With the death of George Floyd on May 25 and the coinciding protests across the nation, came a rather desperate leap from companies to align themselves with the Black liberation movement. Sporting hashtags including #BlackLivesMatter and #JusticeForFloyd, many large brands or organizations responded to the collective unrest of the nation by posting messages of solidarity. Nike — a brand comfortable affiliating itself with social justice movements — was among the first to post on social media platforms, which likely encouraged other companies to follow suit: Netflix tweeted, “To be silent is to be complicit. Black lives matter;” Disney tweeted, “We stand against racism. We stand for inclusion;” Ben & Jerry’s — also very comfortable with being political — tweeted, “4 years ago, in the wake of Ferguson, we felt compelled to support the #BlackLivesMatter movement. We’re heartbroken those words are just as relevant today. These racist and brutal attacks against our Black brothers and sisters must end.” However, many ask what tangible impact might come from these online posts and what quantitative support they’ll provide in the enduring fight against systemic racism and oppression.
Publicly voicing support for the Black Lives Matter movement and pursuing anti-racist action is an acceptable first step, but allyship must extend far beyond online performativism or statements of solidarity. Cephas Williams, founder of 56 Black Men, states, “Now is not the time to be silent, neither is it the time to jump on a bandwagon. It’s a time for real reflection and care with regards to how a brand and its leaders stand by the Black community at this time and move forward with real steps to end racism and injustice globally and not only on the streets but in their organizations too.” These verbal promises and public recitations need to translate into actual change within companies and communities, the first step of which can be examining harmful environments and systems. Taking care of employees who have been harmed from these structures, offering reparations and advocating for their financial, physical and mental well-being is the next step.
Contemporary marketing theories implore brands to associate themselves with current topics and movements that people care about. This means creating space for themselves where individuals commonly congregate on social media platforms, keeping up with trends and engaging in societal chatter. Even in times of tragedy, where companies undoubtedly have larger influence and resources than civilians, brands post the same captions and images as the rest of the social media population, filling feeds with black squares or graphics now seen hundreds of thousands of times. This templated action among brands rushing to show where they stand, without enacting long-term solutions or staying involved, creates uncertainty for consumers beyond a slightly greater recognition of a progressive presence and a lingering sense of virtue.
As consumers, we have a certain responsibility to wield our spending power for the greater good of society. This looks like spending our money with intention. The average individual does not properly understand — because it is designed this way — the magnitude of control that capitalism and consumerism have on our nation. This uncertainty consequently feeds capitalist power; when we are unaware, and therefore dismissive, of the impact of our dollars, they fail to benefit us and in many ways, they begin to oppress us. When the companies who rely on our dollars stop receiving them, it can inspire a great period of reflection, demand and readjustment in the way our economy, environment and society function. These companies build their success off of catering to the consumer, so when the consumer remains complicit in a company’s participation in the use of prison or child labor, underpaying employees, donating to ethically-disturbed organizations or people, or involvement in other oppressive or dehumanizing systems, it is our responsibility to not feed that company anymore.
Similarly, if a company’s infrastructure is void of cultural, age-based, race and gender-based diversity, but benefits from these same people, it is our responsibility to not feed that company anymore. Closing the racial wealth gap demands creating and ensuring opportunities for Black individuals to enter and gain traction within industries that have been heavily and disproportionately dominated by white people. However, if we — the consumer — are not disturbed by the disproportionately white environment, and we remain seemingly satisfied with the way the company functions, change will not occur. This has been proven to us.
Slavery is a conversation often assumed to be spoken on with historical or traditional practices in mind — where millions of Africans were stolen from their families and their homes and brought to the Americas through the transatlantic slave trade. Society at large thinks of chattel slavery and dehumanization as something of the past, something centuries away from us all. Slavery is not a historical event. It exists in many of forms today — it is ingrained in our existing social system. Whether it be America’s incarceration system, debt bondage, child labor — in manufacturing, domestic and sex work — or global slave trade through methods of human trafficking, slavery was never effectively abolished as so many have the privilege to believe.
