Ethical Capitalism, Commodities, and the Consumerist Gaze

Lisa Daily

Advisor: Paul Smith, PhD, Cultural Studies Program

Committee Members: Alison Landsberg, JP Singh

Van Metre Hall (formerly Founders Hall), #746
April 13, 2017, 09:00 AM to 06:00 AM


Ethical capitalism professes a commitment to social need, environmental sustainability, and humanitarian welfare next to the desire for profits and liberalizing markets. Offered as a corrective to the seemingly reckless damage done by unchecked capitalism, its products sit on store shelves proclaiming that they can “save a life” or “change the world” and its brands and their leaders disseminate the merits of a “conscious” capitalism. This dissertation examines the ways in which contemporary companies mobilize these ethical discourses. It investigates how and in what ways commodities and the acts of both entrepreneurship and consumption become invested with ethical-political value. Considering the increased popularity of ethical capitalism currently, it is especially important to understand how this process works. I draw on several case studies including the poverty alleviation campaigns of companies such as TOMS Shoes, female empowerment as constructed through “period-proof” panties by Thinx and related feminist brands, and finally, worker empowerment and transparency as articulated by fair-trade companies and companies like Everlane. Advertising and digital media are especially important in constructing what I call a “consumerist gaze,” which functions as the mediator of ethics, binding consumer-activists to those “in need.” I argue that despite visual and textual discourses of public benefit, solidarity, and empowerment, ethical capitalism reproduces existing hierarchies, especially between the global north and south, and often leaves intact the most untenable elements of an expansive global capitalism at the behest of surplus-value. Without entirely dismissing ethical capitalism’s positive impacts, this dissertation suggests that complex and historically-situated crises cannot be easily resolved by way of ethical capitalism's own entrepreneurial and consumerist spirit.  I show that in fact this stratagem converts collective political possibility into easily monetized ‘ethics.’ And, as such, I argue that ethical capitalism functions most productively through its projection of the promise of a better world.