The Symbols of the Corporate Saints: On Ethical Consumerism

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


February 1, 2015

The Symbols of the Corporate Saints

On Ethical Consumerism

You’re awakened by the ring of your smart phone beside you. You open your eyes and smile, secure in the knowledge that the manufacturer made a sincere effort to minimize the use of conflict minerals during its construction. You opted into your local power utility’s green program, so the electricity powering your device comes from more costly, but renewable sources.

You rise from your pillow and pull back the organic cotton sheets. You slept on an organic mattress that’s free of flame retardant chemicals. It cost four thousand dollars, but you care about what comes in contact with your body.

In the bathroom, you’ve done the research. You clean your teeth with a non-petroleum BPA-free plastic toothbrush from a company that offers a recycling program. Your toothpaste is free of chemicals like triclosan, fluoride or sodium lauryl sulfate. Government agencies may claim they’re safe, but you’ve read some websites that disagree and you’d rather be safe.

For breakfast, there’s a choice of organic fair trade coffee, GMO-free cereal or pasture-raised, antibiotic and hormone free eggs you bought at the farmer’s market at eight dollars per dozen. But you’ve already done six socially responsible things this morning. Why not round it off with breakfast at the café down the street that specializes in local, organic, sustainable food? It’s expensive, but as the saying goes, you eat like you give a damn. You get in your hybrid vehicle that you’re thinking of trading in for a seventy thousand dollar fully electric Tesla, and get on with the rest of your day.

It’s never been easier for the socially responsible consumer to shop her way to a better world, even after breakfast. For each of the hundreds or even thousands of consumer products and services we might use in a day, there are often several brands competing for the ethical dollar.

On their ethical smartphones, consumers can download apps that help them make the right choices. One app lets users scan in barcodes of products to ensure their money isn’t going to companies they oppose, or to learn why other users might be boycotting a brand. Another helps users find and purchase over ten thousand Fair Trade Certified products available in the United States. Good Guide offers a vast catalog of over 250,000 products, each given a score between zero and ten rating the product by its impact on society, human health and the environment.

The history of consumer activism in the United States is long and varied. It includes colonial boycotts of British goods during the Revolutionary War, the abolitionist free produce movement, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and consumer boycotts organized by the United Farm Workers in the 1960s and 70s. These events were often closely coordinated with other activities aimed at change, from lobbying, lawsuits, strikes and picketing up to civil disobedience, rioting, civil war and political revolution.

This form of consumer activism is usually short term, a collective act by a group of people with shared concerns to pressure a company into making specific changes. By contrast, today’s ethical consumerism encourages us to make long-term shifts in purchasing choices. Specific companies are rarely singled out. Instead, individuals are asked to evaluate all of their consumption habits in light of their political preferences, personal values, tolerance for risk, and income, then choose more ethical, socially responsible, less toxic or environmentally friendly brands.

We are not simply asked to withdraw support for certain company by refusing to purchase their products. The emphasis is equally on the so-called buycott, the act of rewarding companies with our business for operating ethically. Such an act is undertaken under the assumption that as customers we have a large degree of influence over the actions of companies we buy from, making us ultimately responsible for them. We are asked to vote with our wallets because, as one ethical consumption guide puts it, “Buying cheap clothes which have been made in sweatshops is a vote for worker exploitation. Buying a gas guzzling 4X4, especially if you are a city dweller, is a vote for climate change.”

The shopping mall and the farmers’ market have become the new ballot box, and as a result, brands and companies in this sector have proliferated, eager to attract the growing segment of socially responsible consumers. According to GoodGuide, there are now 290 kinds of socially responsible shampoo, 130 ethical laundry detergents, 366 virtuous dishwashers, over one thousand morally pure breakfast cereals, and more in dozens of other categories.

Consumers across the world are eager to shop for these brands. In 2012, Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm, launched its Business and Social Purpose division to help multinational clients like Pepsi, Starbucks and Unilever reach the growing category of “citizen consumers,” a group it describes as “vocal, empowered and poised to act whether via the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, or aligning with purposeful brands through purchases, praise, or advocacy.” Its surveys show that over 70% of global consumers are willing to promote brands associated with good causes, and a growing majority rank social purpose as an important factor when selecting a brand.

Other large global advertising and PR agencies are getting involved, like Saatchi & Saatchi S (“making sustainability irresistible”), OgilvyEarth (“sustainability is the growth opportunity of the 21st century”) and WeberShandwick’s Social Impact division. These agencies work with multinational brands to associate them in the public mind with good causes. Unilever’s Sunlight Project fights global hunger and promotes sustainable living and access to clean drinking water. Bank of America partnered with Vital Voices to mentor women leaders in developing countries. The Pepsi Refresh Project awarded $20 million in grants to individuals with ideas for helping their community.

