Pluralistic: 16 May 2022

Today's links

A blurred image of a woman working on a food assembly line; in the foreground is a human male figure; from the waist down, he is a normal pair of legs and a hand holding a shopping bag bearing the logo of Amy's Kitchen; from the waist up, he is the engraved portrait of Benjamin Franklin from a US $100 bill.

Amy's Kitchen, a case-study in the problems with consumerism (permalink)

As theories of change go, consumerism has a lot going for it. "Voting with your dollars" cuts out the middleman: rather than voting for a politician and hoping that they do the right thing, you can just reward good companies directly by buying their products (and punish bad companies by not buying their products).

But voting with your dollars has some obvious deficits. The first one is that you can't shop your way out of monopoly capitalism. If you don't like how Walmart's predatory pricing and fat tax breaks let it drive every business in town out of business, you're stuck. After all, every other business in town went bust, and you still need stuff.

The next one is that dollars are not evenly distributed. In a country where most Americans can't afford a $400 medical emergency, the flow of dollars to a business is no marker of democratic legitimacy. A million normies can boycott a business but if a billionaire shops there, their "votes" are washed away.

There's another defect, though, that's a little less obvious. When you stop voting with your ballots and start voting with your dollars, then the companies that get your dollars can capture your political representatives (this is even easier if the company has a monopoly). Once the political system is on the company's side, you lose the ability to vote with your dollars, too.

Like, say a company claims that it is "good for the environment" and thus deserves your dollar-votes. How do you know they're telling the truth? Maybe they're like the "green" credit card Aspiration ("Make your dollars make a difference") whose claim of planting 35 million trees is just a lie:

Aspiration's 35 million trees includes "the cumulative total of to-be planted trees" which its "partners" will plant. But the partners' numbers don't match Aspirations' numbers. And some partners won't give you the numbers, because they're a secret. I'm guessing they're not keeping it a secret because they're done really well and don't want to spoil the surprise when they reveal their tree data.

Or take carbon offsets. In theory, you can board a jet, buy an SUV, or run your backyard patio-heater and still not hurt the planet, merely by buying enough carbon offsets to incentivize companies to scale back their emissions. In theory. In practice, carbon offsets are also lies.

Companies – and even charities like the Nature Conservancy – get millions in carbon offsets by promising not to log forests that no one was allowed to log in the first place. They get offsets for not logging forests that have burned down. If an offset fights climate change, it's purely coincidental.

Then there's "ESG" – investment funds that claim to be a way to save for retirement without rendering the planet uninhabitable by the time you're ready to retire. These, too, are fraud-magnets that don't live up to their claims. Up until a couple months ago, some of the best-performing ESGs you could buy
were heavily invested in Russian gas and oil:

To the extent that voting with your wallet works, it depends on you knowing what you're buying. Traditionally, we look to the government (e.g. consumer protection agencies) to make sure that we're not tricked into buying crap disguised as gold.

Neoliberal ideologues don't like this at all. The dominant doctrine of the past 40 years is that governments are liable to "capture" and that they should be replaced by private-sector alternatives. So we draw down securities regulation (which ban certain financial products) and ramp up private bond-rating agencies (which purport to tell you which financial products are sound). It works great, until the rating companies get captured by the bond issuers, and then you get the Great Financial Crisis.

There was a time when limited liability companies were rare, highly regulated, and subject to close oversight. After all, limited liability is a potential financial weapon of mass destruction, because it lets corporate owners inflict harms on customers, workers and bystanders and escape the consequences.

But as the number of limited liability companies exploded, that kind of tight regulation and oversight was no longer practical. Instead, we looked to private entities to sort the good companies from the bad ones, effectively producing "voters' guides" for people hoping to vote with their dollars.

The zenith of this was the creation of the B Corporation, or "Public Benefit Corporation," a kind of company that was formally exempted from prioritizing making money for its shareholders, in favor of doing good for the world. B-corps are certified by B Lab, a nonprofit.

Some of the B-corps that B-Lab certifies are doubtless great. Others are manifestly not. Take Amy's Kitchen, a groovy organic/vegetarian packaged goods company whose workers complain of being maimed and abused (and fired for complaining), and accuse the company of treating allergen contamination as "a joke."

