(image credit: JD Byrne)
Thanks to the development of online spaces and communities, we have platforms that are free, relatively easy to use and access, where anyone can (theoretically) gain more reach for their ideas and their art. Even someone with few resources can often find a voice, and a reach, something to hold onto and a community for connection. Grassroots activism is still possible.
This is a wonderful thing.
Remember: I’m old enough to remember a pre-internet era. And I believe the internet has changed our lives – mostly for the better. (“…with a lot of complaints”).
One major difficulty in online entrepreneurship is the tendency for America’s twin-evils of White Supremacy and Capitalism to corrupt even the most well-meaning artisans and influencers. Voices and brands begin to strive for earnings/views/Follows/Likes – over their ethics. I can’t count the number of times a social-justice platformer has happily announced a new merch line – manufactured in a literal sweatshop! I see it daily.
Sadly, these practices are the norm – not the exception. Toss a stone and you’ll hit a thinkpiece which reassuringly absolves us of our ethics: they’re not practical, after all. We can do more good with more numbers. (…Right?)
Thus as an ethical (or “ethical”) brand gains traction, they start making more money. And as the brand makes money, it lets their values degrade – and makes excuses for abandoning them. Rather than re-tool their profit margins and commit to slower but fair and sustainable growth, they will (understandably!) cite the pressure and overwhelm of said growth, and take the proffered shortcuts.
(Before I go on: all is not lost! Here is a recent, beautiful redaction and apology for such a shortcut!)
When a brand, artist, or Creative sets down this path – if the brand is not very careful – this in turn will corrupt what used to be a healthy support community. The passionate audience the brand so relied on in early days, begins to disintegrate. They may have the numbers, but meaningful integrity has been lost. Concomitantly, as the brand’s scope blows up, the brand feels it doesn’t need to take each conscientious voice seriously. The brand waits for a large-enough outcry in their commentariat, before making a change (or at least, pretending to make a change, or making a change for the optics). The brand gets sour: “Why should we care about every little complaint? See? You can never make these people happy! They just don’t get it! It’s harrrrrrrd to run a business!” (Spoiler alert: yes it is!)
It’s a cycle: and the cycle perpetuates an abandonment of ethics. The new drive has become about earnings, big contracts, corporate checks – and about sweeping values and practices under the rug.
I’m here to tell you: your ethics should keep you up at night on occasion.
Complicating this: as an ethics-based (or “ethics”-based) brand grows more successful (or perceived to be), so does audience resentment and entitlement! Especially if the brand is not offering “accessible” pricing or catering to each whim of each would-be customer. In that way success (or perceived success) is a double-edged sword. It will get you adorers and star-fucker fans – but it will also foment a culture of internet anonymity and a resultant festering of entitlement, jealousy, and bad behavior.
At this point you’ve successfully degraded your own ethics – and torn your community down, as well.
I’ve seen it time and time again.
My solution to the lost-ethics conundrum, and to a poisoned audience, has been to do something very very different than any template I’ve ever seen:
I focus on growing slowly, and mindfully.
It’s a pretty radical approach. And not one I see receiving support or even much discussion. So I’m writing this piece, to support you.
Yesterday as I sat in a restaurant with my family – for my eldest child’s twentieth birthday – an advertisement for a huge, huge clothing brand came up on the HD television. It featured a “social justice” platform influencer, posing in the brand’s fashion – a well-known fashion giant repeatedly cited for human rights violations of their overseas employees, with a track record of “poverty-wages in sweatshop conditions” (source: Oxfam). I remember following the featured influencer in the commercial long before they got these kinds of contracts. Back then they spoke a lot about socialism, leftist goals, about radical empowerment for the oppressed. Now in a few hours’ work for a TV spot, they were making more than the yearly salary of the garment worker busting her ass to produce these low-quality fast fashion pieces. And on the influencer’s platform, not one peep about the worker ethics of the brand cutting the check.
It would be ludicrous for me to judge any particular influencer, artist, or Creative for engaging in a professional relationship with a corporation. And I’ll tell you why:
First: I’m not being asked to! Until this influencer seeks me out for client services, it’s a tiny bit irrelevant what I think. Second: I am not an expert on corporate contracts, and while interested in the topic it will never be my primary focus. Third: I do not have insight into this influencer’s values – only what they used to type on the internet, before they made it big.
I’m not here to talk about that influencer, or talk to them, because they’re not asking me what I think.
I’m here to speak to you.
I’m here to tell you: No. No, you don’t ever have to sell out. Not if you don’t want to. I promise.
Do “ethical” influencers and brands put the paycheck first? Many do. It’s tragic, but it’s just the truth. As one of my favorite thought-leaders Christopher Sebastian says, “We have to survive capitalism” – and he’s right. The system itself is monstrous, corrupt, and endemic. I can’t criticize someone for losing their way – and I can’t and don’t claim a purity outside of Capitalism, either.
But what is this “survive” business if we’re well past the point of “survive” and now receiving tons of swag, exposure, social clout, and dollars – while resolutely ignoring the operating practices of those paying the bills? Typically when a brand or influencer is called out for selling out to corporate interests they write a long-winded Instagram caption along the lines of “no ethical consumption under capitalism” (I’ve heard this called “the leftist’s version of the phrase, ‘thoughts and prayers’,” lol)! It’s a bit hard to take when you know the apologist herself is making a lot, a lot of money.
I won’t abandon my ethics just because the system is fucked, and I don’t think you should, either.
Thich Nhat Hanh once told us: “my actions are my only true belongings”. You’ll always find a reason to sell out, or to be less truthful, or to let people down because you can justify it, because it sounds good on paper. You can always tell yourself you deserve this bigger check or to get a flight to ___ because you worked so hard to “make it” – and you’re owed.
You’ll find a lot, if not most, Americans agreeing with you. Get your coin! Who cares who you step on?
But the person whose opinion you care about most, is your own.
I recommend investing in that relationship.