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Trashy Women: What does Garbage Have to do with Feminism?

Trashy Women: What does Garbage Have to do with Feminism?

H. Bradford

4/14/17


Each month the Feminist Justice League (formerly the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition) hosts a feminist frolic.  The goal of these events are to build community, educate one another, grow in our feminism, and enjoy the outdoors.  Our frolics are not well attended, but I think they are worthwhile since they challenge me to educate myself and others.  This month, we will be doing geocaching and trash collection at a local park.  This is a great way to learn how to geocache while engaging in environmentally focused volunteerism.  However, I was uncertain about the educational component of the activity.  I wanted to connect trash collection with feminism, which honestly, is not a topic that I have ever given any consideration.  Thus, this essay is an attempt to unify feminism with trash. s-l225


Trash in the Context of Capitalism:

First of all, it is useful to frame the problem.  Each person in the United States produces about 4.3 pounds of solid waste a day, amounting to 243 million tons a year.  Of this, in 2009, 1.5 pounds of waste per person per day was recycled (Pearson, Dawson, and Breitkopf, 2012).  The United States produces the most waste of any country in the world.  Though, waste production and disposal is a global problem.  The more industrialized and urbanized a country becomes, the more waste it produces.  For instance, before 1980 in Katmandu, Nepal, 80% of household waste was derived from kitchen waste.  This was disposed of through composting pits.  With increased urbanization and industrialization, there has been an increase of non-compostable waste, but the country lacks the waste management infrastructure to attend to it.  Thus, it ends up in rivers, roadsides, and vacant lots (Bushell and Goto, 2006).  Similarly, owing to increased development and economic growth, China has become the second largest producer of waste in the year. China has a population that is four times greater than that of the United States, but still produces less waste.  While we produce over 250 million tons of waste by some estimates, China produces 190 million tons.   Although China produces the second most amount of waste, it is important to note that like Nepal, much of that waste is food waste.  In China, 70% of the waste that is produced is food waste.  Typically, in developed countries, about 20% of waste is food waste (Van Kerckhove, 2012).  Thus, it can generally be said that the United States produces a lot of waste, as all developed countries do.  Development can be connected to waste production.  At the same time, as a country develops, the type of waste it produces changes from mostly food wastes to other wastes.


It may be easy to blame development itself on the production of waste, but this is not entirely true.  Waste is the outcome of development within capitalism.  Consider for a moment that U.S. supermarkets throw away 2.5 million tons of food a year.  This number is obscene, considering that many people in our country go hungry or lack access to food.  Why would so much food go to waste?  Capitalist production seeks to produce value.  This sounds a bit complicated, but consider that everything is given value from labor.  Labor is invested into the production of everything, though because of alienation from labor, the labor that went into each product or service is fairly invisible to most of us.  In strictly Marxist economic sense, the value of something is the amount of labor that went into the production of something.  Thus, an apple’s value could be expressed in minutes or hours of labor invested in caring for the apple tree, picking the apple, shipping the apple, or arranging the apple in the produce section at a store.  All of the food at a grocery store that is thrown away, certainly has use value to the hungry, but also value in the generic labor sense.  Throwing out food means discarding the labor that went into it.  This seems terribly inefficient in the sense that people go hungry and that this seems to squander labor.  But, capitalism is a system that really doesn’t care about hunger or waste.  Capitalist production is entirely geared towards valoration or the accumulation of capital.  Again, this is a little complicated.  Valorization entails trying to extract more value from labor by increasing production.  All profits come from the excess surplus value from labor.  By producing more, a capitalist hopes to extract more profits from labor.  The bottom line is that meeting human needs is not the goal of capitalist production,  the goal is profits.  Since acquiring more profits from surplus value requires more production, capitalist production results in a wasteful treadmill of production.  That is, in the interest of profits, the economy produces more than what can be sold.  What can’t be sold is discarded as waste.  Most products are not recycled, not because people choose not to recycle, but because recycling is not profitable.  This is because recycling may involve costly inputs (constant capital) and the end product may not be made into a commodity that is sought after or imbued with as much value as the original commodity (Yates, 2015).  In short, one way that capitalism seeks to increase profits is through more production and all of this production creates waste.  Recycling of waste is not always profitable, due to such things as costly capital inputs and diminished value.  This is why as countries develop within capitalism, they produce more waste.


Another aspect of capitalist development is that not all countries develop equally.  Almost all of the world was colonized by a few European countries.  Colonies developed economies that supported the development of their colonial masters by providing cheap raw materials, cash crop economies, export based economies, markets for goods, cheap labor, etc.   After these colonies fought for and gained their independence, they remained dependent on their former colonial masters through institutions such as the WTO, World Bank, and IMF, as well as fair trade agreements and military interventions.  These systems have stymied development in former colonies.  At the same time, capitalism itself makes development challenging since these countries must compete with the already highly advanced economies of former colonial powers.  It is no wonder then that more than half of the world’s population does not have access to waste collection (Simmons, 2016).   In much of the world, impoverished people make a living from rubbish.  In Beijing alone, 160,000- 200,000 people work as scavengers, who pick through the trash in search of recyclables they can sell.  While China is the second largest producer of waste, is also the world’s largest waste importer, importing all of the waste paper products from the east coast of the United States and ⅓ of the UK’s recyclables.  In turn, the United States imports 11.6 million tons of recycled paper and cardboard from China (Van Kerckhove, 2012).  This phenomenon represents a few aspects of capitalism.  Once again, capitalism is extremely wasteful if it is actually more profitable to ship recyclables back to China to be shipped back to the United States.  Secondly, capitalism creates a lot of “have nots” in the world.  These “have nots” survive from the waste produced in our country and their own.

