For the Shoeless Masses

The Commodification of Ethics and Exercise of Privilege at Home and Abroad

This paper was written for a writing class I took in Spring 2019, for the “Cultural Critique” unit of our class. It reads pretty polemically (though that is kind of the point). I probably have some concessions to make to my argument so please let me know what you disagree on!

A twenty-something sitting alone at the corner table in a college-town café is not an unusual sight. You can often find them gesturing enthusiastically at their rose gold MacBook which is plastered with plastic stickers admonishing us to “Save the Oceans.” If you keep watching, they’ll whip out their fourth three-dollar metal straw of the month (how we shudder at the thought of using plastic ones), to sip on a package of Boxed Water, while extolling the merits of the fair-trade Trader Joe’s coffee that languishes in the Klean Kanteen nestled in the side pocket of their Patagonia backpack. They are probably planning their next spring break escapade to Cancun, just two four-hour flights away with a nice stop in Miami, while exclaiming to the person in their Air Pods that everything is so cheap (without a thought to why that is the case). Flights booked, time to check Twitter and share an article about the human trafficking along drug routes in South America that wasn’t really read but sufficiently skimmed to enable bullshitting just in case the cute guy from section brought it up. On the way out, they jam their paper cup in the trash, while its green counterpart is entirely overlooked.

This person is the projection of our worst selves–the part of us that performs our morality more than undertaking it, even as we convince ourselves of our best intent. Aggregated across consumer societies these micro-hypocrisies constitute a system of exploitation that spans the world. In tandem with the rise of social media, and the ease of projecting our performances to people around the world, ostensibly environmentally-friendly and socially-good products have proliferated on our store shelves and Amazon carts. The burden of enabling this performance of our ethics falls on those in the developing world and the less privileged closer to home. Several companies use “greenwashing”[1] and token corporate social responsibility in an attempt to gain patronage. And so, this new wave of imperialism takes on the guise of “ethical consumerism.” Charity is thus rendered a simple marketing tool, the effects of which are played out in the sites it is purported to benefit.

Photo by Boxed Water Is Better on Unsplash

This consumerism is only for the rich, and serves the interests of the for-profit companies that tout their products as a means to save the world. Their price tags bear a large brand premium–moral superiority isn’t free after all. The smug satisfaction of equipping a faceless child in “Africa” with footwear has to be bought. The consumer thus spends over $50 to purchase one shoe and send an identical one over, while the company that manufactured these for a few dollars, pockets 100% of the profit. This “buy-one-give-one” (BOGO)[2] business-model was pioneered by the now iconic shoe-brand, TOMS. Business schools have extolled the idea, noting that “trends in consumer behavior that put high values on social issues are a way for companies to leverage their competencies for a social cause” (Marquis et al 2014). This corporate-speak disguises the underlying aim of such charity: profit-making. TOMS’ founder and self-branded “chief shoe-giver,” Blake Mycoskie, is worth over $300 million following a 2014 deal that valued his company at $650 million (Forbes 2014). In a neo-colonial twist to this enterprise, after one year at the firm, TOMS employees “are offered the chance to go on a shoe-giving mission” to the unenlightened barefoot masses, as if these shoes must be personally hand-delivered with a sermon about market fundamentalism (I will stop there lest I enter a rant about “voluntourism”) (Telegraph, 2015).

The BOGO model has now extended beyond shoes with companies like THINX doing the same for sanitary pads and Warby Parker for eyewear. However, little thought is given to the sustainability of this strategy. While in the short-run, providing shoes to the barefooted can seem like an easy fix to a simple problem, it is equivalent to treating symptoms instead of the underlying disease. Shoe recipients are unable to buy footwear in the first place because of flawed governance structures and exploitation of labor forces in developing countries. Giving shoes is a one-off solution which does not create jobs or lead to productive outcomes that fuel further growth. It can also actively hurt economies by suppressing local shoe production. Imports of second-hand clothes from America to East Africa caused the local textiles industry to collapse, as local factories were rendered incapable of competing with these cheap hand-me-downs. In retaliation, the Rwandan government instituted tariffs on these imports last year (BBC 2018). Without broader reforms, in the future these people will still depend on TOMS to replace their shoes, instead of being able to purchase a pair themselves. Only after facing intense criticism did TOMS move its shoe production facilities to the countries where it distributes them, thus achieving a semblance of a long-run view on development.

Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash

Back in the United States, who buys these products also becomes a question of class and privilege as our moral status is linked to what we are able to consume. If I can afford to purchase a six-dollar fair-trade coffee sourced from the Andean foothills in Venezuela instead of the two-dollar cup of joe made of some bastardized blend and grown off the back of modern-day slave labor, I am not just a richer person, I am also a morally superior one. The neo-imperial exploitation of the “comparative advantage” of developing countries rears its ugliest face when humans are stacked hundreds to a floor, working in cramped clothing warehouses till the entire building comes crumbling down, reducing bodies and dreams to rubble. In 2013, Rana Plaza, a textiles factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed. Over 1,500 garment workers were killed when the eight-storey building fell to the ground during morning-rush-hour. The factory supplied brands like Target, Gap and Zara, producing cheap clothes for the masses in the developed world. The aftermath of the collapse saw calls to boycott these manufacturers and several meetings with few changes. The status quo was restored and supply chains for these mass-market brands went back to their ways. However, not everyone can afford to shell out $50 for baby-blue canvas TOMS, and instead resort to $10, Bangladeshi produced sneakers found in aisles of anonymous suburban strip malls. Does this make their act of consumption inherently immoral? It is a perverse form of oppression that forces the poor to further oppress other poor. The rich thus absolve themselves of the unfair supply chains, human trafficking and dastardly working conditions. The mean act of exploitation is handed to the impoverished while the corporates profit and the privileged have the luxury of consuming well and consuming right. Money not only buys quality, it also buys the self-righteousness that hammers the wedge down the deep chasms between our society’s classes.

Photo by Terri Bleeker on Unsplash

This state of affairs hasn’t always been the case. In an earlier time, consumption bore connotations of immorality. Three of the Seven Deadly Sins: Lust, Gluttony and Greed banished desire from the realm of what was considered ethical. Protestant conceptions of abstinence prevailed across America in the 18th and 19th centuries and an ethical code of conduct was not associated with consumption, but the lack thereof. At some point between Whitney’s gin and Oppenheimer’s bomb, our conceptions of morality changed to fit into our consumerist framework. Driven by the Industrial Revolution and the wave of performance triggered by television advertising, we became a society that produced more and increased consumption in tandem. Suddenly, there was a solution to be bought for every problem we faced. In seeking to explain away the ethical quandaries of consumerism, we resorted to a commodification of ethics itself.

We are all somewhat guilty of being complicit in this phenomenon. To function in a consumerist society, we must play by its rules. However, recognizing the flaws in market-driven conceptions of charity is fundamental to tackling systemic issues at home and abroad. Consumerism is a knife that cuts both ways–cheap products exploit workers and “ethical products” have unintended consequences, with the added toll of enabling complicity. When you reclaim that corner table in the coffee shop and resume browsing brands endorsed by your favored Instagram influencer, I ask that you remain skeptical of claims to social responsibility when they are used as marketing tools. Signaling one’s morality has become a fundamental facet of consumer culture as the rich exercise their control over capital and ethics. One is forced to ask how much good these companies are really doing. Is charity simply a vehicle to sell more goods in America? 19th century colonialism used extractive policies in Global South to feed the Industrial Revolution in the North. However, in the 21st century, global tides have reversed to the same result– “giving” to the developing world is corporations’ means for generating more revenue in their Western home markets. These strategies are a manifestation of the pernicious imperialism that has embedded itself in global supply chains. Once again, the developing world becomes the tool for fueling consumption in the West.

Photo by Cris Tagupa on Unsplash

Bibliography

  1. Richard Dahl (2010). Greenwashing: Do you know what you are buying? Environmental Health Perspectives. https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/full/10.1289/ehp.118-a246
  2. Clare O’Connor (2014, August 20). Bain Deal Makes TOMS Shoes Founder Blake Mycoskie A $300 Million Man. Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/clareoconnor/2014/08/20/bain-deal-makes-toms-shoes-founder-blake-mycoskie-a-300-million-man/#5f414e7e5668
  3. Elizabeth Anderson (2015, May 3). How Toms made hundreds of millions of dollars by giving shoes away. The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/enterprise/11580387/How-Toms-made-hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars-by-giving-shoes-away.html
  4. Christopher Marquis and Andrew Park (2014, Winter). “Inside the Buy-One Give-One Model” Stanford Social Innovation Review.
  5. Tara John (2018, May). “How the US and Rwanda have fallen out over second-hand clothes?” British Broadcasting Corporation.

[1] Greenwashing is defined as the practice of “making unwarranted or overblown claims of sustainability or environmental friendliness in an attempt to gain market share,” (Dahl, 2010)

[2] Acronym created by author