A Consumer Revolution?

Corporations often seem to care about marginalized communities, but only if it is beneficial for them. When Coca-Cola airs a commercial about cultural diversity in America, or Nike decides to design a performance hijab, it’s difficult for left-leaning news publications and Facebook friends not to get excited. Consumers write and disseminate articles about these sorts of advertisements and products widely every time they hit the market. This is not to say that big companies shouldn’t be more inclusive. But I take issue with how low many folks on the left have set the bar for corporations. All it takes is one commercial or product to satisfy us, to make us believe that a company somehow cares.

But that is simply not the nature of the capitalist system in which we operate. Massively powerful corporations like Coca-Cola and Nike care about one thing, and one thing only: consumers’ purchasing power. Predominantly white, male billionaires are the ones who profit when we buy into this scheme. To all the investors, CEOs, and marketing teams, we are mere demographics. If LGBTQ+ issues are a hot topic, and public opinion is leaning left, then what better way to advertise a company’s newest product or service than by featuring a gay couple in the commercial? If it looks like the #MeToo movement is pushing more women to voice their concerns about sexual assault, major retailers are going to be right there with an assortment of accessories for the whole girl gang. Of course, some of the sellers of these sorts of products donate the funds to charity or are a part of marginalized communities themselves. But for every well-meaning independent creator, there is a large retailer making far more revenue, none of which is getting re-invested into the community or the cause.

An international clothing retailer sells a shirt whose rebellious slogan is decidedly antithetical to the product’s very existence.

Feeling inspired after reading feminist hashtags on Twitter and Facebook all day? Just buy a T-shirt that “fights the patriarchy.” Big clothing retailers like H&M and Topshop have realized that newly “woke” college students want to buy shirts that proudly proclaim “GRL PWR” or identify one as a “Nasty Woman.” Never mind that these same companies constantly struggle to meet ethical labor standards. Most people won’t know or care about the concerning allegations of anti-union sentiment and unsafe working conditions in some of Nike’s factories. After all, they’re so progressive – did you hear they’re hiring plus size and Muslim models now?

We all shop at big retailers, and we all want to share our opinions with the world. As a result, many folks who are new to activism get caught up in the thrill of expressing their political views through style and forget about the humans behind the products. None of this is surprising given our individual-oriented, free-market culture. But that doesn’t make it okay, especially since we have the ethics data at our fingertips thanks to the Internet. Now, we don’t all have to start making our own clothes by hand and boycotting every major company. That is a naïve expectation. But we do have to stop thinking that these purchases are doing anything to promote a progressive or leftist agenda. I will order a shirt with an edgy catchphrase from Green Box Shop or check out Macy’s new line of modest clothing for Muslim women. But what I won’t do is buy into the idea that these actions are making some grand contribution to the struggle for economic equality, racial justice or the dismantling of the patriarchy.

If we are going to give our money to anyone, it should be the actual humans who need it. Sit down and do your research to determine what kind of work you want to do for the causes that matter to you. It also doesn’t have to involve money at all – just show up for people however you can. Building community in this way means recognizing new forms of investment that have nothing to do with capital or profits. We can share our time, our spare rooms, our groceries and our privileges with one another. If you had $20 and the choice to buy a “Feminist AF” T-shirt from Forever 21 or donate to an anti-sexual assault nonprofit like RAINN, which would you choose?

I understand that these are lofty goals. Some of the people who design, model, and sell these products are marginalized folks. Ideally, all of the profits should go to them, and in some situations they do. We all need to do what we can to survive, and our society teaches us that the only way to do so is to profit off of one another, to produce and consume on and on into eternity.  But I urge you to consider a future in which communities look out for each other first. Then, when some massive corporation feigns interest in diversity and inclusion, we won’t buy into their charade.