Why there is No Ethical Production Under Capitalism

Illustration by Felice Tang

By Ingrid Tang
Published on January 30th, 2021

What does ‘There is no ethical production under capitalism’ mean? It is a spin at the term ‘There is no ethical consumption under capitalism’. To understand that, it means that under a capitalistic society, it is impossible to consume any kind of products or services without contributing to some form of destruction to others, animals, or the environment. This ranges from modern slavery (human trafficking, commercial sexual exploitation), to animal cruelty (animal testing, skinning for fur), to factory waste (chemical spills, greenhouse gas emissions), and more. This even includes lifestyles whose main aim is designed to not cause harm. Veganism, for example, is a lifestyle designed to not purchase, consume, or support animal cruelty. Although this lifestyle supports far less exploitation, however, let’s say, by buying rice harvested from Filipino rice farmers, who are forced to accept less than the minimum wage to pay for their children’s schooling, food for the family, and seeds for the next harvest, makes one unwillingly a sponsor for human exploitation.

The term ‘There is no ethical consumption under capitalism’ surprisingly originated from a meme, contrary to some popular belief that it was exclaimed as a groundbreaking discovery from a celebrated political philosopher. In 2014, fashion magazine Elle UK, feminist campaign group The Fawcett Society and street brand Whistles collaborated on making ‘This is what feminism looks like’ T-shirts, even having celebrities such as Emma Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch model to advertise the campaign. However, public outrage sparked when it was revealed that the T-shirts were made in Mauritian sweatshops, where female workers were treated under unethical practices, from earning only 62p (6hkd) an hour (minimum wage being 1.19 pounds, or 11hkd per hour) to being forced to sleep in cramped dorms with up to 16 women per room. The campaign’s message turned sour at the irony, with leftist Tumblr and Twitter discourse responsible for the origin of the quote ‘There is no ethical consumption under capitalism’ due to this news, turning to popular game character Sonic the Hedgehog and Pepe to make memes with their famously quirky characters.

This ideology is not only well-identified, but has even been revisited quite frequently in pop media and news. Examples include but not limited to a scandal similar to the one mentioned previously, where the public fumed at Beyonce’s collaboration with TopShop for releasing a sportswear brand with a company known for garment worker exploitation. Another pop culture reference would be the well known American comedy series ‘The Good Place’, where this concept is used as the theme of the episode ‘The Book of Dougs’. ‘The Good Place’ used an example in which even simple acts such as buying a tomato means one is unwillingly supporting toxic pesticides, global warming, and more. This acted as a catalyst that helped push the narrative to the audience to a better understanding of the concept. These are the most well-known examples of many.

No ethical production and consumption under capitalism is a fact, no matter which party you are supporting. Nowadays, more and more ‘ethical’ lifestyle practices, businesses and people have surfaced in our lives and media. People have now been recycling, eating green, upcycling clothes, using canvas bags instead of plastic, shop ‘fair trade’, succumbing to corporate greenwashing, and more. People with higher incomes ‘vote with their dollar’ by choosing to support a more expensive but sustainable business, and with the basic logic of supply and demand applied, the idea is that big corporations will stop exploiting people and the environment, subconsciously continuing to perpetuate the toxic cycle of capitalism. Unfortunately, the effects of abuse and exploitation continue to skyrocket despite these new movements. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die of malnutrition and poverty every day. 24.9 million people are trapped under modern slavery. Over 80 million hectares of forests worldwide have been lost due to deforestation. Corporations damage up to 2.2 trillion dollars worth of environmental property. How can we believe that we are changing the world for the better by purchasing a metal straw while big companies are killing local people in Nigeria to steal and extract large quantities of oil?

This is why we should popularize ‘There is no ethical production under capitalism’ rather than ‘There is no ethical consumption under capitalism’. Note that neither words invalidate each other’s meaning. They still exist in the same space, given by the very principle of the price mechanism of the free market where produced and consumed quantities most often equate, but the emphasis on the concern is different. Consumption gives the impression that it’s the consumer’s fault and that they are to blame for supporting greenhouse gas emissions simply because they cannot afford a bamboo toothbrush. When the blame is on the shoulders of the consumer, it divides the working class to believe some are more morally superior than others. It is ridiculous that we are pitting against each other based on our ‘sustainable’ or ‘environmentally friendly’ alternatives when we are all socially and economically unequal. It is unfair to guilt the working class for not being able to purchase certain brands that are more ‘ethical’ when they cannot afford it. However, by using the word production, it shifts the notion to big companies rather than consumers. It holds the corporations accountable. It is a recognition that the exploitive damages done to others and the environment are not on the hands of the consumers but the corporations who allowed it.

Some argue that this is a bad getaway for irresponsible consumerism. People have used ‘There is no ethical consumption or production under capitalism’ as a defensive shield to purchase or support whatever they want, because whatever you decide to purchase contributes to some form of abuse or environmental devastation in late-stage capitalism anyway. And while it is true, this mentality can further feed corporations to continue this exploitation. Does it mean we shouldn’t try to minimize the cruelty caused just because harm will be caused nonetheless? We cannot live fully ethically, but should we not try to live as ethically as possible? Although we cannot change the system as an individual, working together can help shift the train to a different track.

We can start by acknowledging the more responsible companies. Although big corporations control the majority of the market, there are always a few more sustainable options that are buried under the big brands. As consumers, we should support the minority brands (if possible). It is also important to educate ourselves and the public that there is always a better (or less harmful ) option. Supporting the better choice helps nudge us in the right direction. Approach minimalism. Reducing consumption means purchasing fewer products made from exploitation. Challenge corporate power outside of your purchase power. These are the few ways of many to take a step in the right direction. If we work together, we can prevent corporations from labor abuse, animal cruelty and environmental devastation.

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