When Orwell wrote about language that gives “the appearance of solidarity to pure wind,” he could as well have been talking about the product labels that attract a certain kind of modern consumer. Organic. Fair trade. Local. Ethical. Buy this, and you not only will feel good, but you will be good.
Brands such as Apple and Tesla trade heavily on the promise of hip, geeky, nice-guy cred (regardless of the actual ethics of their production practices, materials, and marketing) perceived to rub off on the people who possess their products. “Global capitalism with a human face,” as Slavoj Žižek describes it. Questions of built-in obsolescence, or what such items add to our quality of life—much less of the quality of life of the people in developing countries who most often make them—are effectively ignored.
But this is not only a nice-guy phenomenon; increasingly, it is also nice-girl. What you wear is now a feminist issue, though perhaps not in the way you might expect. Buying, not boycotting, is the new name of the game. Burning bras is out; “ethical underwear” is in.
Ten years ago, feminist criticism held that the conspicuous consumption as embodied in Sex and the City was the smoke and mirrors that obscured true equality. The idea that women could be “empowered” primarily by spending money was derided as shallow and apolitical. Fast forward a decade, and the beauty and fashion industries that had previously promised freedom in free spending have realized the wind has changed yet again. And they have carefully adjusted themselves away from “luxury” and “exclusive” to match the well-meaning desires of the affluent, but conscientious, female consumer.
The rise of fourth-wave feminism in the last few years has been a factor. Alongside column inches in which bright-eyed young media stars discuss the need to rebrand the ideology for a new generation, a parallel economy of products labeled and lauded as “ethical” and “feminist” has risen to satisfy the needs of this largely white, largely middle class, group. Adopting the language and means of consumer culture is no accident. It is very much about ideology as a brand.
The latest example emerged last week with prominent British feminists endorsing Who Made Your Pants, a company that employs refugee women in Southampton to sew its range of underwear. First, the good news: it is a successful business idea, and an admirable one. But with prices between £18 and £25 a pop (that’s $30-42 USD), the implication (from commentators, not from the company itself) that not wearing them makes you not ethical or not feminist leaves a bad taste in the mouth. The laudable models of companies like Who Made Your Pants are unfortunately often twisted by outside commentators, who frame shopping-as-identity as a strictly binary choice. Bad girls buy unethical garments made overseas, good girls buy ethical ones made here.
We’ve been here before—twenty years ago, when students carried recycled paper notebooks with the self-satisfaction of those who chained themselves to a tree in the rainforest. In those days you wore vegan Doc Martens and Free People dresses (always cut criminally small in the bust area) or you were nobody. But can shopping ever really be a revolutionary act? Well, for the generation that eventually outgrew their Docs and went on to turn Toyota Priuses and kale into objects of desire, it would seem that they think it can.
As Nicki Lisa Cole writes in her essay “The Promise and Contradictions of Ethical Consumerism,” “the logic of ethical capitalism differs little from the traditional logic of free-market capitalism.” It is a point echoed by Gareth Allison in the paper “Pursuing Status through Ethical Consumption” (PDF). Allison describes ”ethical shopping” as the attempt to position oneself as part of an elite class. Read all about it in the pages of this magazine.
There’s another problem here, too. Defenders of shopping-as-activism pat themselves on the back because their underwear is made by a handful of lucky migrants earning UK wages. But they neglect the wider problem of labor movements losing ground both here and abroad. Changing migration and asylum laws at home is slow and hard work, and who wants that? Instead, by purchasing boutique items of high status, they can call their part of the job done.
Few shoppers ask deeper questions of these companies, like: is their use of mass market cast-off fabrics really ethical? How were those materials produced, and what is their true cost to both the communities producing them and to the environment? What of the welfare of workers who cannot or will not relocate to the sentimental West?
The more you scratch at the phenomenon of ethical buying, the more the facade crumbles. Consider for example the type of ethical consumer encountered on TV shows like Grand Designs in the UK and Australia, where affluent, thoughtful families cheerily knock down decades-old houses to build “green” single-family homes on enormous plots, relying heavily on materials sourced overseas for their construction. How is this green? Does this really make a difference to the environment, or does it only make a difference to the consumer’s utilities bills?
Rather than questioning the morals of a marketplace where working women are undervalued as a class, defenders of feminist shopping sneer at those who can’t afford to participate. Many people who can’t spare £20-plus for purportedly feminist knickers—probably the majority of the people reading the press about them—are struggling in Britain’s slow recovery from the recession, and have been hit hard by the government’s austerity measures. This does not make them bad feminists, bad consumers, or bad people.
The problem with symbolic acts is rarely with the acts themselves, which range from mildly laudable to mostly harmless. Rather, the problem lies with an inability or refusal to move past the symbols to address the system. It mimics the shortsightedness people show when they congratulate themselves for buying an organic apple grown halfway around the world. Our well-intentioned discontent with globalization has never been resolved through more shopping, or even better shopping.
The last two years have seen a deluge of commentary on how feminism has changed, adapted, and rebooted to suit the needs of younger generations. We hear that feminism is more accessible, relatable, and fashionable than ever before. But that means of access shouldn’t be simply buying a thing (whether an of-the-moment book, a ticket to a comedy gig, or a bracelet with an uplifting message).
As laudable as these companies’ business models may be, “feminist underwear” and other products like it are ultimately not so much game changers as they are status indicators. They don’t send a message to the patriarchy; they only send a message to the peers of the person buying them.