WC_28_WorldImp

How are these countries faring today?


Capitalism produces both waste and poverty.  Poverty and waste intersect in terrible ways.  For instance, uranium was mined on Navajo lands to produce nuclear weapons during the Cold War.  The nuclear waste was not disposed of properly and resulted in contamination of land, increased rates of cancer, and birth defects.  Various studies have found that Native American are more impacted by pollution than other groups.  For example, Native Americans are more likely to live by toxic waste dumps, have their communities be targeted as sites for nuclear waste disposal facilities, and live near superfund sites than other groups (Lynch, 2014).  Owing to the long history of genocide, racism, trauma, and the fact that one in four Native Americans live in poverty, they have less political and economic power to fight the outsourcing of pollution to their land and fight corporate power.  All poor people, ethnic minorities, and other oppressed groups are less valued in society, have less power, and are more likely to face the negative environmental consequences of capitalism.


Another way that poverty intersects with waste is that waste recycling generates income to low income individuals, which puts them at risk of exposure to pollutants.  One example of this has been the boom in electronic waste.  Electronics is one of the fastest growing types of waste in the world.  Although it only accounts for 5% of municipal waste, it is the most lucrative kind of waste because it can yield iron, gold, silver, copper, aluminum and rare earth metals.  Thus, e-waste recycling appeals to impoverished people in need money.  At the same time, the recycling process can expose workers to lead, mercury, flame retardants, and plastic chemicals.  The chemicals, elements, and compounds in e-waste are known to impact brain development in children and overall lifespan, thereby wrecking not only the health of the workers but their children and communities.  Once again, global inequalities shape where e-waste ends up, as  the United States is the number one producer of e-waste but China and Africa end up with 80% of the world’s used electronics.  There are often fewer waste and labor regulations in many of these countries.  At the same time, there are incentives to have fewer regulations since it makes the labor cheaper and economic conditions more appealing to foreign investors (Heacock, Kelly, Kwadwo Ansong, Birnbaum, Bergman, Bruné, and Sly, 2016).


Poor people and poor countries are often blamed for environmental problems.  Environmentalists often blame population growth on environmental problems.  As such, it is easy to look to the large populations of the less developed world and see future car owners, fast food eaters, and mall shoppers.  It can’t be Christmas everyday and certainly not all over the world!  It is easy to look at the developing world and see waste and pollution.  In the United States, our garbage is collected by professionals and carted away to some place out of the sight of most middle class white people.  Elsewhere, more than 40% of the world’s garbage ends up in illegal or unregulated waste dumps (Simmons, 2016).  Sometimes poor people or people from the developing world are blamed for not disposing of trash properly, perhaps because of lack of environmental education.  However, in a study of 1,512 Hispanic women living in southern Texas, the women who were less acculturated, which was measured by a self-report of use of English at home, with friends, with children, etc. were more likely to be engaged in recycling.   Researchers believed that perhaps this is because the women were more engaged in informal recycling in their home country, such as sharing clothes or recycling bottles for vases.  It is also possible that they are more aware of environmental problems that they were exposed to in their home country (Pearson, Dawson, and Breitkopf, 2012).  This is one small study, but it should be used to dispel the idea that white people of the developed world are more enlightened about the environment.  We are the ones creating the most waste, despite our smaller population.  Again, the problem is production not population.


To summarize these points thus far, capitalism is driven by profits rather than health and human needs.  It is also driven towards production in the interest of generating more profits.  This is inherently wasteful.  Not only is capitalism wasteful, it creates and supports inequalities on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, etc.  It also creates and supports inequalities between entire nations, in which a few countries are highly developed, but the vast majority exist on the periphery as supports to more advanced economies.  Poor people and poor nations are more likely to endure the negative consequences of the world’s waste, even if they are not the world’s biggest producers of waste.  As a final point on the topic of capitalism, it is important to note that many environmentalists blame consumers and consumerism for the amount of waste.  Certainly consumers do play a role in buying and discarding products.  However, this framework ignores capitalist production, which arguably seeks endless productive growth and by extension, endless waste.  Products themselves are not designed to be long lasting or durable.  This phenomenon is called planned obsolescence and means that production will always chug along because nothing lasts, parts can’t be replaced, and nothing remains trendy in capitalism.  Planned obsolescence is not a term invented by anti-capitalists, but by capitalists themselves who noted that production must continue to avoid economic stagnation.  Goods are created to be replaced.  This is why a car only lasts for 150,000 – 200,000 miles.  It is not because it is impossible to design a better car, but that the effort to design such a car is not incentivized by capitalism.  It is better to produce a car that lasts a few years and then must be replaced by a newer model.  In addition to the waste generated by the drive towards more and new products, corporations spend trillions of dollars on advertising to convince people to buy things.  This results in wasteful products, packages, ads, and production.  Finally, while consumer waste is astounding, it pales in comparison to industrial waste and military waste.  Household waste only makes up 2.5% of U.S. solid waste.  97.5% of the waste actually comes from businesses and the government (Butler, 2011).  The military plays an important role in destroying competitors, opening up new markets, consuming products, providing jobs, silencing countries and groups who do not agree with our way of things, and other functions that help capitalism continue.  It can easily be said that the production of waste is not only a side effect of capitalism, it is in many ways central to its functioning.

