Monday, April 25, 2011

Shopping Can't Save the World

Over the previous 50 or so years we have seen the development of charities driven by classical capitalists. The Bill Gates' of the world, if you will. These magnates destroy take from the little guy with one hand give back to society with the other.

In a two action motion, they complete a viscous cycle. In the fist action they perpetuate the inequalities and injustices of the global capitalist system, they reinforce, and profit from the agreements and accords that keep poor people poor and ignorant. They profit big time. 

Then, in the second, they attempt to absolve themselves of the guilt that their business practice has brought upon them. They set up charities. And people forget. That they were ever bad in the first place is a secondary consideration. (I mean, they run charities, so how could they have done wrong in the past?)

Don'f forget! Microsoft is one of the most ruthless, dastardly and morally corrupt corporations in the world. They have abused so many people, from Namibian schools, to Danish programmers, it is remarkable. They are still malicious, even with a cherry on top. Of course, the same goes with many top companies in the States in particular, including Apple, Nike, Starbucks, Gap, etc...

These days, however, a new kind of business model has become the norm. One in which the two actions of destroying and deluding repairing society happen all at once. Its called brand aid and it's that same delusion we were used to, now it just happens all at once!

Should you feel better about buying a shirt you don't need from GAP because a portion goes to fighting aids? NO. Should the fact that Apple gives some tiny amount to fighting aids or feeding the poor forgive their abusive business practices NO!

These kinds of charity are merely promotional material. How could Old Navy or Microsoft get rich without poor people to abuse? Not as easily, that is for sure. It is in Starbucks best interest to keep the poor disenfranchised, but give them just a little help, so the public image of GAP changes so slightly, allowing the Nike to sell an extra million t-shirts/programs/anything.

Here's a little presentation from Lisa Ann Richey, the author of the upcoming book entitled Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World. Please, please watch this Bono clip at 3:47. Ugh.

This is not to condemn projects that promote small business in impoverished nations, as Zizeck does in this great little video. There are thousands of products out there that are wonderful and worthy of your dollar. It is just to say that the odds are stacked against the poor. Big businesses enjoy it, and won't change anything. A little cash the flows straight to entrepreneurs in poor countries is a good thing. Indeed it is the least we can do, but it just won't solve anything.

It reminds me of the moral question my family sometimes asked itself when we lived in Kenya. Should we hire some more people? Should we help out more poor Kenyans, who most likely are over qualified for any position we can offer? Sure. But it won't solve anything.

That 1% goes to fight poverty in someway does not forgive overspending on silly things people don't need. That a handbag is made by a poor Ghanain woman does not make it good to buy fifty. It won't fix anything on the systemic level, therefore the moral penance it seems to afford is illusory, and by no means does it justify living beyond our means (as environmentalists). The best thing we can do for the poor is understand that the rules of capitalism are made by the WTO, the World bank and the OECD (and often local governments) and they are implicitly working against the poor by having the best interests of the rich at heart. And, even more important, we should strive to solve that. And how.

Hat tip to: Slavoj Zizek and Brand Aid