In our capitalist economy, ethical consumption is not possible.
Recently, you might have noticed Kenyon Solidarity Boycott’s posters around campus advising you to not to buy products like Kenyon staples such as Keystone Light, Starbucks and Sabra hummus. The posters list what these companies have done to make them worthy of boycotts, including raising money for Trump, supporting climate change denial and using child or prison labor to make products. These are compelling issues, and the message the posters are sending is clear: If you don’t buy these products, you can make a difference.
Unfortunately, bringing change isn’t that easy. The global capitalist economy rewards companies that sacrifice good ethics for profits, and practices like circumventing workers’ rights or using prison labor are the norm, not the exception. I understand the feeling of not wanting your money to go to companies who do bad things. But like it or not, we live in an unjust world and we all need stuff to survive. But if you base your consumer decisions on this poster, odds are whatever alternative product you purchase will also be made by a company that perpetuates injustice.
Let’s say instead of going to Wendy’s for dinner, you decide to go to McDonald’s. Unfortunately, McDonald’s has arguably done just as much to merit inclusion on the poster as Wendy’s. In 2014, the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that regulates labor law, issued 13 complaints against McDonald’s, finding them guilty of illegally firing workers who were fighting for the right to better working conditions and higher wages. And McDonald’s is just one example; most fast-food restaurants pay workers extremely low wages, and source their food from companies that employ unethical labor practices. Wendy’s rejection of the Fair Food Program—a workplace-monitoring program that ensures farms provide fair wages and good working conditions—is despicable, but it is utterly standard and unsurprising in the food service industry.
Even if you try to avoid fast food altogether, you probably still need a computer. And choosing to support a competitor like Apple or Dell over Hewlett Packard (HP) isn’t really a meaningful ethical choice. HP doesn’t develop technology for the Israeli military because they hate Palestinians — they do it because the Israeli government pays them to do it, and they make a profit. Even if a boycott made HP stop doing this, it would only be because the company was losing more money due to the boycott than they were making off military contracts. Even then, the Israeli government wouldn’t stop using technology — they would find another company to do what HP does for them now. That is the reality of capitalism: As long as the primary motivation for corporations is profit, “ethical consumerism” will have negligible impact.
If we want to stop companies from using unethical practices, we need to do more than arbitrarily pick some companies and stop buying their products. Instead, we need to think “big picture” with our activism. If you want to support labor rights, support movements like Fight For 15 that pressure the government to mandate a living wage for workers and allow workers to unionize. If you don’t want companies using prison labor, then fight against laws that promote mass incarceration. It’s okay to let ethics influence what you buy — just don’t think you’re changing anything by not drinking Keystone Light.
Tobias Baumann ’19 is a religious studies major from Mount Vernon, Ohio. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.