The Revolution Will Be Commodified

Last week, Nike unveiled Colin Kaepernick as one of the faces of an ad campaign celebrating the 30th anniversary of their iconic ‘Just Do It’ slogan. That’s something to celebrate. Kaepernick has been marginalized by the NFL and mocked by the political right for his protests against police violence in black communities. Having his face on print ads and his voice in commercials has helped reignite a national conversation about those protests and, maybe, it will encourage more conversations about these issues.

But I’m not writing this post to congratulate Nike for good marketing. Nike has been an expert at using both advertising and earned media to sell its products.

I’m writing this post to expand on something that I put on Twitter and on my personal Facebook timeline, and that generated some serious discussion. Here’s the content of the original post (on Facebook, I added an edit later):

God, I hate to be that guy, but does anyone know Nike’s current practices around sweatshops, prison labor, and environmental exploitation? Asking, apparently, for all of my friends.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like the message of the new ads. I just kind of think that the motivation isn’t justice so much as it’s profit. And we shouldn’t let an ounce of social justice sauce cover a multitude of sins.

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Let me start with some background. Most of my friends, almost regardless of what part of my life they’re from, share two things in common. First, they are strongly supportive of social justice movements in general—though different people have different issues that their own struggles are centered on—and of Kaepernick’s protests in particular. Second, they tend to be suspicious when it comes to the motives of large corporations. A lot of my friends are people who have participated—or who are participating right now—in boycotts of Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Chick-fil-A, Amazon, and other companies.

While Nike’s ad debut sparked a predictable outcry from the right, I also saw something I wasn’t expected among my friends. On the right, people were cutting the Nike Swoosh off of their socks, burning their shoes, and otherwise destroying things they owned in their frustration with Nike and with a protest that they don’t understand. Among my friends, I saw people celebrating Nike… and people bragging about how much Nike stuff they were going to buy.

One of the things I write about in my upcoming book is how capitalism shapes the ways that we think. Capitalism isn’t just an economic system that we happen to use, it involves a specific way of imagining our world. In the book, I mostly focus on how capitalism encourages market thinking: the idea that anything can be bought and sold, that assigning a price is the same thing as determining a value, and that transactions and trades are the basis for social interactions.

In the book, I focus on charity, and we can see one of the big ways that capitalism and market thinking have affected charity in the ways that charity skeptics promote a kind of compassionate capitalism as the solution to poverty. Charity skeptics are obviously skeptical about charity, but they embrace more capitalism-friendly tool like microfinance, entrepreneurship programs, and so on.

But the reaction to Nike’s ad campaign highlights another way that capitalism affects how we think, and, specifically, how we think about justice issues. I don’t have a clever name for it yet. For now, let’s call it ‘justice branding’.

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Brand loyalty is an important idea. Most of us are loyal to a few specific brands. And, once we are loyal to a brand, we tend to stick with them unless something major happens. I’ve worn Skechers sneakers for ages; I even bought the same design several pairs in a row. I drive Toyotas because I grew up with them. Different clothing items come from L.L. Bean, Old Navy, Banana Republic, and Brooks Brothers. My ice cream is Ben & Jerry’s. My tomato sauce in Newman’s Own. My computers and phones are Apple. I use Expedia for travel.

And I am fully aware of two things. First, I am psychologically locked into these brands in the same way that other people are locked into their preferred brands. They aren’t rational choices. In fact, I buy most of them because they worked once and it is almost always easier to buy the same brand the next time than it is to switch to something new. Laziness wins.

Second, most of them—if not all of them—have deep ethical problems. I know that my lifestyle is dependent on sweatshops, slavery, poverty, child labor, environmental destruction, government oppression, and dozens of other evils that I preach against on a regular basis. The fact that I am embedded in a web of marginalization, exploitation, oppression, and violence is precisely what I mean when I say that I am a sinner. It isn’t just that I sometimes break rules—though I absolutely do that, too—it’s that my very way of life relies on systems and structures that hurt others. And the fact is that I am complicit in those systems and structures.

I’ll come back to that another time. For now, I want to focus on this: justice identities are ascendant brands.

Politics has always been about a certain amount of branding. I vote for Democrats because that is usually the party that is most closely aligned with my views and that win, but it’s also true that my family has supported Democrats for as long as I can remember. I am a progressive because, well, I support the things that progressives support. But it’s also true that I grew up in a liberal family, went to liberal schools, belong to a liberal denomination, and so on. Social realities have shaped my political choices, and my politics have shaped the social circles I choose. It’s not a delightful idea, but the fact is that the way I select candidates probably isn’t that different from the way that I select tomato sauce.

In today’s highly polarized political environment, these identities are incredibly important. And that’s not only true along the Republican-Democrat axis or Conservative-Progressive axis. A lot of factors come into play to give someone an identity as pro-Kaepernick or anti-Kaepernick.

And Nike knows that.

According to Vox, Nike, “has had Kaepernick under contract since 2011, and reportedly began negotiating a ‘new, multi-year pact’ with him months ago, well after he initiated the lawsuit alluded to in the ad’s text. The timing is not a coincidence.”

