In late capitalism, are surfaces thickening?

An interesting development consumerism in the first decade of the third melenia is the rise of ethics as a sold quantity in consumption based capitalism. While it is not new for companies to enhance their reputation by donating part of their proceeds to charity, this has taken on a new character in that consumers actually expect their specific purchase to have a measurable “good effect” on the world. Now when I buy fair trade, shade grown, carbon neutral coffee rather than regular coffee, I expect my consumption to be both reducing the negative impacts of the production of non fair trade coffee, I am also actively subsidizing the kind of industry I believe to be good.  When I buy the organic option, or the low-carbon option, I believe (perhaps correctly) that I’m supporting the right kind of industry, or reducing harm to the planet. Perhaps the cleanest example of this “active production of good” consumerism is Starbucks’ Ethos Water. The idea is that when you buy this water, an even larger quantity of water will be brought to people who do not have access to clean water. I actually remember the first time I saw ethos water – I thought “Oh, that’s a good idea” – and from a marketing perspective it is. They make a 5 or 10 cent donation from every 2$ bottle of water, and that cents allows them to charge 50 cents more than their competitors.

It’s not accidental that the name Starbucks starts coming up in a discussion about the logic of ethical consumption. If you have any of their single use coffee cups laying around, read the label. You probably don’t (I’m the only one who seems to like collecting used paper coffee cups), so I’ll cite it for you:
“We work with 1.2 million people to grow and harvest even better coffee that earns even better prices. Everything we do, you do. You buy coffee at Starbucks. Which means we can work with farmers to help improve their coffee quality and their standard of living. We call it coffee that is responsibly grown and ethically traded. And thanks to you, we’ve grown big enough to be able to do this kind of good on this kind of scale. Good job, you.”

I did not add the bold type – that is right there on the cup. The logical link between your consumer choice and making a good impact on the world are not left up to the consumers imagination, but dictated!

What becomes clear in these examples is that the ethical implications of our consumer choices are no longer merely part of the information in which the choice to consumer some product are made – but rather that the ethical implications of a choice are being sold to us as a product themselves – a product supplemental to the object perhaps analogously to the way a two six of liquor sometimes comes with a little bottle of something more expensive.

The immediate tendency here is to say it’s all crap. It’s quite obvious that the incentive is for corporations to produce the ethical product as an image for the consumer – to create a belief in the consumer that s/he has produced an active contribution of good in the world. Whether any actual improvement of conditions for the less fortunate happens is of only derivative importance. However, I called the blog entry “are surfaces thickening?” – what do I mean by this? Well, to say that Starbucks only cares about how ethical their coffee “looks” rather than whether it is “actually” fairly traded, is to say that what matters is the surface. This is true for all commodities – all commodities are surfaces. This is actually not controversial – the basic meaning of commodity is a good which is indefinitely replaceable or reproducible – and if something is replaceable or producible it’s existence mustn’t exceed what can be gleaned from the “surface” – only on the surface can form be imbued into an object. Surface means plan, idea, image, concept. Autocad drawings are surfaces. Things produced using autocad drawings, like ikea furniture, are also surfaces. To say “it’s all crap” is to dismiss all greenwashing, all ethical-consumerism as superficial, as dealing only with surfaces – as not being radical (radical means “ Of, belonging to, or from a root or roots; fundamental to or inherent in the natural processes of life” – OED).

But, what are surfaces in the developed internet age? If the ethical “product” consumed by the buyer is his or her idea of the good s/he’s produced, does the internet, and freely circulating information affect the extent to which corporations can put out false-fronts, shiny but depth-less images of how they are making the world a better place? I think the answer to this is “only sometimes”.

I realize I’ve already mentioned Starbucks a few times – but bear with me. This year, the International Labour Rights Forum put out a scorecard (PDF) which judged how ethical the buying practices of different corporations really were. Concerning Starbucks, they concluded:

“Starbucks’ standards, unlike the broader chocolate industry’s “certification” program, include real requirements for their cocoa suppliers such as supply chain transparency and compliance with international labor standards, among other criteria. In the last year, the pilot program has been independently audited and Starbucks has stated that they are committed to independent verification. The company is actively working with cooperatives in the Ivory Coast and has supported a range of social programs in the region, including helping small farmers get access to credit. These steps appear to be very positive developments and we look forward to seeing how Starbucks’ cocoa program develops.”

What we can glean from this is not so much that Starbucks’s CEO really does care about the slave children in the Ivory Coast, but rather that their attempt to maintain and secure an ethical image requires real work on the ground. As the world becomes a little more transparent, it is too easy for a glossy but thin image to be discredited. In response, the surface must thicken to maintain its power as a surface.

Of course, everything Starbucks does, Tim Hortons can do worse. They like to talk about the coffee partnership they’ve started. However, this partnership they talk so much about supply an unspecified about of their coffee (from a PDF of their 2008 annual report). In other words, the vast majority of Tim Hortons coffee is of extremely low grade, and grown by underpaid coffee farmers. And yet, they try to cash-in on the ethical supplement to their product by producing feel good commercials about how well they treat a tiny minority of their farmers. This is an example of a thin surface. The question is, can the thin-ness of this surface by sustained? Or, is Tim Hortons too susceptible to public outcry, to potential boycotts – will they be inevitably pushed down the road of thickening the surface of their ethical supplement?

In the end, I’m not going to pretend this issue matters unduly. The future of the world does not depend on whether easy access to information forces corporations to be slightly more truthful about images they try to attach to their products.  At the same time, it’s always interesting when forces conspire to make word and deed correspond.

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