When voting with your dollar, interpretation matters

Much is made of consumers’ ability to influence how things are produced and services performed just by choosing how (or whether) they spend their money. But instead of “What is my dollar supporting?” a better question to ask is “How will my dollar be interpreted?”

Say you want to support local producers, and you go buy local apples at the grocery store. The grocery store might misinterpret your dollar for local apples as just a dollar for generic apples. When they run low on that variety, they will get more from their distributor – who may be carrying imported ones this time around. If they are not paying attention to the distinction the consumer is making, then they might miss it.

A concrete example is with hydroponic on-the-vine tomatoes in local grocery chains. Even during the same time of year, sometimes they’re from Canada, sometimes they’re from Mexico, and sometimes there’s both kinds in the same bin – and all have the same scan code. If I buy only the Canadian ones, to that grocery store it’s a vote for hydroponic tomatoes, whatever their source.

Perhaps you buy some household item in part because it is made in Canada and not China. The manufacturer could easily interpret this as a dollar for that item (regardless of source). When they ramp up production, they decide their customers won’t notice and take manufacturing offshore.

Or say you buy something from a local, large-scale producer. Your dollar is supporting them, but do they interpret it as a “local dollar” or just as a dollar? It’s very possible that they don’t pay much mind to where their business comes from. With initial local support they can expand to nationwide sales and cease to care about local sales, and then perhaps move their production elsewhere.

The direct question of “What is my dollar supporting?” is still a valuable one, and I am not suggesting to disregard it. What I would suggest, however, is to pay attention to the cases where the interpretation of the dollar will differ significantly from the intent – and to try to remedy them. Wherever the dollar vote may be misinterpreted, one can try to point out the intention to the party responsible for interpretation. However, in some cases the misinterpretation is likely endemic, and the only way to have your dollar understood properly is to take it elsewhere.


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