This story is about hair, but it’s also about capitalism, and it’s also also about burnout.
I’m growing my hair out from a mostly-shaved head to pixie cut length, and eventually to some type of queer-coded asymmetrical bob with an undercut.
But the growing out stage is awful. If you know, you know.
My partner suggested I use a bit of hair oil and brush it in the morning so I didn’t have the bedhead that was driving me bananas. This hadn’t occurred to me. I’ve been wanting to get a soft bristled brush for his locs, to help distribute oil and keep them moisturized, keep them lint free, and otherwise just take care of his hair. And then when he started looking for one online, I was still muttering to myself about what type of brush to get.
I Googled, “How are boar bristle brushes made?” because I don’t want to use an animal product if it hurts the animal, but I do want to prioritize natural products over synthetic for environmental reasons. Turns out, the boars are domesticated and humanely sheared for their bristles. Okay, I’ll allow it.
And then he asked about hair oil. I got the last bottle we used for his hair from a Black-owned shop on Etsy.
At this point he realized “Maybe I shouldn’t order this on Amazon” and started looking for Black-owned brands. He found a shop on Etsy with beads, which he’s been wanting to try in his locs, and couldn’t tell if it was Black-owned. I asked if he found the shop through an Ad for Etsy and explained that Etsy sellers can’t opt out of ads and get charged a huge fee by the platform, so I would place the order after navigating to the shop myself.
So now we’re both on Etsy, and I scrolled to the bottom of this shop’s page to see the store owner, a white woman with locs.
This decision (buy a hair brush and oil) has gone through five layers of ethical and cultural consideration now.
- Is it better for the environment to buy synthetic or natural material?
- Are boar bristles ethically sourced without harming the animals?
- Can we reasonably make this purchase from a small business instead of a mega corporation?
- Are we ensuring that the seller will get the most fair wages from our purchase, versus having to pay for ad placement they didn’t ask for?
- Is the shop Black-owned or culturally appropriating Black hair care?
You can see why the convenience of putting a random hairbrush into an Amazon cart and one-clicking it right to your home in two days is so appealing.
And you can also see why I don’t own a hairbrush.
No ethical consumption under late-stage capitalism
I know that ethical consumption is a farce in our society. There will always be exploitation of human, animal, or planet somewhere in the system for anything we buy. But when I have the means to purchase as ethically and morally as possible, I want to do everything I can to make that happen.
I pay a little extra for books from bookshop.org if I can. I buy art from creators I find online. I buy low VOC paint to avoid harmful fumes. I look for fair trade and organic certifications.
It’s tiring. It’s hard. Sometimes it’s expensive.
When you start looking into things like cell phone and internet plans, service providers, etc., you can see that behind the rainbow logo for June, those companies may well have contributed funds to anti-LGBTQ politicians.
It’s near impossible to know, on the surface, if a purchase supports something heinous or is the real deal.
We already know that minimum wage in the United States is a poverty wage, and that many employees are kept from having full-time roles as a means of avoiding benefits. Add to that the current surge of union busting by corporations and the ongoing strikes for workers’ rights and it’s hard to know if it’s okay to buy a box of cereal on any given day.
Apps like Buycott, Good On You, and ShopEthical! are designed to help consumers make conscious choices, but this still adds to the overall mental load of what should be a simple process: Need thing, buy thing.
We often think of buying domestically over “cheap imports” is a more ethical choice, but even things made or grown in the USA may be unethical, as many corporations rely on the prison industrial complex to keep costs low. The US prison system is a rehashing of enslavement in a more culturally acceptable (and largely hidden) context, but the more you learn about it, the more you should be appalled at the low (or nonexistent) wages, lack of basic worker rights and protections, and absolute proliferation of prison labor as a corporate subsidy.
Doing your best
The easiest way to reduce unethical consumption is to minimize consumption in the first place. The old rhyme, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” is an axiom that helps remind us to use up items before they expire, wear clothing multiple times until replacements are necessary, repair or upcycle, or simply choose not to make new purchases.
But it’s also okay to want new stuff, or buy pre-packaged items, or get something to-go.
We cannot ascribe morality to minimalism and “doing without,” because, at least in my case, this is a red flag and symptom of restrictive behavior that itself can lead to burnout and shame.
It’s more important than ever to recognize that not everyone can operate at the same standard of consumption. Pre-cut and pre-packaged food, cheap delivery, plastic straws, and more have provided access and independence to people with mobility issues, chronic illness, neurodivergences, and more. When I tried to reduce my plastic consumption, it immediately relapsed my eating disorder, only I was restricting for ethics instead of calories.
You can (and should!) have your own limits and rules around brands and consumption.
You might make a few solid never-buy-here-again decisions and set boundaries with people in your life based on them. (I know many people who won’t associate with people who eat at Chick-Fil-A, and I don’t blame them).
But keeping track of every fucked up capitalist corporation is exhausting. And it might be impossible.
We are all already so tired from surviving.
This is just another way we burn out.
And if anyone knows of a resource to help with ethical shopping that doesn’t require fifty shades of Googling a brand or product, please leave a comment.
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I got a few things wrong in The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation, not least of which is that I tried to take a centrist approach to capitalism and suggest that it was just a lack of regulation that was the problem. It’s not. Capitalism runs on exploitation. But if you can forgive me that and a few other hiccups, 99% of this book is a giant millennial hug and reassurance that you’re not absolutely bananas for believing we should have a better society in the year of our lord 2022.