customer always knows best" and we are faced with decisions about how to ‘vote with our dollar’ each time we shop. It is a constant reminder to me of the power held in wealth and money, so the decision of how to spend my money is something I take pretty seriously. I like to know as far as possible that my monetary vote supports improving ethical practice and invests to build a better future.
The value of conscious consumerism is something I already started looking into in comparison to re-use or recycling, at the time relating this to the textiles and clothing industries in particular. It does feel like an important consideration to take for any of us who have that opportunity, but it is still only one part of the picture.
Conscious consumerism is a very capitalist response to activism. Money does mean a lot in our current system and the market is an important arena for activism – boycotting, investing ethically, supporting ‘greener’ brands and better business models all serve to demonstrate our values to businesses. They start to divert wealth and power along routes that we agree with more. But the market is far from the sole arena where we hold power.
A hyper-focus on consumer action further marginalises those who have limited access to wealth, emphasising their comparative lack of financial agency. It also pressurises those who do have access to wealth, transferring the responsibilities of the market onto the consumer. Finally, it completely misses the opportunities we hold as a citizen - to be active beyond the marketplace within the spheres of the state, the commons and the domestic.
Activism as a Citizen | state, commons, domestic
“every day we switch almost seamlessly between different roles and relations: from customer to creator, from marketplace to meeting space, from bargaining to volunteering”
– Kate Raworth
My frustrations at the lack of value ascribed to domestic labour, community care and support have always made me aware of the many other ways that we are active and how they are affected and compromised by power imbalance. However, it was reading Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics that (again!) really gave a clear structure to those thoughts for me. She identifies the market as just one of four economic players, alongside the state, the commons and the domestic (which she names the household).
These spaces all relate and intersect, supporting eachother and ultimately functioning best when in balance. To emphasise the value of some areas of agency over others not only de-values the areas we are overlooking, but threatens the strength of those we are over-valuing.
Citizens of State
"which is essential, so make it accountable"
- Kate Raworth
Raworth describes the role of the state as a provider for all - a leveller through redistribution and a regulator via legislation. In respect to the state, we are each a member of the public.
The power of the state and the role it plays clearly varies widely from state to state, but it also varies between individuals. The way we are affected by state power and the power we each hold as a citizen of state is incredibly complex and so impossible to define and speak about unilaterally. State power is a very political and divisive conversation and quite honestly is a weak area for me. I’m still learning a lot about both the political systems I live under currently, alongside any other systems I feel we could learn from or apply.
However, despite these complexities, the scale and character of the state’s influence do make it an incredibly powerful arena for activism. The state holds the means to make dramatic changes, fairly swiftly where necessary (or where it wants to!) and with impacts that are potentially far more universal than the supposed trickle down impacts of the market. It has the capacity to legislate, incentivise, subsidise and penalise. To level and redistribute.
For issues that need mass participation in order to have an effect, it is far quicker to make the changes that are necessary, perhaps even impossible to make those changes without the support of the state.
Take the example of tobacco use – identified as both a threat to the health of the individual who smokes, but also to the general public due to passive smoking and the pressures it places on the health system. Consumer power is dramatically reduced here since, once the market's advertising has you hooked, consumer choice is highly influenced by addiction. Successive state policies in the UK have therefore been brought in to help educate and discourage the public from smoking, such as age limits for purchasing cigarettes, compulsory messaging on packets and smoking bans in public places. As a result, far fewer people are smoking, making it less socially desirable and so triggering increasing support from the domestic and community spheres too.
Without input from the state, consumer-driven demand under capitalism is far quicker to trigger increasing alternative products than to secure a decrease in the existing. Whilst I do see the value in the famous Gregg’s vegan sausage roll in that it marks a great social shift, making veganism more accessible for many and certainly mainstreaming the conversation; without regulation to encourage a reduction in non-vegan production it is an incredibly slow curve to wait for supply to fall in response to demand. For example, the tremendous growth of non-dairy milk sales, increasing by 61% in the US in 2019; was a comparable fall in sales of dairy milk of 22% (marketwatch.com).
