Is ethical consumption unattainable under capitalism?

Winston Heckt, Staff Writer

As demonstrated by the brutal murder of napkins, Applebee’s and home ownership, a good number of Millennials and Gen Z folks are using consumer pressure to vote with their dollar as ethical consumers. Ethical consumption is a sort of consumer activism that emphasizes purchasing products that are ethically produced and/or environmentally friendly. Examples range from buying fair-trade coffee and free-range eggs, supporting local businesses, commuting via bicycle, banking with local credit unions instead of the large banks funding the fossil fuel industry — I’m looking at you, JPMorgan Chase — and supporting businesses run by folks from marginalized groups. This seems like a rational approach to affecting social change through smaller scale actions — I actually wrote an opinion piece last semester advocating to defund fossil fuel companies with this method — so why is there a Sonic the Hedgehog meme proclaiming, “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism?”

Reminisce with me back to the grand old year of 2014. Pharrell’s “Happy” was bumping on the radio, the ice-bucket challenge was sweeping the internet, Eric Garner was murdered in NYC for selling cigarettes and U.K. fashion magazine “Elle” had partnered up with the Fawcett Society and a number of high profile celebrities to sell t-shirts with empowering messages for women, most notably one that read, “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like.” The campaign was successful until it came out that the shirts were manufactured in a Mauritian sweatshop by women who were paid only a dollar an hour for their labor — a particularly ironic flavor of exploitation. Stores pulled the t-shirt from their shelves and the campaign ended in failure and embarrassment. Internet savvy leftists used this opportunity to point out the exploitative nature of capitalism in the form of a Sonic the Hedgehog meme because we live in the strangest of times.

So that’s where the phrase comes from, but is it true? What if I buy free-range eggs from a company that pays its employees a living wage? Let’s consider what actually happens in a business using a capitalist model. The capitalist, the person who owns the means of production — the machinery that makes the t-shirts, the land where the chickens live, etc. — decides what they want to produce and how. They then hire workers to use these means to make the products that are sold. Like any rational businessperson, the capitalist wants to stay in business, so the price of their finished product has to offset the cost of the materials that went into its production along with workers’ wages. But the capitalist wants to maximize their profits so they pay the workers the absolute minimum they can get away with, pocketing the rest. This is what profits are — the value that workers create in the production of a commodity that is withheld from them by the capitalist owner. This is what people mean when they say capitalism is inherently exploitative: workers are under-compensated for the amount of value they create whether they make a living wage or not.

For a society that is supposedly the pillar of freedom and democracy, I find it odd that most Americans spend a majority of their lives in one of the least democratic institutions around — the capitalist workplace. That is why there is an increasing interest in worker co-ops, which are organized so the workers collectively own the means of production and democratically decide what to produce, how to produce it and how the profits are spent. Hard Times Cafe and the Seward Cafe are great local examples of co-ops in action. A larger scale example is the Mondragon Corporation, a co-op in Spain that employs over 80,000 people.

So what if I buy my free-range eggs from a cooperatively owned farm? Is that ethical consumption? We live in a world of grey areas, and the typical “Echo” article doesn’t have the word count to dive into all the ins and outs of capital and consumption. Things go deeper than the treatment of livestock and the organization of the workplace. To say that consuming free-range eggs produced by a co-op is ethical is to believe that the underlying structure of capital itself is ethical. Capital operates by forcing the working class to labor for a money wage in order to buy the basic necessities of survival — food and shelter. It began with seizing the English commons — land that was free for anyone to farm, hunt and get water— from peasants  in order to make them dependent on waged work. Capital expanded with colonization and bloody legislation and has been the dominant mode of global economics for about the last 400 years. Today, schmucks like you and I are so far removed from an autonomous existence that I have no idea how to get food or shelter without purchasing it someplace. We are all forced from birth to buy into capital and I, along with Sonic, find this coercion unethical. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy free-range eggs, ride a bike or divest from big banks; it just means we can’t consume our way into an ethical society — we have to change the underlying structure.

This article was originally published in the Feb. 8, 2019 issue.