Ever heard of Buycott? I can’t exactly remember how I stumbled across this smartphone app, but it was simultaneously one of the most exciting and exhausting downloads I have ever made. The basic premise is that you sign up for campaigns you care about, ranging from BDS of Israel to products containing palm oil to companies that lobby for animal testing and union busting. Then you can scan the barcode of a product before purchasing it and see if it conflicts with any of your campaigns.
Thus, we become more informed shoppers who can more effectively vote with our dollars. I have to admit, it really is an ingenious system, and I highly encourage anyone privileged enough to follow through with it to do so.
The problem is that not everyone is so fortunate.
Food Deserts and Slave Labor Smart Phones
When I first began using Buycott, I was a graduate student using savings and loans to pay for my housing and education, and a meager adjunct teaching gig at a community college to pay for everything else. What’s more, I was living in Camden, NJ, one of the most notoriously under-privileged cities in the US.
Camden is essentially a food desert. The nearest grocery stores are either across the Delaware River in Philadelphia, or to the east in Cherry Hill, a significantly wealthier suburban township. I typically drove to the latter for my shopping.
I wanted to be committed to ethical choices in what I purchased. What I learned was how impossible that commitment can be to keep.
Consider food. One of the most popular campaigns on Buycott is called “Say No to Monsanto” and it focuses on exactly what the name suggests: singling out products containing foods produced by the unambiguously unethical company. Monsanto, for those in need of a refresher, is the agrochemical corporation that made its reputation developing chemical weapons before switching to patenting genetically modified seeds, suing small farmers for using them in any way they dislike, and lobbying hard to make their products ubiquitous.
If I wanted to eat fruits and vegetables purchased from a typical grocery store, I was probably buying Monsanto plants. Buycott confirmed this for me so many times in so many stores that I almost legitimately had a panic attack in a Wegmans a month after I had moved. The only way that I could guarantee a lack of Monsanto in my diet would be to either seek out brands that directly advertised their aversion to the company, or go to a farmer’s market and trust that my local growers weren’t lying to me about where they got their seeds. In either case, I would be looking at weekly grocery bills that would put me in even more debt than the shiny new Master’s degree I was working so hard to earn.
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This is the struggle we so often endure when attempting to vote with our dollars in the United States. In progressive circles, where calling out problematic elements in our culture is an important and necessary measure to checking privilege, we can often lose sight of the fact that the capitalistic system, in which we live, often leaves us with no perfect options.
Lacking this understanding can be psychologically devastating.
Companies like Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Daimler, Dell, HP, Huawei, LG, Vodafone and ZTE, were linked to what Amnesty International called “the worst forms of child labor” in a report from last year. Half of the cobalt used in the electronics produced by these companies is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, often by “children as young as seven years old…[w]orking 10-12 hours per day.”
This is appalling news and I applaud activists and journalists working to raise awareness and calling out these companies when they flat-out lie about their zero-tolerance policies against these practices. It remains, however, that many of us need these products to effectively function in our society.
Now, some excellent people have gone ahead and produced an Android device called the Fairphone, which as far as my research can conclude appears to be pretty ethically sound in terms of development and production. It also costs €525 (about $580), and I’ve yet to see a carrier willing to subsidize it for a contract the way they do larger corporate brands. If you can’t really afford this the same way that I can’t, what other options are there?
Capitalism Isn’t Consensual
This was where Buycott and my research and knowledge started to give me real anxiety. I want to be a good progressive. I want to be a person who makes ethical choices not merely within my voting booths and personal relationships, but in my daily interactions with the world. When the economic atmosphere surrounding me is a fog of choices between equal shades of terrible, my instincts are to internalize that shame.
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I don’t think this is an unusual feeling. Compromise can be a dirty word when it comes to ethics. After all, if I admit that I’m writing this essay on an Apple computer then I am admitting that I have compromised my values and given money to an organization that supports heinous human rights violations. In a way, my selection has furthered that evil. The same happens when I buy those Monsanto-produced vegetables instead of starving myself, or when I drive to work in a car that contributes to one-fifth of the US’s carbon emissions, or when I buy affordable secondhand clothing from a charity that mistreats disadvantaged workers (where I shop to at least partially to avoid piling on more of that child labor guilt).
Compromise, however, is the only way we can live with reality and ourselves. When assessing our essential purchases, it is our responsibility to be as aware as reasonable that our choices are ethical. “Reasonable” is key here.
In a system where profit is the major driving factor, a lack of ethics has the monopoly. Capitalism is not consensual, and by living in a society where it is the dominant economic principle, we are forced to participate in it to at least some capacity, no matter our level of privilege. Those with more privilege have more options and more ability to make those ethical choices. Those with fewer can simply do the best they can, even if that is making the purchases and simply talking about the conflicts openly.
In either instance, shame need not be the predominant feeling. It is not the fault of the compassionate individual if their hands are bound and they cannot act perfectly, nor is perfection a reasonable expectation for anyone to have. Our only responsibilities are to be as informed as we can be, use that information as effectively as possible, and make the best choices we can.
[Feature Image: A photograph of fruit in green boxes on three shelves down an aisle. A person stands beside the shelves, wearing black pants and a brown shirt. They are carrying a blue plastic shopping basket. Source: Charlotte90T]