Writing about Amy's dire labor conditions for The American Prospect, Jarod Facundo tells the story of Amy's employee Maria del Carmen Gonzalez, whose severe job-related injuries were ignored and exacerbated by her employers. Ms del Carmen Gonzalez is just one of many workers in similar situations.

Some of them have worked for the company for more than a quarter of a century. They report brutal working conditions – being given four hours to complete a packaging task that takes nine, or being made to assemble 72 plates per minute for six hours straight. They experience high levels of on-the-job injuries, which the company's inadequate health insurance can't treat. They are denied the safety-mandated breaks at 30 minutes and station rotations at one hour.

When workers can get surgery to treat their work-related injuries, Amy's forces them to take on work that their surgeons have told them not to do. They report "several injured women on the job on a given day." Their work environments have inadequate HVAC and rise to dangerous temperatures. New hires aren't trained in evacuation protocols and emergency drills fail – but nothing is done. Emergency exits are blocked by piles of supplies.

One 17-year Amy's veteran was hit on the head by a falling pipe and developed a seizure disorder; after she was sent home following a workplace seizure, Amy's fired her. The company sent her a letter claiming she had voluntarily quit.

OSHA has sanctioned Amy's on multiple occasions, with fines and settlements totaling more than $100,000, but the company's workplace conditions continue to risk the lives and health of its employees. When the workers gave up on getting Amy's to recognize their concerns, they began a union drive. In response, Amy's – a "public benefit company" – hired Quest, a pricey union-busting company.

The worker complaints from Amy's are just the tip of the iceberg. The company forces its employees into nondisclosure agreements, so most do not speak, and when they do, they usually speak anonymously.

Back to the problem with voting with our wallets. B Lab certified a Amy's despite its nondisclosure agreements and inadequate health-care, and that certification remained intact despite $100,000 in OSHA fines and settlements after multiple incidents. Today, the Teamsters are calling on B Lab to revoke the certification, but they shouldn't have to. No company that binds workers to nondisclosure about working conditions and food contamination should get certified as a "public benefit corporation."

To be fair, B Lab shouldn't have to look into whether a company maims its workers, or provides inadequate health care, or stacks boxes by the fire exit, or fires workers who've become permanently disabled on the job and then lies to them, claiming they quit. This stuff is – or should be – against the law.

But you can't get the law enforced – or reformed – by voting with your wallet. You can't even vote with your wallet unless you first vote with your ballot, and create a strong, accountable public system that prohibits unethical and dangerous business practices, and then enforces those prohibitions.

"Vote with your wallet" is often code for "if you don't like that company, don't buy its products." This is such an impoverished way of thinking of yourself, as a consumer rather than a citizen. There's no dignity in being an ambulatory wallet. Your power comes from democracy, not spending. To the extent that spending is a source of power, it's only because the democracy came first.

(Image: Anthony Quintano, CC BY 2.0, modified)

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Creative Commons Emerging Tech conference demo with Lisa Rein, Matt Haughey and Aaron Swartz

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#20yrsago Roll your own tampons

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#15yrsago Crybaby Scientologists call reporter a “terrorist”

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#15yrago Gonzales proposes criminalizing “attempted infringement”

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#10yrsago Advance praise for Pirate Cinema

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#10yrsago Forming: dirty Gnostic creation-myth comic of high and lavish weirdness

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#5yrsago Across America, employers are using noncompetes to claim ownership of employees’ skills

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#5yrsago The strange, mutating story of “willpower” and what we think it might be as of right now

#5yrsago America’s top cop-killing domestic terror threat is far-right “sovereign citizens” and militias

#1yrago Who owns the covid vaccines: Socializing risk and privatizing gain for fun and profit

#1yrago Big Pharma's vicious battle against universal covid vaccination

#1yrago The S&L crisis perfected finance crime: The best way to rob a bank is to own one

#1yrago Uber (Ch)eats: Innovation in tax evasion

#1yrago The Democratic establishment: Rahm Emanuel is why we can't have nice things

#1yrago A weapon of mass financial destruction: Your pension is funding the destruction of the real economy…and itself

Colophon (permalink)

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