I’ve had the honour, on more than just a handful of occasions in my life, to be served interesting local variations of popular dishes in restaurants that I’ve visited: Vegetable Korma with naan bread and cockroach. Thai red curry and coconut rice with cockroach. Goat’s cheese, organic honey and spiralized beetroot salad with live cockroach trying to escape. In at least half of the occasions, this happened in a reputable restaurant. In a couple of them it was even at a high-end establishment. The truth is that, whatever the shopfront looks like, we can never really know what’s going on in the back kitchen. A shopfront is what the word implies: just a front.
Yet it is something that as consumers we forget, on a daily basis. Because at the end of the day, we want to convince ourselves that the products we buy are surrounded by wonderful associations: quality, craftsmanship, ethical standards. Isn’t that nice.
In the 1990s Nike faced the biggest scandal in its history. While encouraging all of us to “Just Do It”, no one suspected that the message had an unintended dual purpose, doubling up as an internal company value statement. Because “Just Do It” is exactly what you want to be telling underpaid, underaged employees working in your affiliated sweatshops in Asia. The shopfront suddenly collapsed, and everyone could look into the dark, dusty depths of the cramped kitchen: it was a horror show. Fast forward 30 years, and the issue of sweatshops, underpaid, uninsured and life-threatening exploitative work practices still plagues a number of luxury and mainstream brands, familiar to all of us. And it is moving into white-collar employees who are increasingly crumbling under the stress and burnout created by “always on” , deadline-driven remote working practices. All of these brands are now more powerful than they have ever been.
The reason is that the shopfronts have multiplied. Nowadays, once a shopfront collapses there is another one waiting right behind it to prop things up. And another one. And another one. And then a big wall which makes following the trail of dirty money impossible. Shopfronting is in fact a trillion dollar business: it is called marketing and branding. The amount of money invested in deceiving, tripping, tricking, deluding, seducing, coercing, manipulating consumers to “believe” in brands as if they are gods, is probably enough for these businesses to actually change their products and restructure their practices so that they would actually be ethically and socially responsible. But they won’t. Because it is easier to tell a lie. It is easier to make a claim, rather than having to evidence it. No one looks at the evidence. The evidence is dwarfed in significance by the beautiful, colorful, majestic shopfront. The entrance is beckoning you to enter. The smiles are welcoming and bright. And it all just feels cuddly. It feels like home. You enter into the shop and you feel loved. The cockroaches can’t hurt you, at least for now.
But they are hurting the planet. They are exploiting poor people. And they are making species after species extinct. From the UK’s Tesco supermarket horsemeat beef burgers, to Orangutan palm oil, to Amazon rainforest-raised Brazilian beef, companies are desperate to “beef up” their green credentials, to conceal all of their questionable standards in fancy wrapping and messages about the environment, diversity, equality and social responsibility. Given how much of a vested interest these companies have in appearing to be the Dalai Lama’s in each of their respective industries, I’m surprised why it hasn’t been made illegal yet for them to broadcast corporate and social responsibility messaging. We don’t allow religion to meddle in politics. We don’t allow politicians to have corporate connections. Yet we allow, even encourage, for-profit organizations to broadcast own-branded social messages, as if they own LGBTQ rights, the climate or fairtrade.
This couldn’t be more urgent today, when the biggest greenwashing operation is under way. From Shell and BP to Barclays and Santander, we are being reassured that these companies, the very culprits of our problems, are preparing our world for a bright green future “cured” of climate change. Fossil fuel companies boast about how much they are investing in renewables, while at the same time making the transition to so-called clean energy as slow as possible. Banks are telling us how they are investing in green energy, when they are helping right-wing governments across the world to burn rain forests as they “invest” in agriculture. Soft drinks companies like Coca Cola are telling us how they are using more and more recycled plastic in their bottles despite failing to meet their own targets to do so, and then blaming consumers for “not recycling enough”.
In fact this the latest strategy: blame the consumer. The consumer, who is not the profit-making culprit and is only the last step in the chain of destruction. As consumers, we have often been encouraged, “empowered”, to make big changes towards consumption habits that are more Earth and human-friendly. This has been a ploy to pass on the responsibility to us. It is true that we can eat less meat, buy fewer clothes etc. But we have been manipulated by the retailers (and the banks that support the retailers) in feeling that we are “making a change”, when we really aren’t making any measurable change at all.
This is because nothing has changed in the back kitchen, while we are ordering more and more meals from the menu. Our “fake” needs are actually multiplying, thanks to new products and clever marketing. The marketers, retailers, banks also know very well that once a piece of clothing is already in the shop window, once that beef burger is sitting on that plate, it is hard to resist. Once these eco-cidal products are packaged, marketed, and often the traceability of their emission footprint and record on human rights erased, it is impossible to resist them. We buy them, and it is “all our fault”.
I’m not against the whole Fair Trade, Vegan and other ethical consumer movements. But it is not enough, and if you are following all of these trends you are deluding yourself if you think you are making a ton of difference. It is another shop window for these companies to disguise their own guilt, help consumers feel better, open up new markets with new product ranges, and shift the responsibility from where it needs to be placed: Business As Usual. It is putting the pressure on the consumer, creating false perceptions that a few changes in how we consume will change the world. At the same time it is suppressing activism by making consumers complacent in thinking that they are “doing their bit”, and making a positive impact.
We have been taken for fools, big time. “Ethical consumption” has been normalised and turned into nothing but another shopfront. Similarly to renewable energy, it hasn’t actually resulted in decreasing CO2 emissions. It hasn’t resulted in reducing exploitation of workers across the world. It hasn’t saved the Orangutan. What it has done though, was to make corporations even richer. The shopfront mission is now accomplished.
The pursuit of profit will always have banks and manufacturers rushing to devise new ingenious ways to get to our wallet, at the lowest cost for them, and at the highest toll for both nature and the workforce. However many laws are made, there will always be loopholes which then become gaping holes. Our global finance and trade system is a guilt-laundering machine supported by our politics, and given the final stamp of approval by the unsuspecting consumer. It is time for brave politicians, brave consumers, and businesses that work for society as opposed to the other way round. CO2 does not come out of industrial chimneys. It comes out of ignorance, complacency, money and greed.
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