Apple-Planned-Obsolescence

 


 

Trash in the Context of Patriarchy:

Today, the Feminist Justice League is collecting trash.  I would like to dissect that for a moment to understand the role of patriarchy in all of this.  I have already established that capitalism creates waste and that minorities and poor people are affected more by this than groups with more power.  At the same time, globally and in the United States, women are more likely to be poor than men.  Women have less social and political power and are less valued in society.  Because of oppression, women are also more susceptible to the negative impacts of waste.  For instance, Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs are flame retardant compounds used in construction, electronics, motor vehicles, furniture, etc.  They have a tendency to accumulate up the food chain, resulting in higher levels of PBDEs in human beings.  As such, the European Union and United States have banned the use of some of these compounds.  This is not the case in the developing world, again, because of global economic pressures which reward government deregulation in lower income countries.  It is estimated that 20-50 million tons of electronic waste is produced throughout the world each year.  A single electronics recycling plant in Taizhou, China dismantles over two million tons of electronics alone and employs over 40,000 people.  As a result, snails, mud, poultry, plants, and the air around the facility had significantly high levels of PBDE’s.  When researchers took breast milk samples from women living near the facility between 2012 and 2013, they found that their PBDE levels were twice as high as samples from developed countries, higher than other parts of China, and even higher than women living near other recycling plants.  Infants exposed to higher levels of PBDEs can have reduced memory and motor functions (Li, Tian, Ben, and Lv, 2017).   In China, migrant workers from rural areas and ethnic minorities are groups often involved in this kind of labor.  However, in India, women of the Dalit caste may find themselves living near waste sites or engaged in recycling.  Women are the lowest of the low in both social contexts, so they are more likely to find themselves doing low paying, highly exploited work.  In addition to problems that infants exposed to chemicals face, women may experience fertility issues, cancer in reproductive organs, autoimmune disease,  and spontaneous abortion if exposed to heavy metals, flame retardants, and other toxins (Mcalister, Mcgee, and Hale, 2014).  Pollution itself has also been linked to the shortening of telomeres.  Telomeres appear at the end of strands of DNA and serve the function of protecting chromosomes.  Traffic pollution, fine particles, and smoking is linked to shorter telomeres.  Telomeres naturally shorten with age, but pollution accelerates this process.  In a study of 50 blood samples collected from pregnant women (controlling for age) living in a polluted area near Naples Italy compared to 50 samples from a less polluted area in Avellino, Italy, found that the women near Naples had shorter telomeres.  Telomere shortening has been connected to the aging process and to cancer (De Felice, Nappi, Zizolfi, Guida, Sardo, Bifulco, and Guida, 2012).  In sum, women are certainly impacted by the waste in the environment, especially when gender compounds with class, ethnicity, or caste in the case of India.  Because women have less economic power, they may have less access to health care.  Finally, women are responsible for producing the next generation of human beings.  Unhealthy women may give birth to unhealthy babies or may be unable to reproduce at all.   Historically and in many parts of the world, a woman is valued for her reproductive ability.  Fertility issues compromise the already shaky position of women. e-waste-3


Within the United States, women are less likely to work directly with waste management.  In fact, feminists who demand equality to men are sometimes told that they really don’t want equality as this means they will have to do hard, dirty work, like garbage collection.  Within the United States, men tend to dominate this field.  In New York City, there are 7,000 trash collectors.  As of 2008, 200 were women.  These women were honored during Women’s History Month and at least one had been working as a garbage collector for thirty years (Horan, 2008).  American women may not be socialized to look at garbage collection as a career, or perhaps, since it is viewed as a male dominated space, women are less likely to apply to those jobs.  Nevertheless, women are perfectly capable and willing to do this kind of hard work.  For example, Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, has an all female garbage collection team.  The women drive trucks, but must also lift heavy garbage cans as the job is not as mechanized as in the U.S..  The women were hired as part of an initiative to attain gender equality among various sectors of the economy and serve the area of Warren Park, a low income community within Harare.  The women seemingly took pride in their work and reported they were treated well because of their good customer service and that they were not harassed by their male counterparts (All women garbage collection team cleans up Harare, n.d.).  The picture is not as rosy for women and girls in Mogadishu, Somalia.  Two decades of instability left the country unable to institute basic governance over such things as garbage collection.  The federal government formed in 2012 sought to tackle the massive amount of garbage that amassed over the years of chaos.  To this end, it hired private contractors to clean the garbage.  Most of the people hired by these private companies are women and girls.  They are regularly sexually harassed and harangued as they work.  For instance, they are told that they should be cleaning their homes, not the streets.  The women may begin work at 5 pm and end work after 9 in the morning.  They are paid $3 a day for their work and if they do not work hard enough, their supervisor may deduct $1 from their pay.  In November 2008, a bomb planted near a pile of trash took the lives of 21 women street cleaners (Mogadishu’s unsung garbage collectors, 2016).  Even under the threat of violence and constant harassment, the women dutifully worked as there were few job opportunities available to them.

