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The Trinity Voice

The student news site of Trinity Preparatory School

The Trinity Voice

The student news site of Trinity Preparatory School

The Trinity Voice

Consumer Activism: Commodified Social Justice

Commodity Fetishism and “Ethical Consumption”

 

Many of the commodities we enjoy today, from smartphones to the clothes we wear, are the product of some form of worker exploitation, environmental degradation, or both. For example, according to UNICEF, over 60 million children are made to work in sweatshops to make the clothes we buy at most major retailers. However, most people are either unaware or indifferent to this fact because, as consumers, we only engage with the finished product. 

When you go to a store or shop online, all you ever see is the product and a price tag, as if the product just appeared out of thin air. The average consumer is so far removed from the process of production that it becomes an abstract concept that has little to no effect on their willingness to purchase. This alienation between producer and consumer is a phenomenon often referred to as commodity fetishism, which Karl Marx first described. He argued that instead of a commodity being the product of human labor, it becomes simply an item on a shelf with a price tag, taking away the social character of the commodity by “fetishizing” it with an objectified value. 

“The fetish is, in that sense, treating everything like a commodity, and that’s just something that we all do in practice,” said assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Dr. Skotnicki. “When we go to the store, and we buy things, we’re giving over money, and we’re saying, ‘I’m giving you $5 for this bag of chips, candy and a drink, and you could calculate any other thing you could buy in the world in terms of that $5. They’re all commodities; they’re all equal. It doesn’t matter [how] they’re made.”

 By alienating the consumer from the producer, the exchange of commodities is transformed from an exchange between humans to an exchange between objects. Through this phenomenon, it then becomes possible for people who would otherwise be disgusted by the violence and coercion that goes into making the products they enjoy to inadvertently participate in it.

 

The Congo

 

The harmful impact of commodity fetishism is most evident when analyzing the current situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Almost every piece of technology bought and sold on the market today has a rechargeable lithium-ion battery made from cobalt, from smartphones to electric vehicles. A lesser-known fact, however, is that 70% of the cobalt used to make these batteries comes from the Congo, where hundreds of thousands of Congolese miners are forced to work under brutal conditions, which many have labeled as modern-day slavery. 

The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s cobalt mining industry is dominated by multinational corporations, which employ some 255,000 workers, 40,000 of whom are children, according to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. These miners are paid less than the equivalent of $2 per day and are made to toil long hours in the sun with very little food or water, operating with only basic tools or simply their hands. According to a 2022 study published by The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, the subhuman conditions of the mines cause approximately 2,000 fatalities per year. 

These mines take up vast tracts of land, some already inhabited. To make way for the mines, multinational companies have conspired with the military and other armed groups who have control over resources to forcefully evict tens of thousands of residents, committing several human rights abuses along the way. Amnesty International reported in 2023 that soldiers often brutalize, sexually assault, and/or kill villagers before burning their settlements to the ground, leaving them with nowhere to go. According to social science teacher Brandon Burmeister, these abuses often receive very little attention from the media, if at all.

“You got 7 million internally displaced people,” Burmeister said. “You have failed state status. You have the type of war crimes we see in Afghanistan or in Ukraine happening daily. But it’s one of those things where people don’t pay attention because they’re like ‘Oh well it’s just Africa.’”

The crimes of the mining companies do not stop there, as they also often bulldoze entire fields of crops to make room for more excavation. This is made even worse when considering the fact that, according to the United Nations, one in three people in the Congo face severe or acute food insecurity. 

The cobalt excavated through this cruel exploitation of Congolese workers is then used to make products marketed as green alternatives, such as electric cars. However, the mining process itself is extraordinarily environmentally destructive. Cobalt mining creates large amounts of toxic waste, which destroys entire ecosystems, contaminates crops and pollutes sources of water. Dust and grit kicked up by the excavation also pollute the air around the mines, making it toxic to breathe and causing severe birth defects in the communities surrounding them. To top it all off, mining operations destroy large swaths of the Congo Rainforest, a vital ecosystem that absorbs nearly 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

The Congolese miners whose homes are destroyed and who are forced to risk their lives and health every day in the mines see none of the benefits of their grueling labor. All of the wealth created by their suffering is pocketed by the mining companies and their shareholders, continuing the process of colonial extraction that has kept the country chronically underdeveloped for over a century. Meanwhile, big tech companies like Apple and Tesla reap all the rewards while doing nothing to fix the barbaric oppression that affords them so much economic success. 

All of this, however, is completely hidden from the consumer. When you walk into the Apple store to buy the latest iPhone or MacBook, you do not see the innocent men, women and children forced to work themselves to death for the profits of multinational corporations; all you see is a sleek, modern store filled with tables lined with shiny, overpriced tech products. 

 

So what?

 

Because of the separation between producer and consumer, many people have bought into the idea of “voting with your dollar” or ethical consumption. People want to buy ethically sourced products, arguing that their consumer choices alone can push firms in the right direction ethically/environmentally. This “consumer activism” purports that the world’s problems can be solved by simply buying the correct products, whether that be an electric car or a reusable water bottle. Companies are conscious of this increase in consumer awareness and have used it to their advantage by marketing their products as green or ethically produced, even when they are not. In effect, our capitalist system has co-opted and commodified activism against itself. 

The truth is that there is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism. Voting with your dollar is a futile effort that companies actively play into to swindle more people out of money by charging more for “ethical” products. Corporations have duped the public into believing that they can change our system by just buying the right thing, creating a whole society of well-behaved consumers who would rather engage with objects than real people or institutions. While this is frustrating, and there is no easy fix, the ability to recognize the problem is a crucial first step towards finding a solution. If that were not the case, then corporations would not spend as much as they do on marketing to hide the glaring issues with their practices.

“[If] the only way we try to improve things in the world is via getting people to change their consumer practices, that’s not going to work,” Skotnicki said. “[People] say, ‘Oh well, if you just change your buying practices, we can fix everything in the world.’ No, absolutely not.”

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