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Episode 199: Is there REALLY no ethical consumption under capitalism?

If you dare to dive into the comments section on just about any post about fast fashion or fast everything, you are guaranteed to see more than one person saying “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism.”  This episode is part one in a recurring series examining and debunking the most common “excuses” and justifications we see for supporting, maybe even protecting(?) fast fashion and fast everything.  And this week we are getting started with a real banger: “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism.”  

We will explore the following questions:
  • What is the origin of “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism?” Who said it first?
  • What was intended meaning of this statement and how does it differ from how it is most frequently used now?
  • Why do people use this phrase so often?
  • How should we interact with people who use it?
  • How can we make more ethical choices in a system that is inherently unethical?
On our journey to answer these questions, we’ll get to talk about feminist tees (again), visit an island nation in the Indian Ocean with a once-robust apparel production industry, buy some new underwear, and unpack how K-cups are a great example of individuals having an impact.

Additional reading:

“‘Feminist’ T-Shirt Backed By Women’s Group Made In Sweatshop: Report,” Eleanor Goldberg, Huff Post.
Where does “there is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism” come from?, Reddit thread.
“This feminist t-shirt isn’t actually made in a sweatshop,” Zing Tsjeng, Dazed.
“This is what development looks like,” Maya Forstater.

Episode 200 is coming soon! April 18th at 8pm Eastern.

Behind the Seams

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Welcome to Clotheshorse, the podcast that will spend weeks looking for the best compost bin option.


I’m your host, Amanda and this is episode 199…part one in a recurring series examining and debunking the most common “excuses” and justifications we see for supporting, maybe even protecting (?) fast fashion and fast everything.  And this week we are getting started with a real banger: “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism.”  

I have to ask you a question and I want you to answer it honestly:

Where did the statement “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism” begin?

Make your best guess.


I assumed that the source was Karl Marx. After all, he was responsible for such bangers as “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains” and “Religion is the opium of the masses.”

For a man who lived in the 1800s, he really knew what people would want to comment on Reddit.


I really thought that perhaps I had missed that day in class when the professor scrawled “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism” across the dry erase board in the lecture hall, before breaking down how and why we would (in an even more dystopic future) use that phrase to defend our Shein hauls and enormous Temu orders.   That some of us might even use it to justify  a whole new quasi-disposable wardrobe for Coachella.  That people in the comments section on Instagram might take it one step further (and maybe they also learned this in the day that I missed class) to say “how dare you speak out against fast fashion when you’re posting this from your iphone.”


Well, what if I told you that the phrase “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism” began at the intersection of two things I spend a lot of time thinking about: social media and the commodification of feminism?


And it all starts with a “feminist tee.”


Picture it:  it’s November 2014, just about six months after Sophia Amoruso’s book Girl Boss was published.   Girl bosses are bossing all over the place:

We’ve got Thinx and Away and Glossier and Nasty Gal…women-led brands taking the internet by storm.


Retailers are just starting to see that feminism is a big money maker (and surprisingly or not) it would become an even bigger money maker when Trump became president in 2017.  But this is 2014, a simpler time, when we could brunch all day and pretend everything was just fine. A great time for some commodified feminism!


UK brand Whistles wanted to get in on the game. .And it worked with Harry Potter star Emma Watson and politicians Edward Miliban and Harriet Harman, to promote a line of tees that said “This is What a Feminist Looks Like.”


The t-shirts were designed by Elle magazine and sold by Whistles, with all proceeds going to the Fawcett Society, a UK women’s rights group.

These t-shirts are exactly what you imagine they would be, and they retailed for 45 pounds, about 60 US dollars.


I think Whistles probably would have sold out of these tees, maybe gotten some new customers, and then everyone would have forgotten about it.

Certainly Whistles never expected that they would be a key part of creating the internet’s new favorite catchphrase for defending their Funko Pops and Squishmallow collections.


