What does it mean to vote with your dollar?
To Gen Z, it means putting your money where your morals are. More than any generation before, Gen Z considers not only the quality of a product itself, but where it was made, by whom, and how. They expect a company to align its practices with their beliefs, and if not, they boycott. Since quarantine, this sentiment has become especially apparent. Social media has taken the place of in-person conversations, facilitating the growth of anti-capitalist content. Infographics—on topics ranging from prison labor to thrifting responsibly—have swept across Instagram and Twitter.
But as admirable as Gen Z’s social conscience is, there’s a problem. This movement of ethical consumption has wrongly shifted responsibility away from corporations and onto consumers. It’s led people to believe that they are capable of creating systemic change solely through their individual action without the need for radical change.
Take the issue of fast fashion, for example. These clothes are poor in quality, detrimental to the environment, and made under exploitative working conditions. So consumers are urged to abandon fast fashion in order to push companies toward more ethical means of production. These clothes are much cheaper than ethical alternatives, though. But when individuals believe that they direct the future, they perceive those who shop fast fashion a hindrance to progress, even though they can’t afford to be anything but complicit. This attitude instills guilt in the poor and pride in the wealthy. It’s absurd. You can’t buy your way to morality; you can’t buy a clean conscience.
The working class isn’t the reason that fast fashion exists, either. It’s the fault of profit-driven corporations that present such limiting, coercive options in the first place. The fate of world issues like climate change isn’t in the hands of the average man who may forget to turn off his kitchen light at night. In fact, the poorest 50% of the world only emits 10% of global CO2 emissions. Inversely, the richest 10% emits almost 50%. Adding salt to the wound, the poorest are also the most vulnerable to the effects of global warming. The only thing elitism does is stigmatize the poor who are merely victims of an insidious system.
Even if individuals did control market practices, it would still be hard to ensure products are ethical, as the definition of ethicality seems to vary across brands.
Most commonly, “sustainable” companies work to reduce their water usage and material waste. But in 2019, Ecolab and Greenbiz surveyed 86 companies with revenues of at least $1 billion. 74% agreed that monitoring water usage was a priority, and 88% said they would take steps to do this in the next three years—but 44% had no concrete plans. The clothing brand Everlane, for example, rose in popularity for its radical transparency and ethical production. But despite their promises, they haven’t succeeded in minimizing waste. Similarly, many have claimed sustainability for marketing appeal while continuing harmful practices.
- Carbon emissions
Carbon offsetting is the goal to be carbon-neutral, having “net-zero” emissions. Companies can voluntarily offset or join agreements that legally bind them. This doesn’t mean that they’ll reduce emissions, though; rather, they may plant some trees to supposedly counterbalance the harm of fossil-fuel usage. To reduce pollution in their domestic countries, they’ll often offshore their pollution in poorer countries.
- Working conditions
Does a company provide worker’s benefits? Does it offer flexible hours? Who’s working, and how much are they compensated? Popular retailers like H&M have repeatedly issued statements that they’d ensure fair wages and safe conditions but have come up empty.
Many companies make pledges toward ethical production but fail in action due to negligence or complacency. Yet, regardless of their actual practices, they still brand themselves as ethical.
So when people think they’re shopping ethically, they may be giving more money to corporations that have merely co-opted sustainability for profit.
Does this mean that ethical consumption just doesn’t exist? Not in the way most think, but it doesn’t mean we should stop searching for cleaner products, protesting sweatshops, or demanding equity. Supporting local businesses circulates money in the community which is reinvested in arts, schools, sports, and charities. All of us can still do our part, big or small, but we have to remember that “ethical” practices often come with a certain amount of privilege. Individual actions aren’t the whole solution to systemic issues, so they shouldn’t make you feel superior or inferior to others. Collective action is far more meaningful but difficult to accomplish with corporations creating constant divisions between consumers.
Corporations have successfully exempted themselves from moral responsibility by taking advantage of growing individualism. Commercials aren’t just selling a product anymore, but an idea of oneself by attaching values like justice, power, and autonomy to their products. As a result, people begin to define themselves, and others, by what they buy, believing that they can support a beloved movement or demonstrate their patriotism.
Car commercials epitomize this. The best ones aren’t really about the car—they’re tales of love, happiness, progress, and resilience. They breed envy. This Tesla ad, while unofficial, hits all of the right beats. Watch a boy grow into a man, a musician, a father. He doesn’t even need his hearing anymore to know how great the car is, because he can just feel it. Without this car, you can’t even begin to comprehend how much joy this man feels. This Hyundai ad takes viewers on a journey back to the inception of the company. It all started with “one man driven by a desire for better.” Carrying on his mission, they’ve made the perfect car for the perfect future. So, buy Hyundai and be the future.
These commercials appeal to social justice, as though they need your help to accomplish their righteous goals. Without you, the consumer, they wouldn’t be able to do anything, because you are the agent of change. Advertisements aren’t just advertisements. They’re weapons of a more complex institution: neoliberalism. Without individuals feeling as if they possess the power rather than institutions, neoliberalism could not survive.
David Harvey, a Marxist economic geographer, wrote, “neoliberalism is a theory of political economic practices proposing that human well-being can best be advanced by the maximization of entrepreneurial freedoms within an institutional framework characterized by private property rights, individual liberty, unencumbered markets, and free trade.” While that may sound desirable, Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine outlines the issues with the demands of a neoliberal system: the privatization of education, transportation, and healthcare raises prices and makes them inaccessible to poorer individuals; deregulation allows corruption to fester and corporations to exploit the environment and labor for profit; welfare and benefits are cut, further incapacitating the poor.
But if the flaws of neoliberalism are so obvious, why does it still exist? Unfortunately, the roots of neoliberalism are so deep-seated that many believe it was always the norm. Though it originated before the 1970s, this era certainly brought upon a greater passion under the leadership of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. They employed the same method of advertising we see today: appealing to individual rights. According to them, systems other than capitalism enable collective judgments that threaten individual freedoms. But in actuality, it’s the institutions of capitalism that impose their will on unsuspecting individuals who’d rather bicker over day-to-day choices than begin to question the foundations of such institutions. Neoliberals promote their ideas as if they are the only option, encouraging a free market, and most importantly, individualism over individuality.
Aggressive advertising won’t stop, and elitism won’t go away unless neoliberal theory is tackled head-on. Too many times in the past, we’ve fought fruitlessly for systemic change because we were merely targeting symptoms. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that the world we’ve grown up in isn’t just. But it’s necessary. Neoliberalism has infected every aspect of our lives, so radical change often feels wrong. It’s much easier to remain in our safe bubbles of complacency, but facing the unfamiliar is the only way we can progress. Fighting for corporate transparency, deprivatization, universal healthcare, accessible education, and welfare is a start. Maintaining these sectors will ensure that institutions cannot further oppress and grow.
Debating the individual morality of your actions isn’t worthwhile. We’ve had these conversations over and over, but nothing has changed because they only serve as distractions from the bigger issue. The burden of ethical production isn’t yours to carry, despite corporations’ incessant proclamations.
It’s easy to feel disillusioned, to feel overwhelmed by the ubiquity of neoliberalism. But recognizing that neoliberalism isn’t natural is already a step in the right direction. There is an alternative.
By Esme Lee
Illustration by Lay Hoon