Through philanthropy, sustainable supply chains and ethical manufacturing practices, corporate leaders anticipate and respond to varied critiques of capitalism. In 2007, PepsiCo CEO Indra Noori inaugurated a new philosophy to guide the company called Performance with a Purpose, a strategy based in the belief that doing good and making a profit aren’t in conflict. In an interview, Noori explained the impetus for these reforms: “I watched the incredible melt down of the global economies because there was a singular flaw in capitalism: capitalism lost its conscience. There was a maniacal focus on today; there was a maniacal focus on twenty-four hours out. People forgot what the consequences of each of their decisions would be for society at large.”

But these corporate initiatives find themselves plagued by distrust from some quarters. In the mid–1990s, the term “greenwashing” was coined after ethical consumerism pioneer The Body Shop was exposed for failing to live up to its marketing promises of environmental protection, philanthropy and fair trade sourcing. Since then, the principal concern about socially responsible capitalism has been the gap between image and reality. Skeptics often question whether these companies are truly operating in a socially responsible or environmentally friendly manner. In response, private organizations have created dozens auditing and certification programs like Benefit Corporation certification, Green Business Certification, Marine Stewardship Council, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and many others to assure us that the claims to corporate responsibility are genuine.

But there is an important problem with ethical consumerism that has gained less attention. With the growing faith that capitalism can be a force for good in the world, how will this transform our politics? What are the consequences of reframing the market as a site of democratic action? To answer these questions, let us consider two otherwise unrelated efforts to remake capitalism along more ethical principles by sincere, politically progressive individuals whose politics have shifted in unexpected directions.

Sandor Katz is a culinary author and self-described fermentation revivalist. He is best known for The Art of Fermentation, an award-winning book blessed with a foreword by the high priest of food activism Michael Pollan.

Katz is an activist in his own right. His book The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved is a manifesto denouncing the corporate food system for its heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and for producing unhealthy, environmentally unsustainable food. But there is an alternative. He celebrates what he calls the underground food movement, groups who practice alternative forms of food production and distribution like organic farming, food co-ops and urban gardening.

Much like PepsiCo’s CEO and executives at global advertising firms, Katz too believes that capitalism can be a force for good. The challengers to the corporate food system described in the book are other businesses, and his strategy for change is free market competition and consumer choice.

But nonetheless, he believes these practices are part of a social movement empowering consumers to reject the industrial food system and build an alternative from the bottom up by making the right purchasing decisions. He draws inspiration from radical left wing political movement, seeing his movement as part of anti-globalization protests against the World Trade Organization and World Economic Forum, the anti-war movement, the fight for control of indigenous lands, economic justice and environmentalism.

The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved is partly a travelogue. Katz interviews business owners in the underground food movement from around the United States, viewing them as subversives and revolutionaries. We meet an underground baker who sells his wares in an illicit “bread club” to avoid the hassle of building a kitchen that would pass government health and safety regulations, a strategy that Katz describes as an act of civil disobedience. In North Carolina’s Earthaven Ecovillage, we meet Cailen Campbell. He’s demonstrating his wooden cider press, but can only accept donations because local health authorities quite reasonably insist that he pasteurize or irradiate his cider before selling it, a process that Campbell believes would destroy important nutrients and enzymes.

The FDA created this rule after a batch of juice tainted with E. coli sickened 66 people and killed an infant. But Katz believes it’s unnecessary. He says,

Without minimizing the death of that baby, we have to assess the risk as a relative phenomenon. We live with a certain level of risk every time we get into a car. We live with the risk of crime, violence, and bites from venomous creatures. We live with the risk of heart disease and cancer. We may do things that limit our risk, but then again, we may not. That decision is generally regarded as the prerogative of the individual.

His leftist sympathies notwithstanding, this argument could have come from the US Chamber of Commerce. He invokes a set of ideas we’re more used to hearing from the right: that individual choice and personal responsibility trump government regulations. One might fairly object that Katz only intends to support small producers. But the definition of “small” shifts as he turns his attention to the semi-legal world of unpasteurized milk production. In this chapter, the proverbial little guy oppressed by government regulations is Organic Pastures of Fresno, California, the largest raw milk dairy farm in the United States with over $10 million in annual sales.

Raw milk enthusiasts like Katz often claim that pasteurization is unnecessary, unhealthy and destroys nutritious enzymes, and that unpasteurized milk contains harmless bacteria that protect it from developing dangerous pathogens. Instead of relying on industrial food safety techniques overseen by government regulations, they argue that the best way for consumers to ensure their milk is safe is by developing a personal relationship with their dairy farmer. Katz bolsters these claims with a quote from Organic Pastures’ CEO Mark McAffee who prides himself on his company’s safety record: “Twenty-four million servings and zero reported illnesses!”