But what happened next is that the Daily Mail (not really known for its concerns about women’s rights, perhaps best demonstrated by its Page 3 topless models), published an expose outing Whistles as having used sweatshop labor to make the t-shirts.


The headline blared “62p AN HOUR: What women sleeping 16 to a room get paid to make Ed and Harriet’s £45 ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’ T-shirts”


Btw 62p is about 77 cents in US dollars.


The t-shirts were made in a factory in the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius.  I was looking up information about Mauritius (because it’s one of those countries I remember from geography, but I couldn’t exactly place).  And it’s to the east of Africa.  Wikipedia says, “Mauritius, an Indian Ocean island nation, is known for its beaches, lagoons and reefs. The mountainous interior includes Black River Gorges National Park, with rainforests, waterfalls, hiking trails and wildlife like the flying fox.”  I looked at photos, and it looks like an actual paradise.


Clothing production became a thing there in the 1970s, when foreign investors (primarily from Hong Kong) began investing in clothing manufacturing facilities in Mauritius.  Women were excited to work in the factories because it was an improvement over their other primary employment opportunity: working on the sugar plantations.  In the factories, they only had to work 8 hours a day versus 12 on the plantations.  And they were paid slightly more for their work. And for the first part of the 1970s, the clothing industry grew in Mauritius.  In 1975, the country signed on to a trade deal that made importing/exporting to Europe duty free, making the island more appealing to European and UK clothing brands. But the sluggish global economy in the late 1970s kinda slowed down growth.


The industry began to change in the 1980s, when those original Hong Kong investors realized that it was cheaper to do clothing production in China and Taiwan, so they began to pull out of Mauritius.  They left behind all of their production equipment and a highly skilled workforce. Domestic investors swooped in and kept the factories running, finding new sources of business.  A civil war in Sri Lanka forced brands to shift their production out of the country and over to Mauritius.  

In the 1990s, even more Hong Kong investors moved out, as they found that labor was much cheaper in Vietnam and China. Yet the industry continued to grow, making clothing for countries throughout the Global North, reaching its peak employment in 1999.  In fact, factories in Mauritius were receiving so many orders, that they had to outsource some of that work to Madagascar, where labor was even cheaper.  At the same time, the country itself was putting more and more focus on tourism, as it saw more visitors from the Global North visiting the island paradise.  More garment workers made the shift into tourism related jobs, forcing the clothing factories to bring in workers from Madagascar, Sri Lanka and China.


In the 2000s, the garment industry began to collapse in Mauritius due to several factors: exclusion from some key trade agreements (resulting in a huge decrease in exports to the US) and loss of business to even cheaper places to do production (like Madagascar).  The last remaining Hong Kong investors pulled out, literally giving the factories to the locals. There were still billions of dollars worth of clothing being made in Mauritius, but thanks to the pressure to compete with the lower prices offered by countries like Madagascar, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, most factories were on the verge of bankruptcy by 2007. The industry somewhat recovered and continues today (there are a lot of garment factories on the island), and here they were in 2014, making “This is what a feminist looks like” tee for Whistles.


So let’s get back to that Daily Mail expose:

  • According to the writer, workers in the Mauritius factory were being paid about $150 a month. It would take them about two weeks of work to afford one of those feminist tees. The women slept in 20 square feet dormitory rooms, filled with 8 bunkbeds intended to house 16 workers each night.  They worked a minimum of 45 hours each week, with the possibility of overtime.
  • This particular factory-which also made clothing for Topshop and Urban Outfitters–had been under fire in 2007 when a different expose had revealed that workers making clothing for Kate Moss’s Topshop line were being paid about $5 day.  In fact, skilled workers from other countries had been lured to Mauritius to work in this factory with the promise of making a much higher wage, then they found they were paid a much lower wage when they actually started working.  Workers of different nationalities and genders were also paid different wages for the same work.
  • According to the factory owner, things had changed quite a bit since 2007, with everyone being paid equally. Yet, here we were again… workers being paid about $5ish dollars a day for their work.