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Around the world, women play a unique role in waste management, even if this is not always evident in paid labor.  For instance, women are often in charge of household waste disposal, as they are more likely to manage household chores such as cooking and cleaning.  Women are often important consumers of products, as they may conduct shopping on behalf of the family.  This can determine the kinds of waste that a household produces.  Women often socialize children and are involved in education, which means that they play a role in promoting and passing on social values, such as recycling.  Globally, women participate in the economy as waste pickers, sweepers, and domestic workers but are less likely than men to have secure, full time employment in waste management.  Women have also been more involved than men in grassroots initiatives in solid waste management, perhaps because waste has a greater impact on their role in the household(Beall, n.d.).   As example of this, women in Kathmandu Nepal noticed all of the trash that was accumulating in their city and started up a project called Women for Sustainable Development.  One of their projects was a waste management initiative which encouraged paper recycling and pressured shop owners to move away from plastic bags (Bushell and Goto, 2006).  Similarly, in 1997, a small group of women from Dzilam de Bravo in Mexico organized to begin collecting trash and seaweed from the beaches in an organization called Las Costeras.  They wanted to beautify the beaches for tourists and turn the seaweed into compost, which they could sell to farmers.  By 2011, the group had inspired other coastal garbage collection organizations, involving over 400 participants.  The women receive small sums of money from the government for their work and also receive vegetables from farmers.  However, the women expressed that they felt stigmatized by others, since it was dirty work.  The soil of the Yucatan Peninsula is made of karst limestone and very permeable, so their composting project has actually helped to improve agriculture (Buechler and Hanson, 2015).  There are many similar examples of women all over the world who have organized in their community to clean up garbage and recycle trash into art, jewelry, or purses that they can sell.


Not only are women more vulnerable to environmental problems, studies suggest that women may be more involved in more formal and informal environmental activism than men.  This is despite the fact that women have more barriers to involvement in activism in general, due to unequal pay with men and the unequal burden of unpaid labor.  Historically, women have been more involved in environmental activism than other kinds of activism.  Research has also suggested that women are more likely to be concerned about the environment than men. Women are socialized to care for their families and be nurturing, which may lend itself to greater concern for the environment.  Of course, gender inequalities do shape how women choose to engage in activism.  In a survey of British Colombia women involved in three social movement organizations, researchers found that women were more engaged in the organizations.  The women were more likely than men to engage in recycling at home, plant trees, reuse items, compost, avoid disposable cups, buy environmentally friendly cleaning products, buy organic produce, and conserve energy.  Men did outscore women in a few areas, such as being more likely to bike or walk to work, recycling at work, and helping to maintain nature reserves or parks.   Men were more likely to sign petitions, attend protests, attend an educational lecture, do a lecture, attend a community meeting, and write letters to politicians, though women were more likely to engage in more individual activity such as donating money to organizations or buying their products.  The study found that women were more engaged in environmentally friendly behaviors, but less involved in social movement activities.  Perhaps the women did not have as many opportunities to engage in community activism or did not feel confident in taking a public role in their environmentalism (Tindall, Davies, and Mauboules, 2003).


It seems that women may take a more lifestyle approach to their activism. A 2012 UK Survey found that single women recycle more than men.  70% of women were engaged in environmentally friendly waste disposal as opposed to 58% of single men.  80% of couples engaged in environmentally friendly waste disposal, though women were believed to be the catalyst behind this activity.  This may be because of the gendered division of labor in which women are more likely to wash out cans, remove lids, and sort waste.  Buying and cooking food consists of 60% of household waste and is traditionally done by females (Levy, 2012).  In another study, data collected from 22 nations through the International Social Survey Program (ISSP) was analyzed to understand how gender shapes self-reported environmental engagement.  The study found that women were significantly more likely to engage in environmentally minded behaviors such as recycling and driving less.  All individuals in the study were more likely to be engaged in private environmental behaviors than social activism.  Even in lower GNI countries, women were more engaged in private environmental behaviors.  In higher GNI, this becomes more pronounced as women had more ability to engage in these behaviors (Hunter, Hatch, and Johnson, 2004).  Thus, it can be concluded that women are on a daily basis more engaged in lifestyle activism.  It is alarming that both men and women prefer not to engage in social movement activism and if they do, men are more engaged in this.  Social movement building is important in challenging the structures of patriarchy and capitalism which create waste, environmental destruction, and social stratification to begin with.


The fact that we chose to collect trash as a feminist group aligns with the norms of being female.  It is a nice gesture.  It is a nice way to beautify our city.  But, the lesson that should be drawn from all of this is that the problem of waste is global and systemic. Small groups of volunteers can certainly play a small role in making the world a better place, but to truly make the world a better place, we need to challenge the logic of capitalist production.  There will always be more waste to pick up since capitalism creates waste in pursuit of profits.  The most vulnerable groups in society will always be impacted the most by waste.  Social movement activism is important to realizing our collective power to challenge capitalism.  No amount of recycling, buying organic, or composting will overthrow capitalism.  These are good things and should not be shunned, but they do not challenge how capitalism operates.  Capitalism operates globally, perpetuating war, inequality, and environmental destruction.  Protests, petitions, strikes, boycotts, educational events, etc. are all tools that should be in our activist tool box.  Feminists should support and unite with other social movements such as anti-racist movements, movements for indigenous rights, and the environmental movement, as each of these challenge capitalism in their own way and we are stronger if we work together.  Picking up trash is fine, but the goal should be to throw capitalism into the dustbin of history.

capitalism_belongs_in_the_trash_by_commie_kun-db1jm0w

 


References

All-women garbage collection team cleans up Harare | Africa | DW.COM | 29.03.2016. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2017, from http://www.dw.com/en/all-women-garbage-collection-team-cleans-up-harare/a-19148073

Beall, n.d.  http://wedc.lboro.ac.uk/resources/books/Solid_Waste_Management_-_SN_5_-_Complete.pdf

Buechler, S., & Hanson, A. M. S. (Eds.). (2015). A political ecology of women, water and global environmental change (Vol. 15). Routledge.