Our power as a citizen of state is less the role of picky consumer and more the campaigner, the lobbyist. Alongside proving that we can and will buy and live differently; we can protest, petition, email MPs and institutions and use our political voice. The scale of the state as an actor is reflected in the scale of our portion of power as a member of the public. But although I think we can all feel the frustration of how little impact we seem to get from our 4 yearly vote, there is a lot more opportunity than there first seems to engage politically or via institutions year-round.
It is an area I need to learn more about in order to recognise the power I have and how to employ it, but as someone privileged with a relatively well-heard voice as a member of the public I feel it is an arena I will find useful and productive to explore. I am starting by taking actions such as staying better informed on progressing policies, increasingly lobbying my MP, contacting relevant institutions with the power to make changes and attending protests where I can.
The Domestic, the Household
"which is core so value its contribution"
- Kate Raworth
The power within community and household groups plays out very differently to that of the market or the state. It is more intimate, smaller-scale and comprises multiple, varying actors so can be harder to recognise.
The realm of the domestic is still incredibly overlooked, with much of its value going unacknowledged. The wealth and status of the market and the state are still dominated by patriarchal, white supremacist patterns, suppressing the power of domestic activity. Monetary value is very rarely ascribed to the domestic sphere, where work remains assumed and undefined. However, it truly is the sphere of the domestic that allows the others to function – feeding, caring, nurturing, cleaning, educating and reproducing.
Even the term domestic has even come to be associated with tokenistic gestures, belittling actions as limited to the home and family. But scale is far from the defining factor of successful activism, particularly when the impacts of many small actions add up. Isn’t it within our own households that we base most of our activities? Where we can have the greatest influence?
In contrast to the frustrating distance of state action, our domestic setting is at our fingertips daily. Defining and implementing our own ethical ideals is something we ultimately practice within ourself. We have a far greater influence over our own actions and the impacts of those upon others around us than we do over society as one whole. The potential we have for behavioural change within our domestic world is pretty great.
Prochaska and DiClemente's Transtheoretical Model (1977) is one of the best known approaches to behavioural change. It is based upon research that defines a series of stages we work through when changing our behaviour, recognising that stable and sustainable change is most achievable through a diverse variety of prompts from many directions. These stages range from pre-contemplation - where the subject is unaware or unmotivated to change - through contemplation, preparation and action to a final stage of maintenance.
Their model highlights the importance of activism and support occurring through as diverse and consistant a series of routes as possible. In contrast to an image of activism as big, energy demanding events, it introduces the idea of activism within our everyday lives. Actions that are not limited to awareness raising and pressure at the pre-contemplation stage, but that provide support throughout the long-term and into maintenance.
Initially developed as an aid to quit smoking, it is often used in relation to behavioural change for health and particularly mental health. However, its tendency towards repeated gentle nudges and support, along with the understanding of change as a combined biological, psychological and social process appeal to me as a model for activism too. I explored the incorporation of these ideas into architecture as activism in my masters thesis, using dynamic threshold changes, spaces of interaction and connection and visual or sensual cues to prompt contemplation, action, preparation and maintenance of dietary change.
The Common Citizen
"which are creative so unleash their potential"
- Kate Raworth
The commons refers to resources we hold in collective ownership, such as shared parts of nature or society that people use through self-organisation.
A great example of the commons is the internet. It is an incredible shared resource, evolving constantly through contributions by businesses, citizens and communities world-wide. A huge amount of information is available without spending any personal capital which, despite bringing its own complications as a model, does make a dramatic leap in accessibility to the knowledge commons. Wikipedia, open-source and 3D printing are all exciting examples of how collective knowledge can become far greater than the sum of its parts to achieve a new arena of power and influence.
The internet is a powerful tool for activism, providing access to information, connecting like-minded people and platforming voices or content that would otherwise be lost. Social media, free-to-access podcasts and self-published blogs can give a voice to those who have limted state and market power and social justice movements such as BLM, veganism, trans rights have undoubtedly grown over the past generation. As awareness grows in the commons, the calls for change on the market and the state grow to follow - our 'seamless switching' between our various roles has a knock-on impact that proves the importance of expanding our activism through all arenas.