So naturally, many people had a lot to say about this. I’m sure I had a lot to say about this.

After all, what’s the point of wearing a feminist tee if the women making it are being underpaid, overworked, and living in terrible conditions? How feminist is it to wear a tee made by exploited women?


Like a lot of social media discourse, the pendulum swung hard into serious black and white thinking:

  • It started with that whole sound idea of “why wear a feminist tee if it made was by exploiting women?” That makes sense, still makes sense.
  • But it quickly turned to “if you’re buying anything, anywhere and not ensuring that it was made ethically–meaning everyone was paid a living wage–then you’re a bad person.”
  • And “if you buy or consume anything, you are making the decision to support exploitation.” We know that is some seriously flawed thinking–it makes me think of the THE EMAIL episode from earlier this year. Because to exist, to survive, we must consume: food, water, clothing, shelter, education, entertainment, health care, and so much more.  


And of course, we know that line of thinking is completely lacking in nuance.  Like, what if you don’t have any better shopping options? What if you don’t have the privilege of time, access, and most importantly, MONEY to buy only ethically made items?  And also: there are certain trappings of modern life that are non-negotiable for existing within our society that don’t have truly ethical options: phones, computers, routers, stoves and ovens, washing machines, furnaces, hot water heaters, I could go on and on.


And that’s where the conversation of “well, there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism” came into play.  It was intended to remind everyone that no matter where they bought it and how “clean” the supply chain was, there was no such thing as a “perfect” purchase of anything. There would always be an impact because consumption is never devoid of impact. Someone worked to make it happen. Resources were used. If you get down to it, it seems unethical to use the water or air that would seemingly belong to ALL of us to make things that are then SOLD to us, right?  


The thing is, the intention wasn’t to give everyone a free pass at Shein hauls.  No, it was intended (in good faith) to remind everyone that it was really fucked up and privileged to pass judgement on those who bought clothes at Walmart or the regular not organic bananas or drove an old car (instead of a Prius) because that is what they could afford and had access to.  It was intended to be a recognition that for many people the most ethical and sustainable option is what they can afford, not the one with all of the certifications attached to it.  


And here’s the thing: it also meant that those who had the privilege of time, money, and access SHOULD make the most ethical choice available to them as often as possible.  Maybe it wouldn’t always be possible, but to do their best to try to make the most ethical choice.


But the other thing about the original intention of “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism?” Recognizing that we can’t shop our way to a better future! That a better world, where workers are paid a living wage and work under good conditions, where resources aren’t wasted, where products are better and longer lasting…that meant that all of us needed to get involved in fighting for change, by voting, protesting (when possible), having conversations with others, letting our elected representatives know that we wanted better regulation of all of these industries, and even running for office.  In other words: nothing gets better if we don’t get involved.

But back to the origins of “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism.” You have probably noticed that I haven’t attributed the first use of that saying to one specific person….and that’s because no one seems to know who said it first, but many internet historians on reddit seem to agree that it originated in the anti-capitalism corner of Tumblr around 2014, following the feminist tee debacle. From there, it spread across all the social media platforms. And now we find it popping up in posts about fast fashion, electronics, Netflix subscriptions, and so much more, often used as either an excuse or bitter proclamation of the futility of life and the certain doom of society.  NBD.

One last thing about the feminist t-shirt debacle:  

A few days after the Daily Mail article, the Fawcett Society (the benefactor of the sales of these t-shirts) made a statement:


“We are pleased to confirm that we have today seen expansive and current evidence from Whistles that the CMT factory in Mauritius they used to produce our ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt conforms to ethical standards,” said Eva Neitzert, deputy chief executive of the Fawcett Society.


The Fawcett Society had received “expansive and current evidence” which “categorically refuted” the Daily Mail’s claims that the factory was an exploitative sweatshop.  


Neitzert said: “We have been particularly pleased to receive evidence that 100% of workers are paid above the government-mandated minimum wage and all workers are paid according to their skills and years of service. The standard working week is 45 hours, and workers are compensated (at a higher rate of pay) for any overtime worked.”


