Op-Ed: Vote with your feet

Tuesday, October 25, 2016 - 4:03pm

Earlier this month, a Walmart executive gave a surprising campus talk. Chief Sustainability Officer Kathleen McLaughlin outlined how the company is raising wages, reexamining relationships in its supply chain to limit environmental degradation and working in communities to broaden economic opportunity. I was impressed, yet while walking out of the Ross School of Business, I wondered if other businesses — like an independent shop on South U — could have the opportunity to act for environmental, social and economic justice. Walmart must be an exception, I thought. It’s so large and successful that it dictates business terms. Its success translates into having money to spend on new initiatives. I felt unconvinced others could, or would, follow their lead.

This skepticism was deflating, producing a sense that nothing can change. It led to another feeling that many students and adults, particularly those just entering the workforce, might relate to: In a world with more than 7 billion people, there’s little one can do to make a net impact.

Bernie Sanders’ visit to campus, however, served as a counterpoint to this way of thinking. Smaller businesses alone may not affect environmental, economic or social structures, but individuals can. Young people have made Bernie’s campaign a success by collectively expressing principles they value and demanding change on issues like college affordability.

Economists call what many Bernie supporters have done, “foot voting.” The original idea said that individuals, who have preferences for taxes and services, move to the cities within a region that maximize their individual utility. One’s location reveals what he or she wants and values, and other actors in the market see this and adjust accordingly.

Critics, like The New York Times’ op-ed contributor Mark Schmitt, have argued Bernie’s campaign displays the limits of collective action by young people. His supporters shouted loudly, but the campaign likely accomplished little in the long run. Others might conclude the issues that young people can affect are limited. They can demand ethically sourced products, yet have little influence on larger issues like the minimum wage or trade agreements. Business students might echo this point, arguing bottom-line analyses determine business decisions, not aspirations or values.

But the reality is starkly different, both on and off campus. Many of us already vote with our feet every day when making routine purchases. For example, Espresso Royale serves fair trade coffee, in part because many students care what goes into their cups. A similar story explains Chipotle serving “responsibly raised” meat.

Demanding products that are fair to individuals, and to the communities that produced them, doesn’t have to be a luxury either. McDonald’s is removing GMOs and antibiotics from its foods, largely in response to changing consumer awareness and preferences. Target has aisles of sustainable supplies. As more people think about the origin and impact of their purchases, what originally seemed like small-scale activism transforms into systematic changes: Companies like Walmart adapt. Others will follow or be forced to follow.

Though purchases are likely the most common way students vote with their feet, the most impactful choice we make may be what we do after graduation. Thousands of businesses recruit University of Michigan graduates each year. We’re in demand, and in this way, we’re not unlike Walmart in that we have bargaining power.

Campus recruiting is an opportunity to exhibit your priorities and influence those of large businesses. When sorting career opportunities by prestige, salary or visibility, also consider asking questions that reflect your values, like “What is its impact on local communities?” or “How are employees addressing discrimination?” Employers will notice which booths are the most popular at career fairs and adapt. What we do after graduation can create a ripple throughout the labor market.

But small-scale activism on campus doesn’t have to be restricted to older students thinking about post-college plans, or those with spending money. Project Callisto, a sexual assault reporting system, offers another example of students effecting meaningful change. It started last year with two schools where students advocated for new solutions to the sexual violence endemic on campuses. Now in its second year, it’s working with many more universities, receiving funding from Google and influencing policy in Washington.

As students, we should vote with our feet more often, on more issues, even after the November elections.

Anthony Cozart is a graduate student in the Ford School of Public Policy.