Bushell, B., & Goto, M. (2006). Kathmandu: Women Tackle Solid Waste Management. Women & Environments International Magazine, (70/71), 60-62.

Butler, S. P. (2011, December 3). Are consumers destroying the earth? Retrieved April 13, 2017, from http://climateandcapitalism.com/2011/12/03/are-consumers-destroying-the-earth/

De Felice, B., Nappi, C., Zizolfi, B., Guida, M., Sardo, A. S., Bifulco, G., & Guida, M. (2012). Telomere shortening in women resident close to waste landfill sites. Gene, 500(1), 101-106. doi:10.1016/j.gene.2012.03.040

Heacock, M., Kelly, C. B., Kwadwo Ansong, A., Birnbaum, L. S., Bergman, Å. L., Bruné, M., & … Sly, P. D. (2016). E-Waste and Harm to Vulnerable Populations: A Growing Global Problem. Environmental Health Perspectives, 124(5), 550-555. doi:10.1289/ehp.1509699

Horan, K. (2008, March 29). City Honors Female Garbage Collectors. Retrieved April 11, 2017, from http://www.wnyc.org/story/77923-city-honors-female-garbage-collectors/

Hunter, L. M., Hatch, A., & Johnson, A. (2004). Cross‐national gender variation in environmental behaviors. Social science quarterly, 85(3), 677-694.

Li, X., Tian, Y., Zhang, Y., Ben, Y., & Lv, Q. (2017). Accumulation of polybrominated diphenyl ethers in breast milk of women from an e-waste recycling center in China. Journal Of Environmental Sciences (Elsevier), 52305-313. doi:10.1016/j.jes.2016.10.008

Levy, A. (2012, December 31). Recycling? Women have got it all sorted (and it’s wives who force their men to follow the rules). Retrieved April 09, 2017, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2255090/Recycling-Women-got-sorted-revealed-wives-force-husbands-follow-rules.html

Lynch, M. (2014, March 10). Native American People, Environmental Health and Justice Issues. Retrieved April 14, 2017, from http://greencriminology.org/glossary/native-american-people-environmental-health-and-justice-issues/

McAllister, L., Magee, A., & Hale, B. (2014). Women, e-waste, and technological solutions to climate change. Health and Human Rights Journal, 16(1).

Mogadishu’s unsung garbage collectors. (2016, January). Retrieved April 11, 2017, from http://witnesssomalia.org/index.php/14-icetheme/homepage/169-mogadishu-s-unsung-heroes-its-

Garbage-collectors

Pearson, H. C., Dawson, L. N., & Breitkopf, C. R. (2012). Recycling Attitudes and Behavior among a Clinic-Based Sample of Low-Income Hispanic Women in Southeast Texas. Plos ONE, 7(4), 1-6. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034469

Simmons, A. (2016, April 22). The world’s trash crisis, and why many Americans are oblivious. Retrieved April 12, 2017, from http://www.latimes.com/world/global-development/la-fg-global-trash-20160422-20160421-snap-htmlstory.html

Tindall, D. B., Davies, S., & Mauboules, C. (2003). Activism and conservation behavior in an environmental movement: The contradictory effects of gender. Society & Natural Resources, 16(10), 909-932.

Van Kerckhove, G. (2012). Toxic capitalism: The orgy of consumerism and waste: Are we the last generation on earth. AuthorHouse, 58-87.

Yates, M. (2015, August). Waste, Immiseration, and the Lure of Profitability . Retrieved April 13, 2017, from https://worldecologynetwork.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/yates-formatted.pdf

Trumpwashing: Corporations Against Trump?

Trumpwashing: Corporations Against Trump?

H.Bradford

2/2/17


There are a lot of confused and disturbing ideas in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.  I get it.  People want answers.  People want hope.  But, one of the more disturbing things in the past few days has been the amount of praise given to corporations that have come out against Trump’s policies.  Once again, there seems to be some confusion about how to evaluate what is just and good in society.  It seems that many people believe that anything that stands up to Trump is positive.  At the same time, anything that Trump is for or associated with is negative.  In other words, Starbucks and Nike are viewed positively because they stand up to Trump.  They are corporations.  Corporations are not our friend.  This is why.


