Conflicting causes: Pitfalls of consumer activism in capitalist America

Ana Koerner | staff writer

“Just do it,” that polyester t-shirt is telling you. Just buy the damn shirt — Nike is literally telling you to buy it.

For a second, you consider the small child who slaved away over it. A dull sense of guilt comes and goes, and next thing you know you’re the proud owner of a brand new athletic tee.

While it is widely acknowledged that Nike has long relied on sweatshop labor in the global south, it remains a popular provider of athletic apparel and footwear in the United States and globally. Advocates of workers’ rights may boycott their products, choosing instead companies that manufacture right here in the United States — but even their labor has to come from somewhere, and a “MADE IN THE USA” tag does not necessarily indicate a supply chain free of exploitation. But what happens when activists’ boycotts and lawsuits are simply a trade-off that puts others in danger of exploitation? In the case of Nike, could a resistance to offshore laboring have negative implications for other populations? Is it possible that our efforts to forward one movement might hinder or counteract the progress of another movement?

This catch-22 is not uncommon under a capitalist system. American Apparel, for instance, is known and named for its homegrown products, yet their Los Angeles-based factories rely largely on migrant workers to manufacture neon tanks and sparkly leggings. Before government crackdowns in 2009, migrant laborers made up  one-third of American Apparel’s workforce. Along with countless other North American-owned corporations, American Apparel benefits from a broken free trade agreement, NAFTA, which paves the way for migrant laborers to find employment in the United States and northern Mexico. Many North American companies, however, have not upheld high labor standards. Complaints filed by workers under the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation cite dangerous working conditions, below-minimum-wage pay, and mistreatment of migrant workers. American Apparel unions, Members of the General Workers Brotherhood International Union and the Southern California Immigrant Coalition, protested the illegal firing of nearly two thousand immigrant employees without proper notice, as well as harassment and mistreatment in the workplace. Can American Apparel truly be considered a better alternative to Nike if their violations are similar, just against a different population? Fighting for worker’s rights abroad seems futile if it ends up contributing to exploitation at home.

There are countless other examples of this conflict of causes — and it isn’t just the fashion industry. Take Whole Foods, a higher-end grocery store. The store’s fairly steep prices could be justified by the fact that it’s Fair Trade Certified, meaning its products come from a supply chain of equitable trade practices. Whether or not Fair Trade is even productive or empowering to workers worldwide is a debate in itself, but there’s another dilemma here: Whole Foods also relies on labor from the prison industrial complex. At Colorado Corrections Industries, inmates are hired to manufacture and produce a wide array of goods, such as furniture, apparel, and vehicles as well as fresh produce and fish. It was recently revealed that workers are paid between 74 cents and 4 dollars per day to produce goods such as tilapia, which sells for $11.99 per pound at Whole Foods. Even without speculation regarding the legitimacy of the Fair Trade organization, a moral predicament would hopefully trouble Whole Foods shoppers — the same company that trumpets its Fair Trade certification is also the company that buys goods manufactured by inmates receiving an almost nonexistent wage.

The desire to become “green” and environmentally conscious has also proven to be controversial. Patagonia, an outdoor clothing company, uses recycled and recyclable materials coming from sustainably run, 100 percent organic farms. Nonetheless, they are guilty on many occasions of labor violations in their supply chain.

In case you thought this didn’t also bleed into the vegan/vegetarian lifestyle, many “superfoods” have proven to be environmentally destructive and economically draining to certain populations. Quinoa, for example, is nutrient-packed and has been an important staple food for particularly indigenous populations of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador since the Inca Empire. Yet its recent popularity in international markets has resulted negatively for Bolivian and Peruvian consumers who can no longer afford to purchase it. Other vitamin-rich foods like avocados, almonds, and chickpeas may be essential additions to a vegan/vegetarian diet, but require massive amounts of water in their production. It seems as though nearly everything available in the supermarket is, in some capacity, detrimental to humans and/or the environment.

As capitalist consumers we are inevitably confronted with ethical dilemmas. It might be impossible to lead our lives in a way that’s pure and harmless to all causes. But if you’re going to take a stand against one injustice, at least make sure it doesn’t conflict with another. Advocating for certain causes without regard for how it excludes, silences, or counteracts other movements is a lot like white feminism — convenient for some, but ignorant and regressive for most.

Ana is a senior studying Spanish and Urban Studies.