The factory employees were free to join a union and there was a strong union presence within the facility. Furthermore, both the pay and the working conditions were not only in line with Mauritian law,  they were in line with the Ethical Trading Initiative base code. Even Labour Behind the Label said the factory seemed fine.


Maya Forstater, a researcher and writer in the realm of economic development, wrote about the t-shirt debacle on her own blog (I’ll share the post in the show notes), and she said something that really struck me:


“Low wages and communal dorms may be an unpalatable contrast to the t-shirt’s empowerment message, inflated pricetag, and celebrity endorsement, but the reality is that work on this unglamorous side of the fashion industry has been a way out of poverty for many millions of women and men, and a first rung towards industrial development for many countries.”


Does that mean that it’s cool that people have to work so hard for so little money? Definitely not.  And most likely Mauritius is keeping its minimum wage low so that it doesn’t lose more manufacturing jobs to places with even lower minimum wages, like Bangladesh. And ultimately, people stay poor in these countries because there is so much fear of losing even the option of these low paying, difficult jobs to another country that will do them for even less money and protect their employees even less. 


And yes, it’s super unfair that workers can get paid 77 cents for making a t-shirt that will sell for $60-70. And that no one involved in making, selling, or shipping that shirt will ever get a “fair” share of the selling price, while those at the top will take most of that money for themselves.  

In fact, the fast fashion system (just like most industries) only “works” for those people at the top when people stay poor and hungry for work, even when that means keeping entire countries poor and hungry for work.


This is a broken system for everyone (except the wealthiest) and when you see this illustrated so plainly in a situation like this, you can see how there really is no truly ethical consumption under capitalism.  But that doesn’t mean we give up completely.  That doesn’t mean we guilt ourselves about needing things. It also doesn’t mean we take the bleak view that the world is fucked and unfixable, and that we should just keep making Shein hauls until the world ends.  


We have the power to make it better, no matter how overwhelming it all seems.


Okay, let’s take a minute to talk about how we can make more ethical decisions, even though we know that none of them will ever be “perfect,” thanks to the systems that surround us.  I have my own sort of I don’t know, mental flow chart (?) for how I make purchases:


  • Can I find it secondhand?
  • If not, can I find it from a small business?
  • Can I find it from a local small business?
  • And no matter where I bought it, how can I make it last as long as possible?
  • What will I do with it when I no longer need it? Mindful rehoming.


Some examples


Recognizing my privileges here:

  • I live in an area with a lot of small local businesses, great thrift stores, awesome facebook marketplace.
  • I have access to a car.
  • I have time  to research it.
  • I have a lot less money now that I don’t have a corporate job, but I can spend a few dollars more.


Make the most ethical decisions you can based on your access and budget.

Okay, so now that we know the true origins and intentions behind the phrase “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism,” why do we see so many people using it in a way that differs from its original intention?


Let’s talk about my Temu post (sorry if you are sick of hearing about this).


Other excuses I saw often in the comments section:

  • There are a lot of comments that were like “well, I’m poor and underpaid, inflation is bad, Temu is all I can afford.” And I will say, if that’s true, then keep doing what works best for you.  I see this a lot in conversations about Shein, too and you know, you have to buy what you can afford to buy. That doesn’t mean you need a whole haul, or a new outfit every week, or a closet just bursting at the seams with barely worn Shein clothing.  In fact, these comments are most in line with the true meaning of “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism.” However, one way we can ALL work together to dismantle the fast fashion (and fast everything) system doesn’t cost any money at all: buying less stuff in the first place.  What else can all of us do, no matter how much money we have or where we live or what size we wear in clothing? We can make our stuff last longer by caring for it via laundry and mending.  We can also all VOTE.  We can email our representatives (or call them). We can share our knowledge with others.  We can be a part of a community working together to make the world better.
  • “Well, what about prison labor or Nike or _____?” Sure, those things are all terrible, too.  And in fact, those things can be terrible at the same time as Temu. Just because there are other terrible things happening in the world doesn’t mean we stop talking about Temu. We talk about ALL of them. We tell others what we know about them. We think twice about shopping from businesses that use prison labor or Temu or Nike. We look for a list of companies that use prison labor within their supply chain and we stop supporting them. We tell our friends about them.  We organize together as a community to take a stand against prison labor. We call our senators to tell them we want legislation that bans prison labor to manufacture products.  And so on and so on. Whataboutism often feels like a diversion or some kinda gotcha moment (and maybe it sometimes is) but I think it’s the function of people feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of injustices in this world.
  • The other comment I saw was “well, you typed your comment on an iphone or made this post on a computer, so you are a hypocrite.” I think this one is basically a repackaging of “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism,” but often used as a “gotcha” moment to prove that the person talking about the issues with Temu or Shein, etc are actually hypocrites for owning a smartphone…as if owning a smartphone isn’t kinda mandatory to function in society right now, to have a job, to stay in touch with your family and friends, etc.  

But yes, the most frequent comment I saw was something along the lines of “Amazon and Nike are just as bad and that’s because there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.” Or “whatever, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, so I’m going to place a Temu order right now.”  


So why do people say things like this? Like I said in the last episode about how to talk to others about slow fashion, understanding where these comments originate helps us reach these people and support them better.

  • A sense of feeling overwhelmed by all of the bad things happening in the world. A feeling of hopelessness about all of it. Like “how can I as one person do anything about this?”  That’s where community comes in, helping people realize that they are not alone, that hope is out there, and that hope lives within all of us working together to change things. 
  • Sometimes it comes from shock and guilt.  Like, “holy shit I just placed a huge Temu order because my friend uses it and now I found out it’s bad?” No one wants to feel that way.  And remember, shame is never the way forward.  Understanding that these sorts of “excuses” might stem from guilt or surprise or even a feeling of being “tricked” by Temu can help us see that those people aren’t here to fight with us.  They are just processing it all.
  • Also, plenty of people have heard and seen “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism” used so many times in bad faith across the internet that they take it as truth, at its most literal meaning: that it doesn’t matter what we do, it all sucks, so just do whatever.  Because that’s what it often means, right? It reminds me of a story I have told you many times over the past few years, the K-cups Facebook post.


So here is where I remind you yet again that we are not here to “win” fights in the comments section.  We will rarely change anyone’s mind just then in a way that makes us feel successful. It’s one thing to say “hey you should read more about this here or watch this video because it really made me understand this differently.” ←–that’s a good way to handle it. It’s another to confront someone or escalate into a back and forth with them. This often pushes them further away.  Remember, we’re just here to get people thinking, to hopefully get them interested in what we are talking about and what we are doing.  We want them to want to hang out with us, not hate us.


What can we do as members of the slow fashion community:

  • Be compassionate, not confrontational.
  • Show how we are making the most ethical choices we can within a very unethical system. Honestly, I think showing not telling is more impactful than just about anything we can do.
  • Educate others about the true meaning of “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism.”
  • Help others make more ethical decisions when there is an option.
  • Just keep up the good work!

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If you want to share your opinion/additional thoughts on the subjects we cover in each episode, feel free to email, whether it’s a typed out message or an audio recording:  [email protected]

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Gabriela Antonas is a visual artist, an upcycler, and a fashion designer, but Gabriela Antonas is also a feminist micro business with radical ideals. She’s the one woman band, trying to help you understand, why slow fashion is what the earth needs. If you find your self in New Orleans, LA, you may buy her ready-to-wear upcycled garments in person at the store “Slow Down” (2855 Magazine St). Slow Down Nola only sells vintage and slow fashion from local designers. Gabriela’s garments are guaranteed to be in stock in person, but they also have a website so you may support this women owned and run business from wherever you are! If you are interested in Gabriela making a one of a kind garment for you DM her on Instagram at @slowfashiongabriela to book a consultation.

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