Starbucks:

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A few days ago, Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks announced that Starbucks would hire 10,000 immigrants over the next five years.  These hirings would take place within the 75 countries.  Suddenly, Starbucks became an icon of rebellion.  Don’t be deluded.  Starbucks has 7,600 stores and 160,000 employees in the U.S. alone, so a commitment of hiring 10,000 immigrant employees in 75 COUNTRIES, really doesn’t amount to much.  Even within the U.S., it would only amount to 1.3 people per store in the next five years.  But, numbers aside, Starbucks is a non-union workplace which pays an average of $9.34 an hour for a barista and $11.65 for a supervisor.  While employees may qualify for benefits if they work over 20 hours, many of them are not given enough hours to survive.  This prompted over 11,000 people to sign a barista driven petition in California last summer, which decried the “gross underemployment” that they experienced at their jobs.  The CEO who is so adamant about standing up against Trump was also against the $15 an hour minimum wage bill in Seattle.  The store also has a reputation for using prison labor.  The company notoriously used prisoners to package its holiday coffees through a sub-contractor. So, basically, Starbucks profits from the slave labor of our largely racial minority prison population.  Starbucks has gotten a lot of flak over the years.  It is an icon of globalization and homogenization.  The company has faced lawsuits for disability discrimination, as one store refused to serve a group of 12 deaf people and an employee was accused of falsifying documents when she had dyslexia.  Starbucks has even gotten into trouble for failing to recycle its cups!  It seems that if there is a corporation that is clearly TERRIBLE, it would be Starbucks.  However, it promised to hire those refugees….so maybe we can all forget the environmental, labor, criminal justice, and disability rights issues.  The CEO did come out in favor of same sex marriage, but this does not redeem the corporation.  If anything, it is pink washing, or using LGBT support as a veil that hides other injustices.  In the same way, support of immigrants is a branding ploy to sell more coffee and hide the numerous ways in which Starbucks promotes injustice in the world.


 

Nike:

nike-sweatshops-05 Nike’s CEO, Mark Parker, came out against Trump’s immigration ban with the statement,  “Nike believes in a world where everyone celebrates the power of diversity. Regardless of whether or how you worship, where you come from or who you love, everyone’s individual experience is what makes us stronger as a whole. Those values are being threatened by the recent executive order in the U.S. banning refugees, as well as visitors, from seven Muslim-majority countries. This is a policy we don’t support.”  Well, this might seem encouraging, it does not redeem Nike from its history of sweatshop labor and environmental issues.  Just as Starbucks was equated with the dark side of globalization in the 1990s, Nike was equated with sweatshop labor.  Because of pressure from protests and boycotts, Nike has sought to clean up its image by increasing the wages of its workers and inspecting factories.  However, most of its factories continue to be located in Asia in countries with low wages, poor working conditions, and lack of union representation.  For instance, in 2014, workers at a Chinese Nike factory went on strike.  They made just over $1.50 an hour and often worked over 60 hours a week.  In response, Nike threatened to move production to Vietnam.  Nike was also accused of dumping hazardous chemicals into the Yangtze river in 2011.  Globally, ⅓ of Nike’s employees work in Vietnam.  Certainly the CEO of Nike was looking forward to the TPP, as this would have ended the $3 tariff placed on each shoe.  Trump’s backing out of the TPP was probably met sourly by the company hoping to extract more profits from Asia.  Perhaps this is where the critique of Trump’s immigration policy really comes from.  In any event, Nike may have cleaned up its image, but it continues to operate in countries with notoriously awful labor conditions.


All Corporations:

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Nike and Starbucks are on my radar this week because of their recent announcements related to Donald Trump.  I felt that I should write about them to offer some clarity on the issue of corporations.  Really, all corporations are terrible to varying degrees.  This is because all corporations seek profit.  Profit inevitably and essentially relies on the exploitation of workers.  This is the source of all profit.  Thus, corporations like Nike and Starbucks seek out the lowest wages or cheapest coffee beans (materials).  That is, they do this until enough public protest mounts and they must change their ways or risk losing business.  Or, they do this until workers organize and demand better wages and conditions on their own behalf.  In either case, there is nothing good or noble about these corporations.  If they change for the better, it is a survival strategy.  At the same time, I do not want to overstate the power of consumer sovereignty in changing corporate practices.  While you can “vote with your dollar” to some degree, due to the alienation of labor a.k.a. our separation from production, the exact conditions of production are often unknown to us.  I do not know the exact wages and conditions of Nike factories.  This is information that I must research and even then, it is not always easy to find.  Since we come in contact with thousands of products each week, it is impossible to know every aspect of the production process.  Some consumers may be more knowledgeable than others, but none of us know the full picture.  Further, even if we have a good idea of the conditions of production, there are larger social forces such as trade policies, advertisement, and government interventions which play a big role in what appears in the market, how it appears on the market, and social desire for these goods.


It is true that some companies attempt to give more consideration to workers and the environment.  Some companies may sacrifice some profits to pay better wages or have better worker conditions.  Some may invest profits into better environmental practices.  But, at the heart of each company is a reliance on the conditions of the larger economy and a drive for profit.  So long as a company seeks profit, workers will not be paid the full value of their labor.  In harder economic times or under greater competitive pressure, those companies that seek to be more ethical will always have to chose between survival and profit.  At the same time, many companies brand themselves with progressive causes to attract more consumers and draw attention away from labor conditions.  For instance, Kentucky Fried Chicken put pink breast cancer awareness ribbons on their buckets.  How much does KFC really care about breast cancer or women?  What does eating a bucket of fried chicken do to further the cause of ending breast cancer?  Perhaps if KFC cared about women, they could instead provide a living wage and health benefits to workers.  Another example is greenwashing.  Everything from oil companies to bottled water companies have tried to greenwash their products.  That is, they promise consumers that their product is environmentally friendly.  Green packaging and promises of re-investment into nature trick consumers into thinking that somehow buying the product is ethical.  This newest trend of “Trumpwashing” is just the latest version of pinkwashing and greenwashing.  It is part of a corporate tradition of deceptive branding.