That was true when the book was published in 2006. Since then, the California Department of Food and Agriculture has on four occasions ordered the recall of Organic Pastures’ products from store shelves after they sickened and hospitalized consumers due to the presence of E. Coli and Campylobacter bacteria.

In most cases, symptoms of infection are relatively mild: abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea. But up to 15% patients will develop a serious, potentially deadly condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome that requires extensive medical treatment. Seven-year old Chris Martin developed this condition after consuming raw Organic Pastures milk that his parents bought for him because they were told it would cure his allergies. He was airlifted to a local hospital where he suffered renal failure, pancreatitis, seizures and permanent kidney damage. His family incurred over $450,000 in medical bills.

Due to dangers like these, retail sale of raw milk for human consumption is illegal in most states. But it’s legal in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut and in the free-spirited western states of Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and California. The milk that boy drank came with a warning label intended to allow consumers to make a personal judgment of risk about consuming unpasteurized milk. Katz approves of this regulatory compromise that preserves individual liberty and personal responsibility, but it’s difficult to see how it adequately protected the rights of a seven year old boy who will likely need a kidney transplant in his lifetime.

Throughout the book, Katz claims that food safety rules are unnecessary and anti-competitive. He believes they were created by agribusiness lobbyists colluding with government to keep small producers and farmers—a group broad enough to include $10 million businesses like Organic Pastures—from selling fresh, wholesome and nutrient-dense foods. But in fact, his reasons for opposing food regulations are identical to the arguments of agribusiness lobbyists like The Center for Consumer Freedom, an organization funded by The Coca-Cola Company and multinational meat packing giant Tyson Foods that advocates for personal responsibility and protecting consumer choices against what it describes as meddling government bureaucrats.

Conflicts between public and private interest have also come to Silicon Valley, where the brightest minds have long been energized by faith in the benevolent powers of technocapitalism. Their belief has only grown stronger with the rise of the so-called sharing economy, a broad and somewhat amorphous category of startups positioned as marketplaces that help individuals rent out their underutilized property.

If you have a spare room or vacation home, Airbnb will take a percentage of the transaction to connect you with travelers in need of short-term accommodations. If you have extra space in your car on the way to work, competing transportation companies like Lyft and Uber offer apps to link you with commuters in need of a ride. Investors have showered these three companies with billions of dollars at massive valuations, and there are thousands of smaller services around the world offering the chance to share unused clothes, bikes, tools, kitchen appliances, office space and so on.

Investors hope to reap significant profits from these ventures as with all their investments, but promoters of the sharing economy nonetheless claim it isn’t just business as usual. In marketing materials, books and lectures, advocates highlight problems of capitalism, and position the industry as a harbinger of revolution, simultaneously transforming the economy and our relationships to one other.

According to Airbnb executive Douglas Atkin:

We literally stand on the brink of a new, better kind of economic system that delivers social as well as economic benefits. The old system centralizes production, wealth and control… the peer sharing economy is a new model that distributes wealth, power and control to everyone else. Best of all, the very things that have become the casualties of the old economy—things like economic independence, entrepreneurialism, community, individuality, happiness—it’s actually built into the very structure of this new economy.

Prominent investor and author Rachel Botsman says of the sharing economy:

At its core, it’s about empowerment. It’s about empowering people to make meaningful connections, connections that are enabling us to rediscover a humanness that we’ve lost somewhere along the way, by engaging in marketplaces like Airbnb, like Kickstarter, like Etsy, that are built on personal relationships versus empty transactions.

TaskRabbit, the sharing economy equivalent of a short-term, low-wage job placement agency, bills itself as “neighbors helping neighbors” and an alternative to cold, impersonal economic calculation.

Etsy is an online marketplace for vintage and hand made goods with over $1.3 billion in sales in 2013. Its mission statement: “to re-imagine commerce in ways that build a more fulfilling and lasting world… a new kind of company that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.”

In promotional videos for Lyft, riders and drivers expound on the company’s values of supporting genuine interpersonal contact over bureaucratic formality: “Instead of just having a company come and pick you up, you’re having a person come pick you up,” says one. “There’s something about getting a Lyft that just puts you at ease—because [the driver] is a person that’s just like you,” says another. “You’re not just driving them around, you’re a friend first,” agrees a driver.

These companies have seized upon a widespread discontent with the alienating effects of economic logic insinuating itself into every aspect of contemporary life. They claim to oppose rampant individualism, greed and self-interest, and reject what Marx called “the icy water of egotistical calculation.”

We’re led to believe that as consumers and suppliers for these services, we’re supporting ethical values of kindness, community-building and trust between strangers; living more sustainably by sharing unused property; building community wealth; reducing the power of centralized corporations by transacting directly with each other; and developing a new economic model which will solve global poverty.

