It’s said there is no ethical consumption under late capitalism, and that’s probably true. But it leaves us nowhere good, because most of us can’t stop consuming.
Those gym-goers who are abandoning their skull-logo tank tops and clip-on shoes might also want to stop patronizing sister brand Equinox and Momofuku restaurants. And they’re in trouble if they want to find out whether Thor really is a Guardian of the Galaxy now: Marvel Entertainment’s chairman also bankrolls the Oval Office’s deplored current occupant.
L.L. Bean has ties to Trump, too, so forget about going there for back-to-school bookbags and boots. If AT&T is the sole service that isn’t spotty in your office, and if Bank of America is your only option with an ATM nearby, you’re out of luck.
And that’s just the Trump stuff. Almost everything these days is a little evil — and the things that aren’t are connected to something that is. Or might be, if only we had perfect information. There are supply chains to consider. There’s also labor and tools and raw markets. (Oh, my!) A choice that’s entirely ethical on one level might be entirely unethical on another.
Your go-to fair-trade diapers are manufactured by a bonafide member of the #resistance, but the store carrying his product banks with a firm that’s in deep with a murderous Middle Eastern regime. You’re a vegetarian because you don’t want to destroy the planet or subsidize the slaughter of animals sitting in cages gobbling up feed stuffed with plumping hormones, but the starter you need to prepare your own tempeh is available only on Amazon, and do those warehouse workers have air conditioning yet? (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos also owns The Post.)
And even if you find a safer source for boots, and tempeh, and exercise, are your painstaking attempts to conduct yourself morally in an immoral world going to matter? You’re not a country; you’re not a university with massive endowments such as those that helped cow South Africa into easing its apartheid regime in the 1980s. Lots of progressives have sworn off Chick-fil-A, waffle fries be damned, in retaliation for its leadership’s public animosity toward LGBTQ people. Yet it’s still the top-ranked fast-food restaurant in the country — so apparently, not everyone has joined in.
So, no, there’s no ethical consumption under late capitalism, and your choices likely won’t change the world. But does that mean it’s ethical to refuse to even try?
Maybe we don’t have to Google the origin of every type of multigrain chip in aisle five. (That would give Google advertising dollars anyway, and we haven’t even talked about mass surveillance yet.) But maybe it’s another story when we already know a company causes harm and we pay anyway.
Maybe we should give the most attention not to day-to-day necessities but instead to the things we buy for vanity, or for virtue. That’s what SoulCycle is about, after all. The company is selling us the feeling of becoming better versions of ourselves, and we shouldn’t let ourselves feel better as we’re making the world a little bit worse.
Maybe some of those decisions will make a difference, if only a smidgen of one. Maybe they won’t. And maybe it doesn’t even matter. Maybe there’s something worthwhile about being principled for principle’s sake.
The goal of giving up your weekly pop divas theme ride is not to let a horrible person pushing horrible policies sneak profits out of your pocket. But if Ross is forced away from SoulCycle, he’ll invest elsewhere, and he’ll still bring in plenty of bacon, perhaps a little less and perhaps even a little more.
And yet still something would change. You might help SoulCycle snap its actual morality back into place with its professed morality — the morality it bases its messaging on, and the morality it makes money from. More important, it would snap into place with your morality, too, so you can be that better person you were trying to be by sweating it out on the bike in the first place, or at least someone a little more like that person, which is what we should all be trying to do every day anyway.
We’d be fools to believe that switching to another early-morning exercise class, or picking a new favorite set of superheroes, or forgoing Bean Boots this fall, automatically beatifies us. But we’d also be fools to believe that reality gives us an excuse not to pick the right thing over the wrong thing when we can, or to own up to what it means when we don’t. Only then can we actually celebrate who we are: unethical consumers under late capitalism, refusing to bid ethics goodbye.