Trumpwashing:

The biggest lesson I want to impart in this post is simply to beware corporate driven rebellion.  The CEOs of Facebook, AirBnB, Twitter, Nike, Starbucks, Apple, Netflix, and others have come out against Trump.  Some of these, like Apple, Nike, and Starbucks, certainly benefit from open borders and free trade, especially in Asia, since this provides access to low cost labor.  While I am certainly for immigration, so are many corporations, as it provides a cheap supply of labor!  If companies know that people are angry, they will co-opt that anger by building a rebellious brand.  There is no rebellion in buying.  Thus, just because a company is against Trump, it does not make it good or ethical.  Take these corporate announcements with a grain of salt and a dose of skepticism.  In the meantime, continue to build the power of the people by organizing in protests, boycotts, petitions, labor organizing, and the like.

The Gravity of the Center: A Rant about Centrism

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The Gravity of the Center: A Rant About Centrism

H.Bradford

1/30/17

One of my fears with the Trump administration is that it will make George W. Bush look like Che Guevara.  To most people, almost anything looks like liberation in comparison to Trump.  There has been astonishing resistance to his policies and person.  Who could imagine that the National Park Service would rebel and create alternative social media accounts to promote environmentalism, science, and fight climate change?  Who would have thought that thousands people would protest at airports against the Muslim Ban or that taxi drivers would go on strike?  All of this after a women’s march of over four million participants!   There is an enormous outpouring of rebellious sentiments and participation in actions.  Yet, I worry that all this zeal will be funnelled into the same-old pro-capitalist centrism that brought us to this point to begin with.  To many, the pre-Trump status quo will look like a lighthouse of liberation.   This beacon of light is illusion.  It is the light that is suspended in time, just before the black hole at the center devours it.   Here is how one might go about identifying the center, hopefully so its intense gravity can be avoided.


 

Globalization:  

Lately, it seems that there has been a certain amnesia about the negative impacts of globalization.  Many people seem genuinely upset that Trump wants to renegotiate NAFTA and has backed out of the TPP.  While it is easy to believe that everything Trump does is terrible, it is important to evaluate each policy in their own right.  NAFTA, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 1994 was signed and supported by Bill Clinton and 129 Democrats.  Its passage launched the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico.  In a way, it was the Standing Rock of the 1990s, if Standing Rock was on steroids.  The Zapatistas rose up because they believed that NAFTA would hurt indigenous people and widen the gap between rich and poor.  They also sought land reforms and the democratization of Mexico.  NAFTA hurt Mexican farmers because cheap American corn flooded into the country, causing them to lose their livelihood and created further incentive to immigrate to the U.S.  Multilateral free trade agreements have been the way of things since the end of World War II and especially since the 1970s.  While I don’t want to discuss this point at great length, these agreements generally have negative impacts on the environment, workers, and developing countries.  Consider the EU, which is essentially a free trade agreement for Europe.  The integration of markets and currency means that member countries must play along with the rules.  So, when economies like Greece, Spain, and Italy. floundered, the EU solution was austerity.  That is, government spending had to be curtailed  Thus, in Greece, at least as of 2015, ⅔  of youth were out of work and wages were down 50% since before the economic crisis of 2008.  Free trade seeks the free movement of capital, but also labor, which leads to social strain as workers from poorer regions of Europe are blamed for taking jobs.  At the center, there is unquestioned support of globalization.  In fact, it is looked upon positively because it is shrouded in internationalism and multiculturalism.  Well, colonization and imperialism also are forms of internationalism and “multiculturalism.”  The globalization that occurs through free trade agreements and organizations is simply modern colonialism.


 

The Vilification of Enemies to U.S. Hegemony:

Another characteristic of the dark center of politics, is the vilification of enemies to U.S. hegemony.  Both Republicans and Democrats do this.  Basically, the U.S. has enemies.  These enemies tend to be countries that don’t agree that the United States is a beacon of democracy and hope for the world.  These countries might critique U.S. militarism or pose some threat to the U.S.’s military right to have over 600 bases in 148 countries.  Our number one enemy right now is Russia.  Bizarrely, standing against Russia is seen as progressive.  Much is made about Russia’s militarism and conservatism.  Recently, I saw that many progressives were sharing an article about how Russia has legalized domestic abuse.  Yes, that is truly terrible.  But how many of those people know any of the other 19 countries in the world with no laws against domestic violence?  How many are paying attention to the domestic violence laws elsewhere in the world?  Or even in our own country?  This is an example of the vilification of Russia.  Russia is a country of Neanderthals who make war, abuse women, and punish the LGBT community.  Now, I certainly am against war, abuse, and for queer liberation, but it seems suspicious to me that this critique of Russia fits very nicely with our own militant foreign policy.  Considering that the Cold War cost the United States over 5 trillion dollars in nuclear weapons and weapons spending, I am very cautious about the fear mongering over an enemy.  Villains create a wonderful justification for militarism.  Villains sell war.  They also paint us as morally superior and therefore justified in our foreign policies.


