Alexa Nicolas | A capitalist with conviction

The Fine Print | It’s not inconvenient to be a smart and ethical consumer

· December 4, 2012, 2:02 am

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Alexa Nicolas
The Fine Print

I don’t have time to be an activist.

That might sound like a cop-out, but since we’re being honest: between lab work, organic chemistry and trying to not be a robot, speaking out about injustices and advocating for rights and equalities for marginalized groups takes a backseat to my everyday woes.

Yet recently I’ve realized it’s important to take a stake in the issues I care about.

Last week, I was making fun of a friend for wearing head-to-toe American Apparel — something I was only guilty of during my stint as a sales associate for the store. My friend challenged me to articulate his fashion crime. As I thought about how to explain my feelings, I considered this: although American Apparel certainly stands for issues I can get behind — creating jobs in America and not using sweatshop labor — its CEO Dov Charney’s history is marred with sexual harassment charges.

I remember having to sign a waiver regarding sexual harassment in the workplace along with my other employment forms. The waiver foreshadowed an uncomfortably titillating work environment in which my manager wore lacy leotards, sans bras, to consistently expose her perky nipples. We were encouraged to dress similarly.

My friend’s decision to deck out in AmAppy got me thinking about the choices I make in our hyper-capitalist nation. There is no excuse not to only be a careful consumer, but also a conscientious one.

With that in mind, I recently made the choice to swap my use of everyday Proctor & Gamble products from CVS for cheaper organic antidotes from the many ethnically named Trader Joe’s lines.

I understand we often forego our ideological concerns for the sake of convenience and shop at Urban Outfitters — after all, it is right there. Buying another revealing black tank from Urban, rather than a comparable option at any one of a gazillion online retailers that align with our views, is our choice — though arguably, online retailers are just as convenient. But if we contradict our politics by supporting Urban, which insensitively misappropriates Native American iconography and backs socially conservative groups, let’s be aware of who gets our money when we buy its attire.

So, don’t radically overhaul your life. But as you meander through checkout lines everyday, just consider what you’re buying and whom you’re supporting.

Considered from this angle, this idea is bigger than American Apparel or even the environment, as suggested in fellow columnist College junior Yessenia Gutierrez’s article two weeks ago.

Indeed, Penn provides examples of more macro-level activism. These examples are significant and sizable in scale and moreover require student support.

During the 1980s, Penn Coalition for Divestment mobilized students to ask the University to remove its investments in companies conducting business in South Africa during apartheid. In 2000, Penn students sat outside then-president Judith Rodin’s office, compelling the University to consider where its apparel was manufactured and set guidelines so Penn sweatshirts and other flashy Ivy League paraphernalia would be made sweatshop-free.

Just last year, students gathered to speak out against Penn’s banking partner, PNC, and its lending of money to companies engaging in mountaintop removal — an environmentally controversial technique involved in coal mining.

As our university is molded into a conscientious investor and principled consumer, we too should take lessons from student activist groups and think twice about where we buy our morning coffee.

For some, like College senior Meghna Chandra, a leader in Penn’s Student Labor Action Project, asking students to be conscientious consumers isn’t radical enough. Shopping our way to a better world “isn’t really getting at the problem,” she said, adding that “the real problem has to do with power and that’s not addressed in the act of consumption.”

Although we’re not overthrowing any power structures by buying Rival Brothers’ coffee at Mark’s Cafe, it’s certainly better than Starbucks.

Just because we’re busy doesn’t mean we should allow ourselves to forget our convictions.

Proximity should not preclude conscientious consumption. We need to at least consider a 21st century discussion of civil disobedience.

The free market provides a solution, but only if we let our beliefs drive our dollars.

Alexa Nicolas, a former 34th Street editor, is a College senior from New York, N.Y. Her email address is anicolas@sas.upenn.edu “The Fine Print” appears every other Tuesday. Follow her @____Alexa___

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