Companies vs. Consumers: A Manifesto

Why are so many consumers and bloggers totally convinced that food companies and consumer products retailers are evil, greedy, and exist solely to exploit their customers?

Look, if you hold a simplistic, generalized world view like this, you are committing an act of disempowerment. You may not know it, but you are willingly giving your power away to these companies.

Now, this isn't to say that some companies aren't greedy. They can be. Nor is it to say that consumers aren't at times cheated, taken advantage of, or unfairly separated from their money. But it is the height of enfeebled hypocrisy to whine and complain about "greedy companies" when they merely make and sell the very products we consent to buy.

I will not allow my readers to hand their power over to companies like that. No way.

The truth is this: big business (or Big Food, or Big Retail, or Big Pharma, or Big Oil--go ahead and take your pick) has absolutely no power over us unless we willingly choose to be disempowered first. There have never been more companies competing for our consumer dollars, and there have never been more consumption choices available to us--including the easy-to-forget option not to consume at all.

Just walk into any standard supermarket, and you'll find at least 50,000 products--three times what you'd find 30 years ago--all helpfully arranged throughout the store in the hopes that you'll make a purchase. Sure, among those 50,000 products there are lots of unhealthy foods. But an unbiased walk through any grocery store will reveal an extremely wide array of healthy, laughably cheap foods too.

If you decide to eat unhealthy foods in the face of all of those options, you make that choice. No snivelling marketing executive from Big Food grabbed you and forced a bag of Doritos down your throat. (PS: If this actually happens to you, let me know and I'll gladly re-evaluate every single one of my views on consumer empowerment. Uh, and call 911. )

Sure, some food company may have made those chips hyperpalatably salty and tantalizingly delicious. But you picked the bag off the shelf, you carried it to the counter, you paid for it with your money, and you took the bag home, opened it and consumed the contents.

If you consider it reasonable to blame Big Food for that sequence of events, then you're beyond help. You've already given away all of your power.

Readers, what are your thoughts?

A version of this post appeared last year at one of my very favorite blogs, Cheap Healthy Good.

Related Posts:
Survivor Bias: Why "Big Food" Isn't Quite As Evil As You Think It Is
Overpriced and Overengineered: Kitchen Gadgets for the Non-Frugal
How to Give Away Your Power By Being a Biased Consumer
Review: The End of Overeating by David Kessler

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Anonymous said...

My thoughts are tangental...
I don't have a problem with business for exactly the reasons that you state. If you are not happy with how store X treats their customers, don't shop there. If you care about humanely treated grass fed beef, don't buy corn fed lot raised beef. You are in charge.

I'd like to know the author's opinion on VISA(MC/AMEX) vs. business... Can companies charge the consumer to use their cards?

Since credit cards are now "restricted" on their profit making practices. & Because more consumers are paying off their balances so that the CC Companies are not making money on the interest.

Should it be a flat fee - $X or x% per transaction? Should they let the consumers know? "It is our companies policy to add a credit card fee to any transaction that uses a credit card for payment."

Daniel said...

Hi Anonymous, thanks for reading. And agreed, your question is a bit tangential to this conversation--quite frankly I don't (yet) have the expertise or the context to answer it. For now, let's bring the conversation back to the consumer products and food industries specifically, and see if other readers have a viewpoint on that aspect of this conversation.


Matt @ SpoonMatters said...

Great post, this is one of my favorite themes that you explore, and your approach is so level-headed compared to a lot of other dialog.

I completely agree, and despite the pull of marketing it is ultimately my choice to buy or not buy. I think of it now as voting with my dollars.

And for anyone who excuses themselves and blames the marketing, in most cases it was still their choice of activity (TV mostly) that subjected them to the advertising. So you can't dodge responsibility, no matter which way you argue, in my opinion.

Owlhaven said...

Yup, it's the whole personal responsibility thing. When I saw the movie Food Inc. I found myself getting irritated at the inference that all healthy food is outasight expensive. There ARE situations (inner city neighborhoods, maybe?) where people don't have as wide a variety of affordable healthy food. But the vast majority of Americans still have a huge variety of healthy, affordable food at our fingertips. It is up to us to choose the good stuff over the over-processed, over-advertised junk.

Mary, currently feeding 10 people well on $700-$800 a month.