Equally, the commons also refers to power at scales much more intimate than the entire internet! The impact we have beyond the individual, in our collective capacity is still strong. Workplace conversations, community action and volunteering are invaluable forms of activism, harnessing the potential within connection, communication and social activity. Direct action with those in our social circles, or with those whom we may not know personally but do relate to as a fellow citizen, is incredibly powerful and holds the opportunity to make a tangible difference for those that may be excluded from the market, the state or the household.
This can take the form of a structured volunteer programme or community group, but can also be activism such as taking the time to have a conversation, to buy a meal for someone who needs it, to support an anti-racist argument. Listening and hearing a friend with a different experience, calling out workplace racism, inviting others in.
The power of conversation is incredibly strong as a force of activism, in social media but also in our personal lives. It can make a direct difference to those involved. Just like the activism that occurs throughout millions of households, the actions we make as a common citizen accumulate to become far more than the sum of their parts.
Activism in Action | is us, being active
"Activism: the use of direct and noticeable action to achieve a result"
- Cambridge English Dictionary
The word ‘activism’, to identify as ‘an activist’ can feel quite a daunting term. It still comes with associations of anger, preachiness, self-righteousness, sometimes even danger. But although activism can and does include acts of civil disobedience or disruption - challenging yourself and others in order to challenge the status quo - it is certainly not limited to these actions. It needn’t be extreme or ‘too much’, it shouldn’t have a particular ‘look’.
To concieve of activism in this way negates the differences in approach that bring diversity to activism. It excludes the multifaceted vision of change that is necessary for a multifaceted society. Particularly when a group or organisation thinks this way, it excludes a lot of people from activism - both along demographic lines, such as white-washed activism, dominant masculine leadership or keeping to certain ages - but also due to personality types.
As someone who definitely enjoys a strong opinion(!) yet who also identifies as an introvert and definitely a people pleaser, the stereotypical, loud and confrontational style of activism has never come naturally to me. I have definitely experienced that fear of activism, then a fear of being 'bad at activism'.
It can be hard to find the balance between advocating for what I believe in without getting caught up in worrying about others’ emotions, reactions and perceptions. This can be a massive barrier if these worries prevent me from engaging in activism at all, but I am also learning to see the positive sides of activism as an introvert - the benefits of naturally placing an importance on reflection, communication and empathy. I have started to break down the concept of 'Activism' with a capital A to see it as just another part of my general activity; defined by its purpose and intent of result. Reframing it like this makes it far less daunting and alien, integrating activism into the general melange of activity and skills I already work on in everyday life.
The difference between a topic causing upset and the person causing upset is very different and important to remember. Social justice movements are rooted in pain and so it is understandable that activism often heightens emotions. People rarely like to be challenged and we easily become defensive when we feel our behaviour or lifestyle is being questioned. It is far more likely to be a productive (though not necessarily easy) interaction if communication can remain genuine, true-to-self; as in all interactions we have, the effectiveness of 'direct and noticeable' actions depend upon the quality of communication. It is very rarely what has been said that is remembered during conflict but how it has been said and received (Joy, 2017).
Similarly, the idea of 'telling others what to do' and coming across as superior and preachy has often been an obstacle for me, perhaps next becoming overly concerned with how I communicate and the way I am recieved. It seems to be a common concern and a real barrier to engagement with activism in general and so is something that still needs exploration by us all. Dr Melanie Joy has written extensively about the psychology of activism and emphasises the importance of communication. It is far easier for us to receive information that is delivered from a place of empathy. From a place of non-judgement, without assumptions and where behaviour is not conflated with character (Joy, 2019).
However, whilst the way in which something is said is crucially important, effective communication is not something that can be mastered or perfected. It rarely comes easily and certainly can't be achieved without a lot of trial and error - it is a two-way responsibility. It is good to remember that we feel compelled to engage in activism because we do feel we have information about something that we assume the other person would (on some level) like to know - often something that others would like to be known too! Reframing activist interactions to be part of a two-way, three-way, a society-wide action relieves the pressure of communication from 'the activist'.
