I feel a surge of anger every time I walk past an Urban Outfitters.
I can deal with Hobby Lobby, Chick-fil-A and Amazon because they don’t really try to hide. Those companies are loud about their political views. But Urban Outfitters claims to be hip and with the kids.
They sell to woke, liberal college students. What many college students don’t know, however, is how Urban Outfitters is using those students’ money against them — their CEO has donated to anti-gay politicians and the company itself has sold clothes and accessories with anti-transgender jokes and slogans like “Eat Less” on them.
But Claremont student activists, and activists in general, should be careful when taking on problematic companies that they’re not falling into a classic, company-made trap: blaming the consumers who buy the companies’ products instead of blaming the company itself.
Activists cannot afford to lose sight of their goal, which should be to change the business practices of these companies, not to change the consumption habits of consumers. The latter type of advocacy is precisely what those companies want you, the strong activist, to push, because it does not result in regulation of the companies.
Back in 1953, Vermont passed a bill banning single-use plastic bottles in an effort to curb littering, according to The Atlantic. A few months later, the packaging companies teamed up with companies who could also lose money in an anti-littering push from activists, like Coca Cola, Philip Morris and Anheuser-Busch, and formed an organization they called Keep America Beautiful — ironic, I know.
The implicit mission of KAB was to find a way to fight the so-called “litter crisis” in a way that would not hold those companies accountable, and instead place the blame on individual responsibility. More than 40 years later, KAB’s campaign can be seen as the “harbinger of today’s brand activism,” according to GreenBiz. Even credible environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society joined in, acting as advisers to KAB, according to NPR.
The organization started by coining the term “litter bug.” However, most famously, KAB produced an iconic ad in the 1970s featuring a supposed Native American man (the actor was Italian-Sicilian) wearing buckskin and long braids in natural places covered in litter, blatantly using the “noble savage” narrative.
In the ad, the man walks up a hill and looks out on a highway, cloaked in smog. A driver throws what appears to be a fast-food meal out the window of their car, exploding at the man’s feet.
He turns to the camera, a tear rolling down his cheek. “People start pollution, people can stop it,” says the narrator. Notice that the voice does not say, “manufacturers started pollution, and government regulation can stop it.”
The most horrible thing is that KAB’s campaign worked.
As early as the late 1950s, statehouses nationwide were passing anti-litter ordinances — without placing a single restriction on the packaging companies, according to Mother Jones. In the 1970s, the National Center for Resource Recovery (founded by KAB) lobbied state and national legislators to favor recycling as the primary way to address the rising tide of garbage over “reducing” or “reusing.”
If I’m walking down the street today and someone throws a plastic bottle, for example, onto the sidewalk, I would have no reservations about telling the “litter bug” to pick up the bottle or picking it up myself.
While that person should not have littered, my first response would be “The person who threw this bottle on the ground is evil,” not “Why does this plastic bottle exist? The company that produced this is evil.”
I’m not sure I would ever even arrive at that question. That’s the work of KAB.
That’s powerful. So is the fact that the average consumer focuses on recycling their waste instead of even considering how much waste these companies are creating. Consumerism lives on, unchanged.
This isn’t just true of environmentalism. This same principle can be applied to all kinds of issues, such as clothing featuring offensive slogans or designs. While someone wearing an offensive shirt should absolutely be blamed for their part in upholding an oppressive social system, we must remember to blame the company for making the product in the first place.
Personally, I would rather my activism stop the company from making the product than convince everyone to stop wearing the product. I would rather focus on taking down the wolf than teaching all the sheep self-defense.
Another issue with blaming unethical consumers for the actions of unethical companies is that not everyone can afford to be a perfect shopper. One person might not be able to afford to boycott Gap, for example, even though Gap has been known to employ egregious child labor practices.
Don’t shame that shopper, shame Gap.
Some believe it’s the job of the consumers to keep companies in check because “companies will be companies” — in other words, trust the invisible hand. I am unconvinced. I believe companies should be held to the same ethical standards as consumers.
Of course, movements in the past have succeeded by putting pressure on consumers, effectively shaming them, in order to change offending companies. This practice works — it’s absolutely necessary, and it must be continued.
Just remember that changing consumption habits is only step one in the process — you’re not actually done when the people change. You’re only done when the company changes. The danger is in losing sight of this goal and stopping halfway through, tricking yourself and others into thinking you’ve succeeded.
So I implore you, the ethical, activist consumer — don’t forget your endgame.
Margot Rosenblatt SC ’23 is from Manhattan, New York. She’s a Claremont McKenna College econ bro with the heart of a Scrippsie. She would like to thank her dad and his love of NPR podcasts for this take.