Ethical Commodities: What Our Products Say About Our Person

Today, Colin Kaepernick’s jersey is the fifth-most bought jersey in NFL history. Until the events of the last few weeks, the phrase “I bought a Kaepernick jersey” would be meaningless except to a select group of football fans. Now, to wear a Kaepernick jersey is to carry an immense weight, one almost as heavy as a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. Our commodities say as much or more than our speech.

Ethical commodities and opportunity costs

I’ve thought about buying a Black Lives Matter shirt, but realized that in Orem, Utah, I would be labeled, questioned, and possibly even despised for it. I had an intense personal dialogue about this. How can I start a conversation about racism if I don’t display my activism? Wait, but don’t I support a corrupt capitalist system by buying a shirt through the same companies that run sweatshops and manipulate democracy?

Many of the people I go to school with, and the authority figures in my life, consider Black Lives Matter an anti-white anti-police hate group. When we discussed meaningless activism in one of my classes, someone gave Black Lives Matter as an example in the first sentence – “they’re yelling at nothing, like Black Lives Matter.” As a self-considered member of the Black Lives Matter movement, for reasons I won’t describe now, this is painful to hear. A few words on a ~$10 shirt would affect how people think of me, my relationships with friends and family, and even my self-perception.

I didn’t order the shirt – and the reason was economic. It was based on the first bare fact of economics: scarcity, which leads to tradeoffs. As a very poor high school student, I could either buy the shirt, or I could buy a book: Just the Arguments, a book on philosophy. There are countless other ethical opportunity costs in this decision: how can I justify not buying a refugee activism shirt, or giving a donation to the LDS Church, or saving up for a humanitarian trip? Doesn’t my decision mean that I value learning about philosophy more than I value black lives?

I’m sure some would incriminate me for being an academic rather than an activist. I love philosophy and want to understand it, but I feel obligated to support resistance against oppression. This is agonizing. How can I choose between movements I’m passionate about? Even worse, how can I choose between them based on money?

Theoretically, people buy a Kaepernick jersey to send a message. It’s not just capitalism. Some may say it’s a donation, a way to directly support Kaepernick’s movement with money. Other justify it as a sign of protest, wearing the jersey to challenge the ‘whiteness ethic’ that devalues the lives of blacks. In this way, these products can be called ‘ethical commodities’ – they are products that have intense moral meanings.

It's more than just a jersey.

There have always been ethical opportunity costs, but the deadly combination of capitalism and the Internet has dramatically expanded the awareness and amount of these opportunity costs. This has transformed nearly all commodities into ethical commodities.

A global economy has connected us, through the allocation of our incomes, to countless ethical implications. The Internet has made us intimately aware of these implications. We can watch Youtube videos of pigs squealing in agony as they are massacred in slaughterhouses, and we cannot help but connect this to our purchase of pork. Nike’s swoosh becomes much more symbolic when we see the horrifying conditions of the people who produce it. I could continue listing these implications endlessly. The only escape from the emotional pain of buying products is ignorance.

How companies and people promote ethical brands

There are countless ways to rationalize the decision to buy ethical commodities. But from a cynical capitalistic perspective, all of these rationalizations are merely forms of the same aspect of the human psyche: the drive to promote one’s personal brand. Our purchases of ethical commodities are similar to marketing decisions: they are meant to convey a message about our brand to a specific group of potential customers.

When we buy a Kaepernick jersey, we want to display our sensitivity to the suffering of blacks in an oppressive system, and we want to display this to a select group of activists. Maybe, on a subconscious level, we promote this ethical brand for profit, so people and potential employers will respond positively. Companies look to hire ethical employees so they can be seen as an ethical corporation. We take advantage of this, for example, by adding our volunteer hours to our LinkedIn profile. According to LinkedIn itself, “1 in 5 managers hired someone because of their volunteer experiences.”

When companies hire people, they hire the full person, not just their competencies. For example, my school, Maeser Prep, looks for a specific kind of teacher with a specific ethical background: deep-thinking, passionate about classical education, usually conservative and religious people.

