In a democracy, voting is commonplace from as early as kindergarten when we vote on which games to play in gym class and where to go for summer vacation. Once 18 years old, we can vote in elections. However, you don’t have to wait to vote with your dollar.

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Voting with your dollar means spending your money on brands and companies that support your political, social and cultural values. Spending money is inevitable, so the theory of voting with your dollar is a social attempt to encourage consumers to pay attention to what they are buying. Critics view this theory warily, citing its use by upper-class and upper-middle-class consumers as virtue signaling rather than conscious consumerism.

Related: The best and worst US states for climate change

In that case, is spending money consciously an effective use of our hard-earned dollars? Does it effect change or should we spend more time (and money) on actually voting in elections?

Economic voting

The idea of voting with your dollar begins with the power of the companies selling us the objects our consumer culture encourages us to want. If we set overconsumption and its environmental issues aside, we are left with the fact that we are all going to buy shampoo, socks and food for the rest of our lives. We are going to consume. Because of this, companies will continue making products they think we want. That is where purchasing power comes in.

Every time we buy a cup of coffee or a pair of underwear, we tell the company that we like their products and therefore support their brand and its decisions. However, we don’t receive a rap sheet of everything a company spends its money on, how it treats and pays its employees or what environmental practices they have in place. Therefore, we are consuming blindly.

Voting with your dollar means researching business practices and ethics, the sustainability of a brand and asking questions you may not think to ask such as where this cotton comes from, who harvests it and if they are being paid a living wage. Yes, this most certainly makes a run to Target harder, slower and less feasible. Yes, it often makes products more expensive upfront. But no, you don’t have to be a millionaire to be a conscious consumer.

Green America has built a “Vote with Your Dollar Toolkit” available on its website. This toolkit describes what it means to vote with your dollar and how to do it with your clothes, food and even your bank. It is just one place to begin, but by breaking down your spending, you can feel more financially responsible for your environmental choices.

The problems of dollar voting

There are two major problems with dollar voting: 1) it isn’t financially feasible to spend more money on, say, farmer’s market vegetables when you are not making a living wage and 2) it is unclear whether companies will actually change if you decide not to buy their products. These are not problems we will solve overnight or even in the next few years. Johnson & Johnson will continue putting harmful chemicals in their soaps because they’ve gotten away with it for so long. But you can encourage other businesses to pop up in their place and support real sustainable business practices rather than performative ones.

We are all imperfect environmentalists. We will not be able to always wear the best pair of jeans or refill our bottle of sunscreen instead of buying a new one. That is the reality of living in a plastic-heavy, capitalist society. Not all of us can afford to avoid plastic entirely. In fact, at many grocery stores, it’s near impossible. What matters is what we do when we can. Buying a shampoo bar, as well as a plastic bottle of conditioner, is going to be okay. Go to the thrift store when you can, and when you can’t, wear those garments for as long as possible. The attempt is sufficient.

What is more important than how perfect you are is what you do with any extra spending money you have. Show local, Black, Indigenous, POC and women-owned brands that they matter by buying their products. Show farmers that you care about the time and money they spent feeding their chickens nutritious food by buying their eggs. Dollar voting illustrates the things that are important to you, even if it’s going to take many years to see wide-scale change.

Political voting

For reasons unknown, but also on par with general voting trends, many self-identifying environmentalists fail to vote during every election. In the past, young voters have been less likely to turn up than older voters, and white people are more likely to vote than people of color after years of systemic racism have made voting difficult and the system untrustworthy. However, trends are changing.

In the 2020 election, an estimated 50% of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 voted, as opposed to a general trend of 10% or less. Since 1980, we have also seen more women voting than men. At the same time, however, we continue to see rates of wealthier voter turnout are much higher than low-income folks. This data suggests that knowledge of voting, as well as advertisements from candidates, are more commonly directed to wealthy communities — that is, communities that can give money to campaigns.

This is all to say that the system of voting is flawed. Response to environmental issues is also flawed and disproportionately affects underrepresented people. Women feel a greater burden for environmental issues whether that is because they often conduct up to 60% more unpaid labor than men or because they are working in unsafe conditions is unclear. Several factors are at play because more environmentalists still identify as men.

Voting in the United States means voting Democrat or Republican, and as those divides widen, political centrism takes further hold. It is unlikely for a member of the Green Party to be elected to a high position in government, just as it is unlikely for the Willow Project to be shut down because our economy runs on oil. Voting is incredibly flawed, but the ability to make your voice heard is important (even when it feels like we have been banging our heads against a wall).

What else does voting mean for the environment?

All negativity aside, the United Nations reported a milestone year of environmental accords in 2022 including a climate change fund and protecting biodiversity. Additionally, the 2022 midterm elections in the United States saw 17 environmental measures pass across the country. In total, these efforts raised $7 billion for conservation that will go towards clean water, forest protection and wildfire resiliency, among other things. While it often feels like the outcome of your singular vote is hard to see, electing people and/or joining organizations who can make your voice heard is an impact of voting.

Without a doubt, both voting in elections and voting with your dollar are crucial to your individual environmental change. While they are far from perfect and not always possible, they aid you in sharing your opinions and values with companies and the government who do have immense abilities to effect change.

Lead image via Pexels