Being an ethical consumer is just about impossible in this day and age. It doesn't mean we shouldn't try, of course, but there is an undeniable drive for international powerhouses to lock into an economical "race to the bottom", a term I have come to loathe after an exceedingly dry International Studies class in first year. As such, it's hard to determine which brands, of the hundreds we passively consume weekly, are doing right in a globalised world.
Google's modus operandi has always been "do no evil". Whilst it seems a peculiar tagline for a business that exists predominantly for people to remember for the title of a movie they watched a few months ago by keying in the premise, it's an admirable one. Because there are hordes of big businesses out in the world that, despite their fluffy, feel-good branding, are actively doing harm.
Before I put anyone offside by this statement, I would like to iterate that I am not averse to capitalism, big business, or aggressive economical management. I work, I pay taxes, and I'm proud that as a consumer my needs are met by a system that works very bloody hard to sell me products I might actually like. Whilst it occasionally freaks me out that Facebook advertisements are basically sentient to my needs now (seriously, keep suggesting EVERY kind of beef jerky to me), I'll be honest, I'm a fan of technology trying to personalise its pitch to me. Now if Pirate Bay could just stop trying to convince me to meet hot singles in my area, I'd be in technological heaven.
(Oh, and if my ISP is reading this, I don't know how to computer. I thought Pirate Bay was just a wacky new extension of the Neopets world. I read detailed plot synopses about the new episodes of Game of Thrones so I can save up my money to purchase all the episodes at the end of the seasonal run from Foxtel. Now that's a company that clearly knows that its market will wait for a premium product. Chortle.)
But insofar as "do no evil" goes, Google is basically a lone beacon of virtue standing in a cesspool. Because most of the "best" brands do a metric fuckton of evil. And this is where the dissonance of the ethical boycott comes in.
I have never owned a pair of Nike shoes. They epitomise to me everything that is wrong with cheaply-made, tacky, overpriced products borne of human suffering. When I was eight or nine years old, I saw Craig Kielburger, the founder of Free the Children, speak about the horrors that went on in Nike's sweatshops. I couldn't fathom how someone needed to fight so hard to bring basic human rights to others. After that speech, I settled privately into my own personal boycott. But the reason I do so is not, admittedly, 100% pure organic, free-range, grass-fed altruism.
I'm going to lay down a harsh truth right now: The main reason people boycott a product or service is because there is such a litany of alternative products, they don't really have to sacrifice anything.
It's not hard for me to maintain my Nike boycott, nor any of the many others I maintain. Diamonds, BP petrol, the Pancake Parlour, canned tuna, and flake at the fish and chip store. These are all causes that I have, for years on end, happily boycotted without a second thought, for a litany of the reasons. In the case of Nike, I can readily snub its wares because Nike products are shit.
But if I'm being frank, it would be far harder to boycott Nike if their products were even remotely appealing to me. Such is the case with all products I veto. It's hard to say "no", over and over again, to something we really, really want.
This is a discomfort I sit with regularly, because arguably the worst of all companies when it comes to human rights abuse and sneaky exploitation of developing nations is not the one we expect. Imagine the following products as the financial backbone of a malignant, evil empire: Milo. Nespresso coffee, with George Clooney's smug face slapped all over it. Perrier water. Haagen-Dazs ice cream. Oreo cookies. Musashi protein powder. Maggi two-minute noodles. Milky bars. Kit Kats. Friskies cat food. Violet Crumble.
Yep. The most evil company in the world is Nestle.
Noxious, wicked Nestle boasts twelve separate scandals under the "Controversy" subheading on its Wikipedia page, including (but not limited to) child slavery, melamine poisoning in China, fiscal trading with Mugabe, misinformation about milk formula's nutritional benefits over breastmilk that saw babies die of malnutrition in Africa, and statements from its CEO saying, and I quote, "free water is a privilege, not a right."
If Nike is a nasty, exploitative company that deserves my boycott, Nestle deserves it just as much, and more.
