Being the age of the social media scandal, beauty brands have been severely scathed by all sorts of mishaps – from insulting customers directly, to racist ad campaigns, to spreading dubious political messages, many a brand has been blacklisted by the wider community of beauty consumers. Similarly, boycott movements like Cruelty Free and BDS (on which Naomi Klein has written extensively) are popular – many bloggers choose to display their alignment in their profile, in part to ward off unwanted brand attention and in part to make a clear statement about their content. I have a lot of thoughts on boycotts, the ethics of consmerism and the power of the customer, so this is my attempt to clear up my own, and maybe your, confusion.
First and foremost I want to say that I am not a boycotter, in general. I usually don’t describe myself by outlining what brands I won’t support, and I also don’t really pay attention to blacklists and so on. This doesn’t mean I think there’s anything wrong with not buying Kat von D products because she’s revealed herself as an anti-vaxxer, or not buying Jeffree Star because of his behaviour. I think that’s a very reasonable choice to make under the circumstances. No brand is owed business. But I also doubt the efficacy of a boycott that has not been organized by workers.
What I mean here is that voting with your dollar doesn’t make the huge difference we’ve been led to believe it does. Crass, I know, but it’s what I believe – we’re in such an advanced stage of capitalism that the lost income of those that choose to boycott doesn’t really hurt the companies. They’re still rich and powerful, and if you take a magnifying glass to those “ethical” alternatives, you’ll find they’re just as sinister. I also think it’s very difficult to conduct a true boycott now that every beauty brand is conglomerated, so your dollars end up in the same pockets anyway.
That said, I do believe that boycotts are an important show of solidarity with striking workers. If the workers of a company call for boycott, we should comply. This is because the force for change within a corporation needs to come from the workers, in my opinion. They understand what is needed, not the consumer. As consumers, we are on the opposite side of the production line, and by showing solidarity we can reach across to the workers from whom we are alienated.
I think it’s very noble and nice that people give up things they like because they have qualms about the ethics of the company. I do this myself, though I wouldn’t call it boycotting. I also think it’s impossible to consume ethically. Consumerism is inherently unethical, and to change the human or animal rights abuses and destruction of the environment caused by corporations the change needs to come from a place of real power – and as consumers, we don’t have that power. We are virtually commodities ourselves under capitalism, traded between brands like goods.
On this note, I also think it’s important to see that the ability to avoid certain products and brands, to consume more ethical products, you need to have access through capital or otherwise. If you are poor, displaced or disabled your choices will be limited. For example, people with disabilities that affect their motor skills need disposable straws to be able to drink. People working for unlivable wages have to buy their clothes at fast fashion retailers because that’s what they can afford. A family that lives in a remote area has to buy the soap they sell at the store, even if it’s conglomerate-backed or not cruelty free.
So you understand that when we pass judgement on those of us who can’t make the most ethical choice we are only contributing to the neoliberal idea that each person has the freedom of choice and that failing to make the “correct” choice is a moral failing. It’s good to make an effort to make better choices, but it doesn’t make you a better person to do so.
I think we all need to consider our patterns of consumption. It never hurts to ask oneself; “Do I really need this? Do I really want this? Who made this, what does their life look like? Who or what am I funding through this purchase?” but it’s important to understand that these power dynamics do not change by simply directing our dollars elsewhere. Voting can only be done with a ballot. To make change, true activism is necessary and in my opinion the only way forward – in solidarity with workers, with the marginalized.
Should we boycott? Sure. But don’t turn your nose up at those who don’t. And don’t let it end there.