Sharing information doesn't need to be programmed, a pre-defined list of facts and cross-checked arguments. It can be, and is, an interaction like any other which will be communicated via our genuine emotions, narratives, factual knowledge, activities, passion... all combined. When part of a genuine interaction or activity, communicated from a place of empathy and connection, then I believe that not only is the dynamic of superiority/inferiority diminished; but it becomes far more natural, engaging and ultimately more effective. Like any interaction, the work is there for the communicator, but there is also work to be done by the receiver. Work that can be facilitated, but is never our responsibility to own.
There is so much talk recently of activist burn-out, self-care and looking after our mental health as an activist, which is such an important topic and I’m glad to see it take a bigger role. But I do still feel, as with so many conversations around mental health, that it is scraping at a surface level understanding of mental health, aiming to avoid low mental health more than it does build up strong mental health. If a huge part of achieving good mental health is tied up in the process of knowing and valuing ourself, learning to live and relate genuinely from there (which I believe it is!); then activism needn’t be a space that induces burn-out, competition and exclusion at all, but should be a powerful part of getting to know who we are and what we believe in, how to share this with others and how best to live in alignment with our core values.
So from the pressure of seeing communication as yet another burden to carry in order to be an ‘Effective Activist’, it has become a bit of a release. Despite the heroic image of activism as a huge fist pumping the air, country-wide bus boycotts and ‘I Have a Dream’ scale speeches to massive audiences; there is just as much value in the activism we practice within the domestic and the commons - raising children with a non-violent outlook, providing hair treatment for Black hair where otherwise there are none, giving sanctuary to a farmed or abused animal. Activism isn’t always this massive event that starts when you get your banner out and begin shouting, then ends when you come home to recover in front of the TV.
Instead I want to reframe activism simply as us, being active, with intent and in line with our morals. Making steps to build a world we want to see, living in accordance with this and treating others in alignment with our vision. I’m not unaware that these simplified ideas of effective communication and true-to-self action take a lifetime to master, but it has become less externalised and increasingly part of the process of knowing ourselves, what we care about and believe in and how we relate. A fundamental part of our general growth, getting to know ourselves and others in life.
If activism is us in action, then those actions should come from our own individual and diverse sets of skills. They will include actions we take naturally in joy, in learning and in sharing. They will take place within our households, communities and daily lives, as well as our workplace, the public and the commercial market. Our activism will be active wherever we are active and should bring us closer to our comfortable self at the same time.
Capitalist society trains us to think of money first and foremost as the key to change. We are encouraged to donate to charity, invest in ethical products, buy the latest, greenest solution. Somehow, despite it being a highly inaccessible form of activism for many, conscious consumerism can feel like the easiest and most accessible option? It is more distant, feels somehow more reliable, less personal. Once we have donated, the application and transferral of that capital into a positive impact is someone else’s responsibility, to be sorted out elsewhere.
To me, activism is limited neither to the actions we take in our role as a consumer, nor to the stereotyped actions taken by protests and pre-defined groups. Activism as an activity is as diverse as the population engaging with it. Interactions that come from a genuine place come with the greatest chance for bonding and learning, growing in ourselves and growing together in the world.
This can look like marches, protests and lobbying; it can look like enjoying new products that align better to our morals, but it can also include the actions we make every day as a citizen. If we are chatty, it will be conversations. If we are creative, it may come out in art, music, stories. For a baker, it will be in the sharing of food. For introverts it may be more reflective and analytical; extroverts may be more outward.
For people who are highly political, scholarly educated, engagement may be more effective through the state – research, politics, lectures. Whereas when education has been more social then perhaps engagement is more effective within the commons – community groups, local charity organisations.
Ultimately however, we are all multi-dimesional - a diverse society but also diversely equipped individuals. Taking an active decision to make a change personally, within the household, can be empowered by simultaneous action within the state. And vice versa, work at the large-scale on behalf of big change is only going to be reinforced and further informed by our actions as individuals and within our communities. We can all be active within many arenas, switching between many roles, and are probably most effective as such.
I will still be taking my role as a consumer seriously, making considered decisions about how I am active within the marketplace, but I am also working to relieve some of the pressures of capitalism and (re)discover my other tools within activism. I want to be more active in my community and the commons, deepening my communication and inclusion skills to build a greater feeling of connection within the collective. I am working towards a greater emphasis as a citizen of the state, learning about my wider network and testing out where my power can lie.
