Capitalism makes it hard to feel good about buying almost anything

OPINION: So many companies that make life easier are led by people who make us uncomfortable. What are we supposed to do?

Elon Musk attends The 2022 Met Gala Celebrating “In America: An Anthology of Fashion” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 02, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

So my friend says her girlfriend owned a Tesla but returned it because it was too embarrassing to own something made by Elon Musk, founder and CEO of the company, and an eccentric billionaire who recently turned Republican. At this point, becoming a Republican is like joining a war against the rights of women and Black, brown, and LGBTQ people. Joining the increasingly lunatic right now makes it certain that you’re not an ally, so how could we support Musk’s company? 

To my friend, I said, I feel you. I get it. But if we can’t own a Tesla because Musk is problematic, then what can we own or use? Being a consumer nowadays is challenging because we know a lot about the people who run our largest companies and that means we know a lot about how gross some of them are.

I’m not going to lie, I want a Tesla. It’s a cool car, but I too find the company’s CEO so intellectually distasteful that it gives me pause about buying his product. I can get past Musk. I rationalize it by thinking he’s not deeply involved in the company anymore, but I respect people who say they can’t get past Musk and his politics. 

This is a constant problem in modern capitalism—we’ve glorified and lionized the leading CEOs and top entrepreneurs as if they were the winners of capitalism or something. We’ve created movies like Steve Jobs and The Social Network and TV shows like WeCrashed and The Dropout and documentaries and books that document the personalities of the kings and queens of capitalism that tell us about their business exploits, their genius minds and their eccentricities. When we know everything about someone, we just might know too much—certainly enough to dislike them immensely. 

A lot of people in the top 1 percent support Trump and far-right causes, and it makes us sick to support them because if we do then are we not ultimately funneling a little of our money into causes that we hate? Many of us also patronize companies that have business practices that disgust us, and we’re tortured but find them hard to avoid. Their products are so good or their services are so convenient that shopping elsewhere could be more work than we’re willing to do. It’s like the great writer Roxane Gay famously wrote in Bad Feminist about being disgusted by R. Kelly but still unable to deny the incredible beat of the “Ignition” remix. I know the feeling. So can we still love and/or use a product or a brand even if we dislike the politics of the owner or CEO? 

Almost everyone uses Amazon. It’s so quick and cheap. But the company Jeff Bezos runs has been accused of creating sweatshop conditions in those warehouses that are critical to the company’s success. People have called working in the warehouses akin to being in prison. They say the management practices are oppressive, the pay is terrible, the expectations of speed are high, the surveillance is obtrusive, and the company is fighting hard against the unionization movement that would give the workers a little more power. 

I talked to Christian Smalls of the Amazon Labor Union for my podcast Toure Show and he said Amazon has workers attending hourlong sessions where they listen to anti-union speeches. Amazon is fighting so hard against unionization that it would rather sacrifice productivity and have the workers off the floor than risk a union forming. It’s already happening, but it’s slow going partly because Amazon tends to fire warehouse workers after a few months thus keeping them from getting benefits or developing seniority. Workers shouldn’t be treated this way. 

No one wants to see workers exploited. If you don’t want to benefit from that then you ought to avoid Amazon. But daily shopping via Amazon is so easy. Call me weak, but a lot of people won’t go out of their way to avoid certain companies that don’t align with their principles. In many cases, it’s too hard to remember which companies are horrible. Maybe you have an internal struggle about purchasing from Amazon, and it’s like your head versus your heart, or maybe it’s like two different consciousness inside you at war. You want to do things that foment good in the world, but you know that Amazon is so quick and they make it so easy to get whatever, whenever. But If you use Amazon, you’re further empowering a company whose values you dislike and that feels terrible so…???

In this Sept. 19, 2019, file photo, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos speaks during his news conference at the National Press Club in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

Starbucks is an important daily beverage for millions. The stores are so popular that many baristas believe they deserve more money, more safety at work and more respect from corporate. They’re fighting to unionize. Workers are right to demand to be respected by the company they work for. Yes, workers should be grateful to have a job, but companies should be grateful to have workers. They should treat them right. The Starbucks unionization movement is growing even though the company is engaged in union busting. Is that what you really want to support?

If you like going to Bed, Bath & Beyond, one of the best home stores in the universe, a place filled with thousands of things I want—well, you have a problem. The head of the company that owns Bed, Bath & Beyond is Lex Wexner, who was close to and helped create the monster that was Jeffrey Epstein

If you still like Quentin Tarantino’s classic films you have to remember they were produced and financed by Harvey Weinstein.

Kanye supported Trump during his re-election campaign. We ain’t forgot. He might still support Trump even now. Can you listen to his music without remembering that? I can’t. 

So let’s say you’re strong enough to avoid Amazon, Tesla, Tarantino, Kanye and Bed, Bath & Beyond—I wish I knew what that kind of strength looked like. But try to avoid the long tentacles of the Koch Brothers, Charles and David, who died in 2019. Two multibillionaires who were huge backers of GOP candidates and right-wing causes. Their money is at the heart of the modern right. But can you avoid your money going to them? It’s hard. They own Georgia Pacific, which makes wood, Dixie Cups and Angel Soft toilet paper. They also deliver a lot of the HVAC systems in this country. You may be able to sidestep that stuff, but in reality, you couldn’t avoid Koch Industries if you tried. You don’t even have a choice because they’re so deeply embedded in the corporate world—they make machines that automakers need and supply telecom infrastructure to lots of companies. 

Also, they own an electronics manufacturer that’s critical to, uh, Apple, which a lot of us love and have brand loyalty to and perhaps use as part of our identity. I mean, we don’t just use their phones, their computers and their watches. Using those things is part of how we want to be seen in the world just like wearing Gucci or Supreme. But Apple manufactures our phones and stuff in sweatshops in China and avoids paying taxes on billions in earnings by hiding money in tax havens, so, as much as we like Tim Cook…

It’s so hard to shop in a world where so many companies and CEOs are so immoral. To be a modern consumer is, at some point, to be a hypocrite. You will probably have to violate your principles or your political values in order to use anything. We haven’t even talked about eating meat or wearing leather. I wish I could have all my buying choices match my principles but I can’t. Can you? 

The world is too interconnected, too messy, to be able to separate out all the bad companies. There are too many webs of interlocking multinationals to be able to see who they are. I quit rooting for the New York Jets when I found out that their owner loves Trump. I couldn’t take it anymore. But I still listen to Kanye. I can’t help it. I remember why I’m mad at him, just like I never forget why I dislike Musk and Bezos and them, but I can’t quit Kanye’s music. I can disagree with him, but I can’t let go of his music.


Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U. Look out for his upcoming podcast Being Black In the 80s.

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