Nike knew that people would be mad at the Kaepernick ads. I’m sure that Nike knew that people would not only destroy their products, but would buy their products in order to destroy them. And I’m sure that Nike knew that people would broadcast that destruction on the internet. Nike knew that it would make money from people who wanted to reinforce and broadcast their anti-Kapernick identities.

Nike also knew that people would be elated by the Kaepernick ads. I’m sure that Nike knew that people who normally didn’t buy Nike products would rush to buy Nike products in order to show their support for Kaepernick. And I’m sure that Nike knew that people would talk about that on the internet. Nike knew that it would make money from people who wanted to reinforce and broadcast their pro-Kapernick identities.

And there’s one more thing: Nike knew that each of those identities, broadcasting their actions on the internet, would not only reinforce a message to people who shared their identities, they would galvanize the other side! People would buy Nike products to destroy or wear just to own the people who were doing the opposite.

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Ethical consumerism is probably impossible. And apparel companies present a particular challenge to anyone who even wants to try to be an ethical consumer. Global supply chains are often opaque. We all know that an American brand might sell clothing made in China, Bangladesh, India, or any number of other countries. Just as importantly, that clothing might be made by en entirely different company, in a factory owned by another company, and transported by yet another company, and so on. By the time we actually get to the person sewing an item of clothing in a factory in Bangladesh, the work might have been contracted and subcontracted so many times that the American brand has no idea who is making them.

And that means that American consumers often have no idea who is making their clothes. In his book Out of Sight, labor historian Erik Loomis writes about corporate mobility in general, and puts it this way:

Corporate mobility— supported by state and federal governments through trade agreements, free trade zones, and labor law exceptions— has outsourced industrial risk to the world’s poor, separating the costs of industrial production from consumers and undermining labor rights and environmental protections in the United States and around the world.1Erik Loomis. Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe, Kindle Edition. (New York: New Press, 2015), p. 11

We might now know who is making our clothes, but the people who are making them are almost certainly poor and exploited women of color.

And when we start talking about justice identities, that matters. Nike used to have a reputation for deeply unethical labor practices that were enabled by their supply chains. At the time, Nike took the attitude that, since they didn’t own the factories, they couldn’t control what happened in them, and therefore they weren’t responsible.

Now, I’ve been assured that Nike has made major improvements in their labor practices. But they are still a multinational apparel company using global supply chains that often support labor exploitation in developing nations.

And that matters when we think about racial justice and justice identities. The question I wanted to raise in my Facebook post and Tweet is whether those of us who are pro-Kaepernick were being too eager to support the use of one of the faces of Black Lives Matter by a company in an industry that regularly exploits black and brown lives in other countries. Were we saying #AmericanBlackLivesMatter while living as though #BangladeshiBrownLivesDon’t? Were our identities divorced from our actions?

As I wrote above, ethical consumerism is probably impossible. Especially when it comes to apparel, we almost certainly don’t face a choice between good and evil. We face choices between evil and evil. But that doesn’t mean that we’re absolved of our responsibility or that we don’t have a need to repent. And while we will often fail—and I will certainly often fail—to make the most ethical decision among a selection of unethical ones, we have a responsibility to try nonetheless.

And part of that is asking how corporations and marketers might be manipulating our justice identities: are we buying something because a company is doing the right thing, or because they are creating an image that we want to be associated with?

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So, where does that leave us?

First, Colin Kaepernick appearing in Nike advertisements is a good thing and there is room for celebrating that this is happening. Hopefully, it will reignite conversations around protest, police violence, and related issues. Even if it doesn’t, it provides recognition to a figure who has been marginalized by his profession for his justice work. We can recognize and celebrate that even as we acknowledge that profit—not justice—was probably the primary motivating factor for Nike.

Second, even as we celebrate this ad campaign, we can recognize that Nike, the broader apparel industry, and capitalism in general have major ethical problems. And if we are serious about our justice identities, we cannot simply suspend our criticism in the face of an ad campaign that speaks to those identities. We can celebrate that Nike did a good thing—and we can buy Nike products—and still call Nike and ourselves to lives that are more aligned with justice and mercy.

Third, to take that point even further, those of us who are Christian can celebrate this ad campaign as a good thing done by a sinful company in a broken world. And when I say that Nike is a sinful company, I mean that it is no different from other companies or us as individuals. We are all caught in those webs of marginalization, exploitation, oppression, and violence that I mentioned earlier. And while we can strive to do our best within those webs, we are dependent on the grace of God to push us further.We can celebrate that Nike did a good thing—and we can buy Nike products—and still call Nike and ourselves to greater repentance.

Fourth, and finally, it is important to maintain our hermeneutic of suspicion when we see something that we like. It might even be especially important to maintain it then. As justice identities become more important brands, there will be more and more companies who seek to manipulate them in their advertising: who want us to align with their message instead of their practices. We should be aware of that and we should be critical in the face of that.

So, by all means, buy your Nike stuff and celebrate the ads. Just be careful about falling into the kind of thinking that appeases the pleasure centers of your brain while tarnishing your soul. Because the revolution will be commodified, and there is a difference between the substance of that revolution, and the shiny packaging that will hold a cheap imitation.

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