I guess conscious creation has become a big part of discovering my own activism for me. Valuing the activism I explore through art, craft and architecture, processing the thoughts that surround those, questioning how it feeds into my self-growth and sharing that to form part of a wider discussion. It has been part of my discovery of what can be genuine to me.
Finding genuine activism isn’t to expect that activism can only ever be joyful, natural and in keeping with our lives as they are. It will always be an act of resistance and so even when we find ways to do it in alignment with our morals and strengths we will still be fighting a difficult battle. But it can be another powerful avenue for self growth, community, inclusion. We can and should work to make it positive for our mental health, rather than not negative.
“If colonies learn, where exactly does the learning happen? Is it within the brains of individual insects, as a foraging bee learns the location, color, and odor of a rewarding flower? Or is learning somehow dispersed across the colony and its environment?”
- Honeybee Democracy, Tom Seeley
A few resources...
On activism in general
- Veganville - https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/p07wn1by/veganville - a really great short series on iPlayer which followed four different vegan activists, with very different styles and experiences, as they explored the idea of activism and how it worked for them
- Powerarchy by Melanie Joy - on the psychology of power systems and how to navigate them relationally
- Feminism, Interrupted by Lola Olufemi - on the wider discussion of how we engage with feminist activism, rather than if
- Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth – highly recommend reading this for an insight into the relation between economicsmand social justice
- https://www.prochange.com/transtheoretical-model-of-behavior-change - on the Transtheoretical Model of behavioural change
- https://medium.com/swlh/decision-making-in-a-collective-intelligence-examining-the-honeybee-swarm-as-a-society-of-mind-eb2190be0c1 - on the power of collaboration and collective decision making - the total is greater than the sum of its parts
- The Privileged Vegan, YouTube - some really great videos and linked resources including some on capitalism and veganism
- Commodity Activism: cultural resistance in neoliberal times by Roopali Mukherjee and Sarah Banet-Weiser - on the rise of 'branded activism'
- Make It Happen: How to be an Activist Now by Amika George - on her path through hands on activism from a very early age and how to overcome the dauntingness of activism
- The Guilty Feminist Podcast - with loads of great guests, campaigns and incentives to support, presented with a great balanced approach to activism
As a consumer
- Make Money Matter - https://makemymoneymatter.co.uk - information and links to pressurise pension providers to ensure they are investing ethically
- Ethical Investors - https://www.ethicalinvestors.co.uk/ - financial advice and support to use invested money for a good cause
- Ethical Consumer - https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/ - great resource of information to help guide conscious consumption. They also have a hit and miss podcast, with the hits being very good!
and so many specific companies and organisations that google (or even better, ecosia) will show you far better than I can
As a member of the public
- https://takeclimateaction.uk/lobbying-whats-it-all-about - a useful intro into different ways to lobby your MP and how best to approach it
- https://petition.parliament.uk/ - all petitions reaching 10000 signatures and over must be considered by parliament - at the very least it gets a response
- social media can be great for spreading the word about marches and protests - check facebook events, follow organisations you align with on twitter and instagram
As a community member
- a multitude of opportunities to volunteer your time are around - again google or ecosia will be more help than a list here!
- https://metro.co.uk/2017/04/09/these-formerly-homeless-people-have-shared-the-best-things-you-can-do-to-really-make-a-difference-6563674/ - some thoughts from formerly homeless people on the most useful ways to help out
- http://www.moretodogstrust.org.uk/hope-project/hope-project - a great resource to share with someone who is homeless with a companion dog - they provide support for both humans and dogs such as vet bills, accommodation pointers and hostels
- https://www.streetlink.org.uk/StreetLink_HomePage - StreetLink is a service that connects people who are sleeping rough with local services for support
As a friend, a family member
- Me and White Supremacy by Layla F Saad - a fabulous resource for personal and relational anti-racism, including many skills which will be transferable for other activisms
- Beyond Beliefs by Melanie Joy - on effective communication between vegans and non-vegans, again very transferable