Exploitative capitalist system encompasses myth of ethical consumption

By Natalie Russell / Columnist

I feel good about myself when I buy clothing from American Apparel. I feel nobler still when I choose cage-free eggs over the standard carton. I even, embarrassingly enough, feel a hint of self-righteousness when I count the years since I’ve eaten at a McDonald’s. Ethical consumption is the myth that you have a choice under an exploitative capitalist system. It’s an outlet for the bourgeoisie to exonerate themselves from guilt without taking real political action.

So, never mind that the gas I used to drive to American Apparel was made available by wars. Never mind that the chickens laying my cage-free eggs live in overcrowded hen houses and have their beaks mutilated to prevent injuries to other animals. Never mind that the local burger place pays its workers below minimum wage.

This is the world of ethical consumption: one in which you can be a hypocrite without actually having to face it. But what matters in a capitalist system is that you remain a consumer, whether you’re buying “ethical” products or not. If I keep believing that I have a choice in consumption, I’m a lot less likely to criticize the options provided or the system that fosters unethical “choices.”

Beyond assuaging guilt, ethical consumption often comes with an unearned superiority complex — as in the belief that the less educated and less economically advantaged members of society are simply making the wrong decisions. It becomes a matter of personal responsibility instead of an honest look at the choices given.

Of course, attention should be paid to scale. Small to mid-size corporations are still somewhat vulnerable to the actions of consumers, but corporate giants such as Apple and Walmart won’t miss your business. This is why boycotting alone simply doesn’t work. In fact, studies have shown that it has the exact opposite effect. Take Chick-fil-A president and CEO Dan Cathy’s 2012 anti-gay statements. Protests, boycotts and bad press caused their sales to soar 12 percent, up to $4.6 billion. Apple’s outsourcing has never been a huge secret, yet their sales continue to climb.

When corporations abuse power and exploit other countries, they’re doing exactly what would be expected under a capitalist system. So it goes beyond thinking of Apple as just one corrupt player in the game. Especially when it comes to electronics, most products come with a heavier price tag than the one shown. Microsoft, Dell, Intel and other major brands all come with their own set of outsourcing scandals.

The truth is that you can’t escape from contributing to actions you don’t support. I can’t rightly feel proud of myself for turning down corrupt corporations when my tax dollars have funded the murder of Pakistani children (see: Drone strikes).

I don’t want to be the person who criticizes others for trying to do better. As I mentioned above, sometimes it just makes me feel better not to eat at fast food restaurants. But whether you abstain or not, the important thing is to honestly evaluate the choices you’re given and actively agitate for political change. Recognize that the problem isn’t solved when H&M decides to manufacture clothing in regions other than Bangladesh.

So if you’re going to buy a MacBook, remember to stay angry.

Write Natalie at [email protected]