The Facade of Moral Consumerism

Issue 8, Volume 113

By Philip Virata 

People tend to separate the art from the artist. When you find your new favorite song, you’re probably not inclined to investigate whether or not the artist has done something controversial. Even outside of the music industry, separating the product from the morality of the creator is common. For example, approximately 85 percent of the world’s palm oil, a product used in most soap, cosmetic, and baked goods, is made using child and forced labor. About fifty percent of the world’s cobalt, which is used to make batteries for Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, and Sony, comes from mines that heavily rely on child labor. Despite these unethical sources, so many people buy from these companies without any hesitation.

Nonchalant consumerist attitudes are common within our society, yet the question of separating the art from the artist is still brought up sporadically. The controversy surrounding Kanye West is a prime example of irregularities in the frequency of discussion surrounding moral consumerism. Many are aware of the widespread scrutiny West has faced for his anti-Semitic rhetoric. Responses to his comments were justifiably severe: his ties with many major companies were ended, and the percentage of Americans with a negative opinion of him has increased by 12 percent in just one month. West’s Reddit page, previously used to praise his musical feats, is now filled with posts condemning anti-Semitism. However, this period isn’t the first time West has faced controversy. In the past, he implied that slavery was a choice, sold merchandise with the Confederate flag on it, and called racism a “stupid” and “dated concept.” When these things happened, reactions were starkly different: none of his brands dropped him, his Reddit page didn’t turn into a place to talk about anti-blackness, and he did not face as much widespread backlash.

The reason why more people are discussing the morality of listening to West now is not a sudden change in accountability. The true reason for this increase in discussion around the morality of listening to West is how viral his anti-Semitic statements went. The change in virality from then to now can be attributed to the increasing popularity of social media and the many statements he made in a short time. Pressure from public figures on Adidas to drop West grew considerably after the “Honk if you know Kanye is right about the Jews” tweet gained popularity.

Balenciaga is another example of how virality changes society’s degree of reflection on its own consumerism, as they have recently been facing controversy for their new advertisements containing children holding teddy bears that are accessorized with BDSM bondage gear. These advertisements gained so much attention due to a TikTok video about them that received 3.2 million views. This controversy has generated extreme public outrage, with people sending death threats to and publishing personal information about the photographer of the shoot, accusing Balenciaga of being a “cabal of pedophiles,” and burning Balenciaga clothes for social media attention. There hasn’t been nearly as much outcry against actual child abuse in labor, which people benefit from every day. It’s painfully clear that these people didn’t take action out of consideration for consumeristic morality. They did it in response to the social traction an issue had gained.

No matter how sincere the intentions of these actions may be, the question still remains: is it wrong to profit from products made by problematic entities? One would need to assess if buying or using these products allows for the spread of problems that the creator is guilty of. With artists, money is the most critical tool to prevent this spread, but boycotting their music doesn’t have a substantial effect on their wealth. Prominent artists get only 13 to 20 percent of their label’s streaming royalties, and since labels only get paid out about $3,300 to $3,500 per million streams by major streaming companies, listening to a certain artist contributes a minuscule amount to their wealth. However, when Adidas dropped West, he lost $1.5 billion. On top of this loss, Twitter has suspended West, taking away the platform he used to spread his anti-Semitic comments.

For Balenciaga, the situation is a little bit different, as they are actually benefiting from the controversy social media has produced. It was not a coincidence that there was public outrage surrounding the same issue in three photoshoots published very close to one another. It was deliberate. Balenciaga is most likely taking advantage of the “shockvertising” tactic that has previously been successfully utilized by themselves and other fashion brands to gain profit when large discussions surrounding their products arise. By trying to garner support for boycotting Balenciaga, people are actually feeding into their tactic and helping them make money. However, while Balienciaga is benefitting from the general public, they are still being influenced by large celebrities. Kim Kardashian’s tweets about her relationship with Balenciaga in light of this dissension seemed to force them to post another apology. In the grand scheme of things, big corporations and celebrities hold all the power in keeping each other accountable, while the general public’s attempts to boycott a certain entity’s products have either undesired effects or no outcome at all.

It is essential to note that recognizing someone’s issues and being a benefactor of their products are not mutually exclusive. For all we know, the public figures and celebrities who pressured Adidas to drop West could be listening to his entire discography weekly. That action doesn’t negate the fact that they made an immense contribution to the repercussions West faced for his actions. Every single person reading this article has probably benefited from a company that uses child or forced labor. Does this fact mean that every single person who reads this article thinks child and forced labor is good? Obviously not. You don’t have to deprive yourself of consumerism to criticize its numerous problems.

If someone buys products from a problematic company or listens to a problematic artist, it does not mean that the person is condoning their actions. Nevertheless, society seems to pressure many into thinking that this equivalence is true, and out of fear of being canceled, people seem to abide by this idea. The cycle continues, as the people who were societally forced into this ideology pressure other people to think this way as well. This process is then called “activism.”

Moral consumerism is not activism. It is a facade used to fuel cancel culture and promote fearmongering. It is shifting our focus away from the actual issues that are being perpetrated and placing a hypocritical and unfair burden on the people. The next time you want to tell someone, “Hey! Don’t listen to that artist!” or “Hey! Don’t buy from this company,” ask yourself: are my statements influenced by my own moral compass, or are they influenced by popularity and societal pressures? Once we are willing to make these distinctions in rationale, the facade of moral consumerism will fade away.