Russia has been blamed for spoiling the U.S. election.  The internet is rife with homophobic memes of Trump and Putin.  It is odd that Russia is critiqued for its LGBTQ repression and yet homophobia is used as a vehicle to poke fun at Trump.  What purpose does vilifying Russia serves?  I don’t think it is conducive to building solidarity with Russians.  We all have a shared stake in ending homophobia, sexism, and militarism.  And, at the core of this vilification of Russia is the notion that they are somehow different and incapable of democracy or peace.  Let’s remember that Russia (then the Soviet Union) was the first country to legalize abortion.  They did this over fifty years before abortion was legalized in the United States.  The Soviet Union decriminalized homosexuality in 1917.  In the United States, sodomy laws were not overturned by the Supreme Court until 2003.  Russians are capable of standing up for progressive causes. I am not a Russian apologist, but I certainly can’t stand the vilification of a country.  If we want to change the world, we should first look in the mirror.


War:

 

Closely related to the vilification of certain countries is endless war.  Both parties have stood for war.  War goes unquestioned, as if it is an American right to destroy the world.  The thing that I dislike the most about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was their commitment to war.  President Obama authorized ten times the drone attacks than his predecessor, George W. Bush.   Yet, he is seen as just and the embodiment of hope.  His administration normalized drone attacks and certainly ended the hopes and dreams of the 3,000 + people killed by them.  74% of the U.S.casualties in Afghanistan actually came after 2009, when Obama sent more troops to that country.  If Trump increased the troops in Afghanistan, wouldn’t we be raising a raucous?  Often times, there may be peaceful solutions.  Muammar Gaddafi actually wanted to negotiate to step down from power.  Yet, war and regime change in Libya were sought anyway.  And when it was all over, Hillary Clinton said, “We came, we saw, he died.”  Perhaps Trump won because the alternative is repulsive.  At the very least, I am repulsed by U.S. war mongering, whether it be from Democrats or Republicans.  A person can’t really be pro-environment or pro-women if they are pro-war, or at least quietly ignore that war is occurring.


 

American Exceptionalism:     

An idea that drives our war making, foreign policy, and domestic policy is that the United States is exceptional.  John F. Kennedy said, “More than any other people on Earth, we bear burdens and accept risks unprecedented in their size and their duration, not for ourselves alone but for all who wish to be free.”  Bill Clinton justified the war in Bosnia by saying, ““America remains the indispensable nation” and “there are times when America, and only America, can make a difference between war and peace, between freedom and repression.”  Although Obama was criticized for not actively embracing American exceptionalism, he did say “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being” to graduates of the US Military Academy.  Apparently, everyone has forgotten that American exceptionalism was supposed to be insulting.  After all, the word was coined by Joseph Stalin.  Oh well.  In any event, politicians and many Americans embrace the idea that Americans are special, with a special place in history and the world.  We’re not just another country.   This is dangerous.  It can be used to justify anything from blocking refugees from entering our country to building walls…to endless war.  It means that the people of other countries are somehow less deserving of autonomy or inferior because they are less like us.  It justifies our role as the world’s police officer.  Since most people alive today are accustomed to U.S. hegemony, it is almost impossible to imagine that perhaps the US does not have a higher mission or purpose in this world.  More fearful is the idea that we could be eclipsed by another great power.  This fear keeps us locked to the two capitalist parties.  It limits our imagination that we could perhaps have some shared interest with the people of the world in dismantling capitalistic and militaristic hegemony period.


The Invisibility of Class:

 

Finally, the dark center of politics lacks any concept of social class.  Class is an obscure concept.  Everyone is a part of the mushy, middle class.  What is the middle class?  What is its relationship to other classes?  Its relationship to capital?  Our exceptionally large middle class, whatever that may be, is another thing that makes America exceptional.  After all, look at all those other countries.  All the countries without middle classes.  They just have poor people and a handful of rich people.  If only they had it so good.  We have homes, cars, and college educations.  Nevermind that we also have credit card debt, student loans, bankruptcies, foreclosures, etc. to finance the illusion of the middle class.  Nevermind that we also have trade deals to get all those cheap goods made it sweatshops far away so we can feel wealthy at Walmart.  Or, nevermind that the middle class is nothing more than a social construct.  At best, it is operationalized by ranges of income.  But, if it were operationalized as a household making $42,000 – $125,000 a year, this says little about education, kind of work, and more importantly, role in this economic system.  It also implies that a person who makes $41,000 is working class or poor, but the person who makes $1000 is magically middle class.  This lack of a concept of class or acknowledgement of the working class obfuscates the economic well-being (or lack thereof) of this country and limits the possibility of class consciousness.  People might be encouraged to join unions or fight for higher minimum wage if they saw themselves as workers or part of a large working class with common interests.


Conclusion:

I am not sure what will happen after Trump.  I hope that perhaps this outburst of activism against him can push America further away from our xenophobia, racism, sexism, environmental destruction, and war making.  I hope that the outrage cannot be contained by the two parties.  That perhaps new institutions will arise or old ones will be revitalized.  I hope that mass mobilizations of people make the 1960s look like a 4th of July Parade.   I hope we can make 2017 look like 1917.  But, my fear is that the lure of centrism will draw people back to oppression wearing the shroud of liberation.  I worry that the old way of things…the muted version of all that is happening now, will look positively cheerful.  But, I suppose all of this depends on our ability to build movements that are independent of both parties and revitalize the labor movement.  For now, I hope that people keep on fighting.  I hope they don’t forget how to fight when it seems that things have returned to normal.  Normal is unacceptable.

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