We as consumers have been completely complicit participants in this slavery. From our phones, to our clothes, to our coffee and rice, we are constantly consuming the product of forced labor and slavery. As globalization progresses — the modern movement which encourages the collaboration of nations in innovation and content creation — we see developments in economic wealth and effective industry. However, these economic benefits intensely feed the capitalist economy, nourishing the already rich and further enslaving laborers. As demand for cheap everyday products increases, the value of human labor decreases. This demand comes from us as the consumer. And with that power, we must ask ourselves what is more important to us not in the moment, but in life: the price of your phone or the life of the child mining cobalt to get it to you within your budget.
Complacency manifests quickly with the help of social media. When companies like Nike release one ad that demonstrates no actual action toward or pursuit of racial equity and justice, and all of social media’s civilian consumers praise that ad release, the social system is not disturbed, nor is the company. If instead of praising this bare-minimum effort, we as consumers rejected this ad as a performative act, and, in place of those reposts, put out demands about what we would like to see changed within the culture and infrastructure of the company itself, there would be greater inspiration for reconstruction.
Although it seems like a lot of tedious work, doing devout research on the companies you give your dollar to can not only inform you of the ways you are indirectly investing in oppressive institutions, but can guide you to lesser known companies and brands who produce the same product more ethically. Here, what the consumer loses is convenience, which has been an apparently valuable asset to American consumption. So, for the people who have the financial means to challenge their everyday expenses and replace them with more ethical efforts, this should be done immediately and with perpetual consciousness, despite the subtle impact it has on one’s schedule — because put simply, to pay a higher price or drive a little further for your desired product for the sake of human being’s lives everywhere should not be an inconvenience, but a blessing. However, many people who resort to these “easy fix” companies such as Amazon or CVS — because of their frequent locations and consistent prices — are those who cannot afford to instead support the Black boutique or hardware store with challenging prices in comparison. This makes it so the people being the most oppressed are also often the most reliant on the institutions and companies that oppress them. For those who have the means to invest in ethically mature companies instead, the responsibility is greatly on you.
None of this is to say that consumerism cannot be used productively and ethically. Consumerism can absolutely be used for the force of good, but not when it is done mindlessly to satisfy the capitalist cycle. With consumerism, comes rights of the consumer. Historically, consumerism pushed society away from the slave institution, lessening the need for individual fulfillment alongside the increase of global product accessibility. For enslaved people now free, consumerism was a symbol of that liberation through which they could provide themselves with their own shelter, wardrobe and way of life.
Similarly, in societies with a strictly established caste system, consumerism allows for the dispelling of clear barriers between those casted communities. Civilians of considerably lower caste can assert themselves and their worth through what they buy and how they dress, instead of being forced into a certain profession or way of life. This all feeds into the notion that consumerism gives an individual immense power we often do not recognize. If we continue to ignore this power, we continue to feed the system oppressing us and our communities. If we hone in on this power, unite beneath it and urge companies to revolutionize the way they satisfy the consumer with ethical practices, we take one step closer toward the revolution. We take one step closer to freedom for all.
A revolution of our current social system, an economic revolution and even a personal revolution cannot occur without steady intention and planning. If the everyday consumer and civilian cannot first recognize the value of all of humanity, not just those like them, they will not feel a need to demand a change of system. If we are compassionate, we do our research, we understand where our products come from and who creates them, we have understanding. If we do all of this, and then stop feeding those companies who do not meet the criteria society demands of them, we have progress. If we then take that money we would have invested into these enslaving institutions and instead put our dollars into people who come from and give back to the community at large, then we have power. It is not enough to just understand. It is not enough to just stand or even to speak. It is time to put our declarations for freedom into our own everyday practices. Spend like a free human. Until then, we are our own oppressor.