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<nettime> Mike Bulajewski [Mr Teacup]: The Symbols of the Corporate Sain
nettime's_hand-cranked_if_this_then_that on Mon, 2 Feb 2015 03:37:52 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Mike Bulajewski [Mr Teacup]: The Symbols of the Corporate Saints

< http://www.mrteacup.org/post/ethical-consumerism.html >


   I write about technology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, design, ideology
   & Slavoj Zizek.

   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

   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

   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

   Prominent investor and author Rachel Botsman says of the sharing

     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

   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
   MoveOn.org, 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

   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 [15]Andrew Szasz who believe that it is
   an individualistic phenomenon that signals a retreat from collective
   political action, Schor finds that [16]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

   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.

   Copyright MMXIII.

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