So why aren't I boycotting Nestle with the same impetuousness?
Short answer: because it's just too damn hard. As an owning company, it's just too pervasive in the foods I eat and products I buy for me to consciously abstain effectively. Hell, they even own the controlling shares of L'oreal, Maybelleine and other beauty brands. And that's just one company or thousands that deserve my principled outrage.
Where the line is drawn is so subjective. Everyone has their own opinions on how other people "should" ethically consume. One person might advise me to change banks because mine is owned by the Rockefeller family. Another will caution others away from pet stores, because it's better to rescue a pet than perpetuate the puppy farming industry. Another might think bigger, and urge for vegetarianism, or veganism. And they'd all be right, in their own way. But it's not feasible to do them all, all the time.
I admit my own dissonance freely when it comes to a boycotting a product. I make the decision to abstain from contributing financially to a company by considering two separate factors. The first is always because I ethically believe that the company should not be supported with my money. The second depends upon whether to veto this product is, personally, convenient for my lifestyle. Sad, but true.
To elaborate on the above examples of my current boycotts:
I don't buy diamonds because it's virtually impossible to be certain that any stone is truly conflict-free, and it has been proven time and time again that these products are duplicitously inflated in pricing. But on a personal level, I have a much grander preference for coloured stones. Added perk: if some fool ever decides he likes me enough to put a ring on it, he can fish said ring from a bargain bin.
BP Petrol has leaked thousands of litres of oil into the ocean and refused to take responsibility for the clean-up efforts. Legitimate reason to snub them. Even easier to do when I have five different brands of petrol station within a five-kilometre radius of my front door.
The Pancake Parlour is owned by Scientologists, and they own a homophobic, discriminatory "fun park" out Ballarat way that has turned away marriage equality groups because they're bigoted. Also, food at the Pancake Parlour is terrible and overpriced.
Tuna and gummy shark are both overfished, and are teetering a little too close for comfort to the brink of extinction. Easy enough to substitute for some other, more plentiful, fish. Even easier in the case of tuna... because I can't bring myself to like the taste, even a little.
But as much as I love a cheeky boycott that requires me to only ever moderately make an effort, it does leave me in a conflicted space.
My dream is to next year go to Thailand and work in a particular camp that houses refugees from Burma/Myanmar. I want to go not as a voluntourist, which is a fascinating and brutal debate in and of itself, but as someone living in the same conditions, doing the same work as everyone else, and perhaps one day gaining enough experience to see me do the same with displaced people in the Middle East.
I care about the plight of refugees to an almost obnoxious degree, but I don't pretend to know much about the plights of different diasporic spreads in different regions. Kareni people are not the same people as those displaced by the Balkans conflicts, and they are, in turn, not Palestinian people. But to learn about the differences and similarities in person... wow!
However (ah, the dreaded however!) it is proving really, really bloody hard to establish whether it is a net good or net evil to travel to Burma/Myanmar, which is something I've always wanted to do. Anonymous strangers on travel forums wholeheartedly endorse tourism to the country, provided one spends their money with vendors that aren't government-controlled. Others say nay, because ultimately a tourist's presence endangers the people they meet, and money eventually trickles back to enabling an economy controlled by a military junta that forces its people into work camps.
I wouldn't travel to North Korea just for thrills, when it is becoming increasingly common knowledge that crimes against humanity are happening deep within its borders that resoundingly echo the Holocaust.
So would my going to Burma/Myanmar be like taking a holiday in Cambodia, in a "boost the economy" sense, or would it be like taking a Holiday in Cambodia, in the Dead Kennedys sense?
I wish I had the faintest idea, because Burma ranks high on my fantasy travel itinerary... along with a myriad of other dangerous countries that make my loved ones figuratively clutch their pearls.
If you have the faintest idea where, on this grey-scale of "OK" and "NOT OK" a cheeky sojourn through Burma/Myanmar falls, let me know. I can pack a suitcase mighty fast these days. Just don't ask me whether the company that stitched the damn thing is ethical or not.
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.