Jenna said...

This is something I've come across a lot lately with friends and family, and I'll admit... it's been making me a bit crazy. I don't know if it's genetically inborn stubbornness (best example of bullheadedness in the family? My grandmother. Had a double mastectomy - and the day after she helped herself to the maintenance closet, cleaned her room to HER specs, wandered into the kitchen - ordered the poor dietitian out her way as she "fixed their muck for everyone", and bullied the chief of surgery into driving her home... but only after making him take her to his mother's house so she could compliment the woman on her son's education. We don't do "Sit down and do as you're told well. lol) or what...

But hearing so many people wail and blame their money/food/life worries on the big bad Someone Else just makes my skin crawl. It isn't easy. It takes work. But dang it - every person can make choices on how they will live, and what they will spend.

At the risk of channeling my dearly missed granny - it's about personal responsibility 90% of the time! I wish like anything GF pasta hadn't spiked to $4-$6 a pound... but if I don't want to pay that - no one is forcing me at gunpoint to buy it.

The choice is a simple one - if you want it and are willing to pay for it, buy it. If it's too much? DON'T buy it and figure out a workaround. By making it Big Business's fault - I'd be willingly turning myself into a victim.

Victim is a label I'm not willing to wear. (Partially for personal pride... and partly because I'm pretty sure my granny would HAUNT my butt if I tried it!)

Sorry to blather so long - an hour on the phone today while a friend moaned about her $1800 a MONTH grocery bill (she doesn't cook, she reheats and refuses to shop anywhere other than the big "Name" shops because the discount stores are "for poor people only") likely still has me cranky.

Anonymous said...

Along with your not making excuses column, I totally agree. Nobody is forcing me to buy the hyperpalatable stuff, it's all my choices. Do I really enjoy things like cheetos and McDonalds fries, Yes I do. So when my husband has his monthly dinner meeting for work, I schedule my time with the hyperpalatable goodness for one meal until the next month. I satisfy a craving and the next day it's back to reality.

Marcia said...

We like making excuses. IT's what we do. So it's not our fault. Easy to blame someone else.

My kid eats kale. Why? Because I feed him kale. And if he doesn't want to eat it for dinner, he gets it for breakfast. And if he skips breakfast, he gets it for dinner. See a pattern? Of course, he crawls into our bed occasionally in the middle of the night. We kinda tolerate that. It's our own fault.

I've got friends who don't work out because they don't have time. "I can't go to the gym after work because the childcare isn't open yet." So go for a walk. "I can't, because his babysitter takes him for a walk and he does NOT tolerate the stroller 2x a day." So use a bjorn or a sling. "he HAS to be facing outwards so he can see". So use a bjorn. "The babysitter has the bjorn." So put it in the diaper bag every day. Or, get up in the morning. "I already get up at 5 am." Well, I got up at 4 am when I had an infant. "That's too early." It's only 2 days a week.

I'm not very forgiving with excuses.

Today it was a coworker. "It takes too long to cook." Pasta or rice are easy. "What if I get tired of eating it?" Put the rest in the freezer.

chacha1 said...

I'm not very forgiving with excuses, either.

I try to maintain perspective by reminding myself that it is human nature to go for the new and quick and easy, because evolution favors those who adapt, and if you only stick with the labor-intensive or time-consuming (or environmentally-destructive) solutions handed down to you, you might eventually run out of food and starve. Sometimes you have to grab the new thing that looks as though you can eat it while running from the tiger.

We are not, however, generally incapable of mastering our impulsive natures and actually thinking about what we are doing. And most of us are not actually running from tigers.

I think conditioning and confirmation bias shape the market choices most people make. And I'm fine with that, as long as they don't then complain about how it's someone else's fault.

Daniel said...

I like the insights here so far. My primary goal with a post like this is show that when you think about the food industry (or any other industry for that matter) using any generalized frame of reference, you're putting yourself at a huge disadvantage.

In other words, when you assume an industry is out to get you, is it any wonder that it ends up doing so? That preliminary assumption merely lays the groundwork for us to give away our power--as well as any potential solutions.


PS: I'm truly grateful that so many of my readers "get it." If there's a word that describes the exact opposite of a bunch of hand-wringers, you all are it. :)