Recently I wanted to buy a new pair of shoes, I wanted something sleek and sexy that could go with my sporty street-style look. I also wanted something classic. I immediately thought of Adidas’ Stan Smith range.
But Adidas? The snarky political voice in my head reminded me of the sweatshops, and the falling-down factories and the violent attacks on labour unions and workers. To my surprise, Adidas seems to have changed: most consumer guides rated it better than I would have thought. If even a brand like Adidas has started to consider more ethical production values, is the tide finally turning – are we to see a new wave of politically aware companies?
Consumer industries are becoming more politicised
First, we have to consider what we mean by ‘political’. There seems to be a difference between what is political and what is ethical. For example, companies like Patagonia and Alternative Apparel stand for green production methods and labour rights. The production standards of these companies are not only related to material costs but also to the social cost of production.
However, I think at this point it’s good to remember that any company producing anything, from diapers to dildos (and everything inbetween), is at the end of the day seeking to make a profit. Every company, even ones interested in the social costs of production, needs to stay competitive in order to avoid bankruptcy. By having ethical standards of production, a company attracts like-minded consumers and both benefit. But the company itself is not being truly political; the will to change the world comes from we who buy the products.
And yet it seems a larger trend is also occurring across different industries. We have broader movements like #TiedTogether and fossil fuel divestment. These movements may not necessarily be political in intention, but considered through the lens of a political landscape turning towards exclusion and self-interest, they become a rejection of the status quo: a political call to arms. Likewise, the ad slots for the Superbowl in February were more controversial and politicised than ever before. It seems like the entire communication channel between companies and consumers has taken on political overtones. In this context, when we buy a product we are making a statement of intent that we agree with the politics of the company – we are saying yes to their particular production standards, ad campaigns and participation in social movements.
This type of implicit voting with our purses becomes a political choice and we demand our companies and our industries adhere to our principles. Of course, we remain lazy and practical and the majority of us often don’t have the money to look past the cheapest option, which is probably also the least ethical. But still, things are slowly getting better and the shiny things we buy are produced by more socially aware companies than in the badland days of the 90’s and early 2000’s.
I sell, you buy
It can’t be denied that the economic machine is changing. We have all started to use the infrastructure and spaces we already have in order to fill smaller market niches. Connecting my empty apartment with that clubbing holiday in Berlin you’ve been thinking about or using Instagram and Folksy to make some extra cash out of a passion for artisanal silversmithing. The private and personal has become a cosmos of tiny marketplace interactions.
I think that the transaction from me to you over the internet carries with it the traces of my and your politics. Maybe that is just limited to the amount I charge per night on Airbnb or how gendered your handmade clothes line is. Often these small-scale transactions coincide with other income streams and if the transaction doesn’t happen, it’s not the end of the world. The relative unimportance of the economic transaction places a greater importance on the political one. After all, these are very intimate transactions from person-to-person with no middleman so it is harder to hide from the implicit politics involved.
Fighting the End Times with a credit card?
Politics is becoming more tribal and fractured than ever; there is a growing feeling of unease, a sense we are on the brink of a bloody and sad chapter of humanity. There remains some hope though. One possibility for our salvation might be using market forces to heal the deep wounds in society instead of worsening them. This requires consumer responsibility but also a reaction from companies throughout different industries.
But no matter how political the question of which thing to buy becomes, and no matter how ethical companies become as a result, the root of this stems from something wider and more complex. After all, our own politics do not come from the things we buy and services we use. I did not become a feminist by watching an H&M ad.
In the end I still haven’t bought those sneakers, not because I rejected Adidas, but because I was too busy doing other things that lie closer to my heart. The market place politics of choice is not restricted to choosing between a more ethical product and a less ethical product. For a startup or company this means understanding the product itself as a political object. As a consumer I will choose to buy and do the things that are in alignment with my own principles, not just buy a product with ethical production values.
All ‘Opinion’ pieces are the opinions of the author, not Quick Formations.