Good people with good intentions make systems happen that produce all kinds of injustice and suffering for people in culturally devalued and excluded groups.
-Allan Johnson in Privilege, Power, and Difference
How consumer culture perpetuates privilege and exploitation
In the age of sustainability and green products, we may think about the environmental impact or “footprint” of our products, but what about the impact of our consumption on other people? As we consume everything we’re taught a privileged life affords, we may leave a footprint stepping on the backs of others.
Many popular products consumed by people of privilege are made possible by oppression and exploitation of people in other cultures, people in lower classes, people of color, women, and generally underprivileged groups.
Before I continue throwing around the word privilege, let's define it...
Privilege is any sort of special advantage available to a particular person or group, which can come in many forms. Some of the most glaring forms of privilege are in class, race, gender, and sexuality. The book Privilege, Power, and Difference asserts that, in order for one person to have privilege, there needs to be someone who does not have that privilege.
Class privilege is particularly relevant with consumerism so that’s the default privilege I’ll be discussing below, but really, it’s all interconnected.
Privileged consumption and exploitation between countries
As a country's wealth increases, so does its carbon footprint and use of raw materials, water, and land. This is true with individuals, too: as income increases, so does consumption.
This is a natural progression as people and countries move from barely being able to afford what they need to survive to being able to produce or purchase enough. However, many individuals and even entire countries have reached a tipping point on this trajectory where per capita consumption exceeds what an individual needs to thrive. At this point, they may begin eating into what people in poorer countries need just to survive.
Not only is the average material footprint of high-income countries more than 13X that of low-income countries, but the large footprint of high-income countries (and individuals) is dependent on the exploitation of low-income countries (and individuals). When the appetite for goods and the resulting ecological footprint exceeds the biocapacity in a country, they must import from other countries.
Financially privileged groups—those who belong to wealthier countries or wealthier demographics within their country—are able to consume ever more cheap and disposable goods at the expense of less privileged groups, often without seeing or hearing the repercussions of exceeding biological limits.
This is how consumer culture perpetuates the relationship of the privileged and the underprivileged between countries.
For example, the consumption of beef and timber both increase alongside wealth. These products (for the sake of simplicity we’re just cringing and calling cows a “product” here) are both land and resource intensive. When wealthy countries like the United States desire more beef and timber than their local environment can provide, they import from clear cut rainforests in countries like Brazil.
What does this bring to the locals in Brazil, some of which may already be underprivileged themselves? Unfortunately not due profit and progress, but land wars, cheap deals, and environmental degradation.
For example, read about tension among locals in Nova Ipixuna: Why Do Environmentalists Keep Getting Killed Around the World?
We see similar stories with underprivileged child laborers in The Democratic Republic of Congo mining for tech mineral exports and with women in Vietnam living in textile mills to support fast fashion demand from the West.
We import products, we export consequences.
Privileged consumption and exploitation within countries
Consumption habits don’t just bolster privilege and exploitation between counties, but also within them where the privilege belongs to certain groups. The most glaring example is white privilege, which, of course, we were not going to make it through a piece on privilege without mentioning.
When mass production isn’t outsourced to underprivileged countries and there is dangerous, low paying work to be done “at home,” what’s the easiest way to staff those jobs? With groups of people who historically have not had the same voice, power, or options that white people enjoy: immigrants, people of color, and indigenous people.
Let’s hone in on one of my favorites: animal agriculture. We know the system of factory farming exploits animals, but it also exploits underprivileged humans. Slaughterhouses and factory farms—notorious for dangerous and disturbing work conditions—are predominantly powered by immigrant and black labor. These groups are seen as disposable, and their cheap labor allows the more privileged groups to continue consuming products at unchecked rates. The profits from these worker's labor lines the pockets of industrial agriculture conglomerate's predominately white leadership teams (see Perdue Farm's executive suite below).
Animal agriculture is just one product that leans on local exploited labor, and the exploitation continues to feed privilege and—since it commonly occurs behind closed doors—consumer oblivion.
"Not In My Backyard" sacrifice zones
Producing and harvesting anything not only requires raw materials and labor, but usually creates waste, run-off, and emissions. Those privileged to enjoy the most “anythings” are also the least subjected to this aftermath. When you are part of a privileged group, be it living in a white community or a wealthy area, companies value your voice and want to stay in your good graces so that you support them. So, the same privilege that allows access to goods allows access to living apart from the consequences of mass production.
This injustice is captured in the idea of “sacrifice zones,” which are poor and minority communities where chemicals, emissions, and waste are dumped to allow others to thrive more efficiently and remain oblivious.
...black people are exposed to about 1.5 times more particulate matter than white people, and that Hispanic people had about 1.2 times the exposure of non-Hispanic white people. The study found that those in poverty had about 1.3 times more exposure than people above poverty. Interestingly, it also finds that for black people, the proportion of exposure is only partly explained by the disproportionate geographic burden of polluting facilities, meaning the magnitude of emissions from individual factories appears to be higher in minority neighborhoods.
The ironic relationship between gaining privilege and increasing consumption
Of course, we all strive for a better quality of life. If you don’t have food, you want food. If you have food, you want a stove to cook it on. If you have a stove to cook food on, you want four burners. If you have four burners, you want a vent hood, a cute backsplash, and something that can pour water in your pots for you because you can’t take three steps to the sink.
If people are able to overcome poverty and discrimination to lead more comfortable lives with more access to needed goods, that is great. The irony? When people gain more class privilege or social status, culture may tell them that the appropriate way to celebrate their success is with more exuberant consumption: brand names, nice cars, new technology.
And the cycle continues.
At the end of the day, people who have nothing should want more. They are entitled to seeking a more comfortable life and having their basic needs met. But where and how do we draw the line of what is enough and what is excess? And then how do we lovingly lead those of us who can’t lift our own pots full of water back to it?
How can we reshape success so that it does not have to include excess?
Do people with more privilege have more responsibility to be conscious consumers?
Well, yeah. What do you think I’ve been setting us up for this whole time?
Privilege affords many powerful benefits: access to information, alternatives, and stability. This creates a ripe environment to seek options that cause the least harm for other people. While this can take time and money, those who already have their basic needs met need only to compare their gain from a cheaper, more convenient product, to the suffering of whoever produced it. Usually, the gain does not justify the suffering.
No one has to make themselves uncomfortable, just ask questions and do what's within reason. I’ll liken it to a favorite definition of veganism, in which there is an important line:
“Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals…”
That’s what we should strive for in all of our material consumption, doing our best to reduce suffering as far as we possibly and practically can.
It’s also similar to the Effective Altruism “giving what you can” concept, in which people do good by donating 10% of their income to charities. The more money you make, the more you are in a position to contribute (and the less it affects your life to do so).
The great thing about the consumption version: causing less harm with your consumer decisions can cost you less, not more, as a solid method is just to consume less.
If you’re reading this on your phone or laptop, you likely in some way belong to a privileged class by way of income and information (if not by country, race, gender, or sexuality). How might you (and I, we) use that privilege to connect more deeply with the items we consume and make alternative, least harm choices when available?
For starters, you can hope over to the conscious considerations page for insights into companies and industries that are working on reducing suffering. Leave your thoughts on privilege and responsibility below.