This progressive sounding anti-corporate rhetoric has translated into political action on behalf of these companies. In 2013, a non-profit advocacy and lobbying organization called Peers was founded with a mission of promoting the sharing economy around the world. With over 250,000 members, it claims to be a grassroots organization driven by ordinary users of these services, but because it draws funding from startup executives and investors, there are reasons to suspect this might not be the whole truth.

Peers was founded by a group of young progressive activists who previously held positions at prominent liberal organizations like, Organizing For America, the Democratic National Committee, the Obama Whitehouse and a host of other community and sustainability organizations. But despite their progressive sounding rhetoric and impeccable credentials, these liberal minded critics of capitalist alienation and ecological destruction have chosen to direct their energy towards overcoming regulatory threats to the business models of their largest patrons.

The real politics of the sharing economy are far from progressive. In New York, San Francisco and cities across the United States, local officials, tenants rights groups, labor unions and housing activists have opposed the growth of the sharing economy. They charge that Airbnb violates short term rental laws that are intended to protect tenants from neighbors running illegal hotels, and displaces low income residents by raising property rates and converting affordable rental units into high priced accommodations for tourists. Peers ignored these concerns and mobilized its members to sign petitions and write letters to city council members in support of business friendly regulations.

Transportation startups Uber, Lyft and Sidecar have faced legal action in California, Texas and Washington for violating for-hire transportation rules, failing to conduct proper background checks and allowing drivers on the road without commercial insurance. In Seattle, taxi driver unions and immigrant community groups mobilized to prevent the legalization of these sharing economy startups. Without the expense of commercial drivers’ insurance, Lyft and Uber can charge rates that undercut taxis, significantly affecting taxi drivers’ ability to earn a living.

Peers found itself on the opposite side of these debates, pushing for rules that harm the interests of working people to line the pockets of Silicon Valley investors. And while claiming to be a grassroots organization representing the interests of sharing economy workers, it has taken no action on growing conflicts with management, remaining silent while drivers have filed class action lawsuits and begun to unionize to protect themselves from arbitrary suspensions, unfair rating systems and fare reductions.

Leaders of socially responsible corporations claim to want to do good in the world. They’re eager to talk about the myriad social, environmental and economic problems facing our world, and promise consumers that they are part of the solution. Progressive academics like Juliet Schor believe in the promise of the ethical consumerism movement. Against critics like Andrew Szasz who believe that it is an individualistic phenomenon that signals a retreat from collective political action, Schor finds that ethical consumer behavior is correlated with political activism. That may well be true, but a question still remains: what politics?

Despite their borrowed left wing political ideas, some advocates have found allies in unlikely places: Fox News host John Stossel, the Cato Institute and Republican operative Grover Norquist, all who praise “ethical” startups for challenging government regulation as a restraint on competition and free market innovation.

The libertarian law firm Institute For Justice supports the unpasteurized milk movement, as does Republican Congressman Thomas Massie, who introduced the Milk Freedom Act seeking to roll back FDA regulations against interstate sales of unpasteurized milk. “Personal choices as basic as ‘what we feed our families’ should not be limited by the federal government,” says Massie, a belief that would no doubt be endorsed by food activists on the left like Sandor Katz.

Why do progressives find themselves making common cause with allies from the right? It’s tempting to chalk this up to insincerity or bad faith, and easy to suspect sinister motives. But there’s no reason to suppose they have anything but the best of intentions.

Ethical consumerism directs our attention to products and the business practices behind them, asking us to decide which brand is more or less ethical, sustainable or socially responsible. These are valid points of evaluation. Leaving aside the question of whether they truly solve any problems, it’s difficult to assail the logic that, for example, a slightly less poisonous laundry soap is slightly better.

But while we comparison shop, the interests behind these products—whether large or small—continue to intervene in public life and try to influence government. When consumers are viewed as voting with their wallets and the shopping mall becomes the ballot box, business arrogates to itself the role of representative of the people.

The profitability of the company and the will of the people become conflated, a result which consumers who purchase ethical and sustainable products and services may not be expecting. Surely this demands a system of warning labels that would inform consumers that use of ethical products may produce side effects, like increasing corporate power and whiplash-inducing political transformations.

Progressive advocates for ethical capitalism are seduced by right wing ideas because they’re a natural extension of the logic of ethical consumerism: if capitalism can be a force for good, then whatever impedes the progress of this noble project is wrong and must be defeated, including checks on the financial interests behind these efforts.

We often worry that socially responsible corporations who claim to do good in the world are frauds cooked up by marketers to deceive the public. This is a valid concern. But perhaps it is more dangerous when they aren’t frauds. The more they live up to their promises, the more authentic and heartfelt their commitment to the good, the more their progressive advocates feel justified in resisting and undermining restraints on private economic power.