International best-selling book Is Shame Necessary? asks some awkward questions about certification, and argues that ‘market tools to save the world’ are failing to live up to their name. Jim Manson weighs up the arguments.

Nobody much likes today’s shame culture, especially the way it plays out on social media, normalising nastiness and giving licence to humiliate. But what about shame as a tool for resistance? Specifically, what about harnessing the power of shame to bring to heel corporate transgressors and their political cronies? 

These questions lie at the heart of Jennifer Jacquet’s international best-selling book Is Shame Necessary?

Jacquet is associate professor of environmental studies at New York University and came to the subject of shame via her own ethical journey.    

When she was nine years old, Jacquet heard about the plight of dolphins trapped by  industrial tuna fishing nets where they die from asphyxiation or stress. It was, she says, “the first time I had felt miserable for a creature I had never met..and my first time, but not my last, feeling guilty for something I had eaten”. 

Jacquet persuaded her family to stop buying tinned tuna, in what she calls her “first act of alleviating my guilt as a consumer”. Not long afterwards, with an international tuna boycott in full flow, the first ‘dolphin-friendly’ labelled tuna began hitting supermarket shelves. Reassured by the presence of that leaping dolphin logo, concerned Americans began eating tuna again. Jacquet was one of them, and, by her own admission, she didn’t think about dolphins, or the tuna problem, for almost a decade.

Market tools to save the world
The dolphin-label, introduced in the US in 1990, was one of the first of the newly introduced “market tools to save the world”, as Jacquet calls them. It was also the year that the first federal organic food legislation was enacted in America. The Forest Stewardship Council, Marine Stewardship Council and Fairtrade International also arrived on the scene in the 1990s, each with their own logos. 

This push for certification began to alter the whole dynamic of environmental and social justice campaigning. Instead of seeking to change whole industries or companies through collective action, certification based schemes shifted responsibility to the individual. Earlier ideas about directly changing supply, were being replaced by new ideas about changing demand (if demand changes, supply should follow, the theory went). 

Certification schemes also represented the first large-scale experiment in harnessing the behaviour modifying power of personally experienced guilt. And, says Jacquet, it encouraged people to engage with issues as consumers, rather than citizens or activists. 

But was the new ‘conscious consumerism’ any more effective at securing meaningful change? Jacquet argues there is little evidence that “labels alone are getting us to where want to go”. There are no reliable studies, she claims, “which suggest that eco-certification for fisheries has led to more fish in the sea, or that certifying timber has increased forest cover”. And while the US decreased its pesticide use by 8% in the years following the introduction of organic certification, this represented a reduction from 1.2 billion tonnes to 1.1 billion tonnes – rather less impressive sounding.

The limits of guilt
Jacquet sees all this as evidence of “the limits of guilt” to achieving real and urgently needed change in the world; and reason to question what she calls the “moral licensing” of certification schemes.

The shift within activist groups towards favouring guilt (a private emotion) over shame (a public emotion) is eminently understandable. In Eastern cultures, and surviving traditional societies, ‘constructive shame’ continues to be seen as an effective way of ordering society for the benefit of the group. But Western cultures have increasingly championed individualism over collectivism, and shame – an inherently social phenomenon – has been gradually been displaced as the primary tool for enforcing social norms. 

Not surprisingly, the consumption-led focus of certification schemes gets the seal of approval of free-marketeers: Consumers retain their freedom to choose, and conscious consumers avoid uneasy feelings by simply changing their shopping habits. The goal of campaigners, Jacquet adds, “ceases to be to reform industries but to alleviate a certain section of consumers”. And this is why, she reasons, certification only ever operates at the margins. 

Jaqcuet offers up Whole Foods Market as an example of why the market for green products isn’t achieving the serious outcomes that are needed. “Voluntary standards, eco-labels and consumer choice are what give Whole Foods its business edge and make it the place for eco-conscious shoppers to shop,” she says. Therefore, If every grocery store were required to sell a high percentage of organic or sustainably sourced foods, WFM would have to find some other way to distinguish itself. Fortunately for Whole Foods (to be especially cynical) most consumers “continue to buy the same old stuff”.

Moreover, to command a price premium green products need to be the exception, not the rule, meaning that the market eases the consciences of a relatively small group of consumers but avoids making any imposed, long-lasting changes to industry. 

Hollow act of consumption?
In this way, Jacquet argues, activism has been “co-opted by industry and used as a tool to distract a small minority with the hollow act of consumption”.

“In the end, she says, “we instinctively know that engaging as shoppers cannot work”. 

Now, it’s possible to take issue with Jacquet’s framing of certification-based activism, particularly her disparaging of “green guilt”.  Rather than acting out of guilt, you might argue that people who choose to buy products that are better for the planet, or for people or animals, are motivated by a desire to express positivity, rather than using their energy to show they’re against something. And then there is a strong case to be made for certification (coupled with rigorous standards), when it acts as catalyst for change in conventional markets. 

But it’s difficult to argue with Jaqcuet’s assessment that label schemes alone are not getting us to where we need to be. Few in the organic movement, for example, could not feel some frustration that, nearly 30 years after the introduction of organic certification labels in North America and Europe, organic farmland accounts for a “paltry” (to quote an IFOAM blog) 1.4% of productive farmland globally. Similarly, there must be disappointment that, despite bringing transformative change to the lives of many growers and producers, fair trade label schemes account for less than 1% of the value of the global food industry. 

Climate change – in particular, the threat of runaway global heating – is a good illustration of why we need new types of activism and campaigning. Jacquet cites research showing that just ninety corporations (some of them state-owned) are responsible for two-thirds of historic carbon dioxide and methane emissions – a reminder, she says, “that we don’t equally share the blame for greenhouse gas emissions”. Indeed, framing climate change as something for whom responsibility should be redirected at individuals is not just grossly unfair, it is also almost certainly guaranteed to fail in efforts to stabilise GHG emissions. 

Direct action
Public shaming of corporations “whose profits rely on extraction of fossil fuels and have locked us into a system of fossil fuels” is going to play a vital role in the fight to control planetary warming, Jacquet says. And it is already having some effect. This year, in the UK, several major public institutions have severed lucrative sponsorship arrangements with fossil fuel companies (the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Gallery of Scotland cut their ties with BP, and the British Museum and National Portrait Gallery are under growing pressure to do the same) as a direct result of ‘constructive shaming’. It’s a trend that is likely to gather pace quickly. 

CertificationJacquet’s book was first published in 2015, before the launch of Greta Thunberg’s climate strikes for the planet, and the Extinction Rebellion group. Extinction Rebellion was itself born out of frustration at the failure of traditional environmental campaigning to make an impact on global warming. Its favoured tactic of civil disobedience, and its rapid gathering up of supporters around the world, confirm the appetite and need for new form of direct action.  

The subtitle of Jacquet’s book – New Uses for an Old Tool – gives context to the case she makes for the act of shaming. It should be seen as just that, a tool, to be used alongside other approaches. The real power of shame, she says, is that “it can be used by the weak against the strong”.