If we take this perspective to its conclusion, I’m probably writing this essay so people will see me as a better, more enlightened person.

Increasingly, companies use ‘ethical marketing’ to sell their products. In this way, charities have become tools of for-profit institutions. They are made to fulfill an economic requirement: companies must be perceived as moral institutions. If enough people thought Nike was immoral for its abuses of Indian workers, the company could no longer stay in business. By donating to charity, they expand their moral brand, just as individuals build their moral brand by buying ethical commodities. Malawi’s Pizza promotes their product with the claim that some of your purchase will be donated to Africa. In this sense, donations are investments.

To give a current example, Wells Fargo has lost revenue for devaluing the humanities in its advertising campaign. The company’s response was revealing:

Screenshot 2016-09-04 19.40.53

Wells Fargo counters the ethical challenges to its brand with a powerful marketing claim: it has donated $93 million to humanities. (Although that figure is very vague, and includes donation to ‘education’ in general). With donations, Wells Fargo justifies its moral failing. It seeks to prove that the ‘whole brand’ is ethical, and its mistakes are just mistakes in the context of an overall good person. Nike invests 1.5% of its pre-tax revenue (over $217 million) into charity, and has publicized its efforts to protect worker’s rights. Why not just stop producing at sweatshop factories? Because it costs less to promote an ethical brand than it does to be an ethical company.

All of this demonstrates that in a society pervaded by capitalism, all activism becomes suspect. Do you really care, or are you just promoting your brand? This isn’t just a question other people ask us. It’s a question we ask ourselves. Am I a good person, or am I just a brand? How can I know, in a world where everything and everyone seems self-interested? Capitalism calls our moral identity into question and turns the imposter syndrome into a universal affliction.

The answer? 

I don’t know the answer. Of course, there are some easy escape routes, as there always are. However, as usual, these escapes aren’t complete, and will never be satisfying.

Consequentialism solves the moral issue of ethical commodities by making intention irrelevant. If self-interest in a certain situation leads to greater happiness, it’s moral by definition. I don’t have to worry about the imposter syndrome – if I’m doing good things, I’m a good person. It doesn’t matter that Nike is reducing its dependence on sweatshops to promote a brand, because it actually has increased workers rights by some degree.

There are some nuances to a consequentialist approach, for example, that consequentialism obligates us to seek for the most ethical system, not just ethical system. In this sense, the only moral world is the best possible world. Thus, Nike is still immoral because it could conceivably be more moral than it is now. This creates a very high standard – which, I think, is necessary for ethics. Additionally, the world is very complex, and while an act might have certain good consequences, it might also have terrible unintended side-effects.

I don’t think I can give a complete refutation of this approach, because to do so would be to offer a final answer to the most debated question in ethics: are intentions or actions more important? Certainly, I think that we can endlessly banter on whether our intentions our correct, when we should focus on the tangible effects our actions have on living beings.

On the other hand, we can’t seperate our intentions from our actions. Our intent affects how we act – for example, you can’t effectively help someone without having compassion for him/her. The person will know that your intentions aren’t consistent with your actions, and they’ll ignore your insincere approach to service.

Both ideas aren’t complete. Intentions are impossible to fully know, and consequences are impossible to fully evaluate. We can’t know that someone else is non-genuine, because we can’t know that person’s thoughts or intentions. I criticized Wells Fargo for its profit-based intention, but I don’t know the actual thoughts of the company’s decision-makers. We can’t say that an action is bad, because we can’t know the full consequences of the action. Nike could be immoral for its sweatshops, but maybe it’s moral for donating so much to charity. I don’t know which of these actions leads to more happiness.

What’s the answer? I won’t claim that I can construct a complete answer. It’s seen as more ethical to be absolute about your ethical system, but how can I claim that I know the right thing in the face of our fundamental uncertainties? I leave the question open, with the hope that someday I’ll be able to answer it.


One thought on “Ethical Commodities: What Our Products Say About Our Person”

  1. Bene scripta! I am glad to see a Maeser student investigating contemporary ethos. Maeser stripped itself of liberal thinkers early in its history.

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