Are you rich enough to be ethical?

Sal Iovino, Opinions Co-Editor

“Doing your part” is a fixture of U.S marketing schemes in terms of sustainability and ethics.  For decades the American public has been told that if you as an individual act sustainably or ethically and tell the people around you to do the same, big changes will be made.  Yet, somehow, many of the problems that this message seeks to address remain unresolved, some after decades of “trying”.  This is because these problems are not to be resolved by individuals or even collective action.  Sustainability issues, whether environmental, economic, or both, are systemic issues rooted in the framework of American society. Massive corporations have a chokehold on the American consumer and small business, and putting the responsibility of public welfare and sustainability on those groups is irrational and even dangerous.

When shopping locally or from a small business, people often ask, “why is this so expensive?” That’s a wonderful question, but the answer does not stem from you having “expensive taste” or the small business trying to hike up prices because their goods are artisanal or organic.  The answer lies in big business practices.  We live in a profit-driven world, and for the greater part of the past century, so has the rest of the western world. Corporations like Amazon and Alibaba have grown beyond a scale that could ever be previously imagined, and for these companies, the model is simple: sell the most possible products at the lowest possible price. Cheap materials, cheap labor and the domination of capital markets are the three keys to this system, and in the advanced capitalist economy that we have reached, the modern monopolies of today have gathered them all.

Unfortunately, the level of economic power that these corporations have garnered has also granted them a particularly large amount of influence over our social lives. Through heavily targeted marketing schemes and other forms of influence, those with middle-class wealth or even those who are tremendously wealthy, but at conceivable levels, are convinced that it is their shopping practices that are leading to problems ranging from wealth inequality all the way to climate change. This pressure does not only come from corporations, however. In an ever-present virtue-signaling battle, influencers and other media figures constantly praise the value of “ethical consumption”, and flaunt their consumption of high-end, organic and sustainable products that are truly inaccessible to most people. The American consumer is in a bind between the tangible pressure of price markups for small businesses to compete with multinational conglomerates as well as the social pressure of living in a world being crippled by the very production methods that make the products needed for everyday life.

The reality of all of this is that “ethical consumption” is impossible in the current economic climate of the world. The capitalist, profit-driven incentives that exist around the world create an absolute barrier to the widespread production of accessibly priced, ethically sourced and made products. This is not a calling to curb any sustainable shopping you may be doing as an individual, but rather just a call for awareness. Buying from corporations known for violating labor laws and sourcing materials in a destructive manner certainly is worth some criticism, but shopping from large brands because that is what is affordable is entirely a valid practice. Instead of directing criticisms at individuals, it is corporations that are deserving of the criticism and reform. Systemic issues are not resolved by individuals, nor collective action, but by active reform of the systems which have created the problems in the first place. So, support small businesses when you can, appreciate your local coffee shop, and look for ways to be resourceful in your own life, but also know that until a structural change is made, the perfectly sustainable dream is just that: a dream.

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