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Human Rights Critique of Capitalism

We live in a capitalist society. This is a statement that none of us can deny, regardless of our opinions on the matter. Whether this is good or bad is not my focus here,, but nevertheless the question I asked is slightly related to it. The topic of my article is whether capitalism and human rights can coexist in contemporary society.

Profit as justification?

When you say the word capitalism, each of us probably imagines something - an economic system, private ownership, in the Czech context the change after the fall of the regime, market economy and above all the efforts of competitors to achieve the highest possible profit.

It is perfectly understandable that people want to provide not only for themselves, but also for their family and loved ones, the best possible life, which of course requires money. Money can be relatively easily obtained in a market economy, given that money is necessary for life, whether we consider basic human needs or the constantly rising prices of common products. However, it is problematic if we treat this profit only as a profit behind which we see nothing else. Is this the right way to do it?

As you can probably tell from my wording, in my opinion this is definitely not correct.

Problematic Turning a Blind Eye

I think that many of us have not only recently encountered reports pointing out the unfavourable conditions of workers, particularly in the poorer regions of South-East Asia, Africa and Latin America, the most typical example being Bangladesh.

Workers there often work long hours without breaks in overcrowded and poorly ventilated factories, earning only a fraction of what the sellers actually make. And why? There is de facto no minimum wage. Vacation? You'd be dreaming. Work standards? Oh please. [1] [2]

The problem is that these practices are becoming more and more common. The crises of recent years have brought many people to the poverty line, so they would rather work for at least a little money than find themselves in complete poverty.  And it is precisely from this that many companies profit.

In 2020, the New Lines Institute issued a report with new evidence confirming that thousands of minority members are forced to harvest cotton in this area as part of a state-led "poverty alleviation" program. What makes it even more problematic is that cotton from this region constitutes 20% of the global cotton production. [3] To maximize company profits, global companies like Zara, Nike, H&M, as well as luxury brands like Gucci, Hermes, or Versace, did not hesitate to source cotton from this area. [4] Some regulations to address this issue have been adopted, but unfortunately not to the extent they should be.[5]

Consumerism among Gen Z and Millennials?

A big problem that I also see in this area is consumerism. It doesn't have to be exclusively Gen Z or millennials [6], but I think it's most pronounced among them. Why? With the rise of social media, and indeed everything that these platforms contain, trends influencing and promoting consumerism are growing. Another possible explanation for the general increase in consumerism could be the current conditions and circumstances in which many of us are growing up. In the past, the world was not as globalized, and many countries were ruled by totalitarian regimes that completely suppressed this free behavior. In this, too, one can perceive a significant shift in society and its behavior.

One such manifestation of consumerism is trends such as the massive "hauls" [7] from SHEIN. SHEIN is known not only for its clothing, which follows and is inspired by the latest trends, but also for its low prices, even very low. What could be the reason for this? Videos with an exaggerated amount of clothing have become popular, especially on the TikTok, where people showed off their latest pieces of clothing they had purchased. The conditions in which the goods were made are not favourable in the slightest, but we could still justify the purchase, couldn't we? The most obvious problem is just how the clothes are treated afterwards. Of course, I don't want to blame every single person here, but most of the time the fate of such purchased clothing has been that either the owner wore them a few times and then threw them away/sold them or gave the clothes another "second" chance (in the better version), or the clothes were never even used because they are no longer in fashion, the person forgot about them in such quantity, or simply bought something else, better, and threw them away/sold them or gave them another "second" chance.

Another problematic trend is, for example, the "TikTok / Instagram made me buy it" category of videos, which are actually videos where someone comes up with a totally revolutionary thing that wasn't there before, nobody knew about it, and suddenly everybody needs it. Probably the most iconic thing is the Stanley cup - a big water container with a holder and a straw. Yes I get it, we all need to drink, and for some this bottle was motivation to drink when they saw it in front of them, plus the advantage of keeping the drink hot or cold for a long time. However, nothing in the end was as rosy as many people claimed. After this madness, it turned out that the cups weren't actually that good, that they leaked through the straw, or that they didn't keep the drink as cold as some claimed.

And now we come to another, perhaps even worse trend. "TikTok/Instagram dupes" are videos that try to convince people not to buy "overpriced products" from the original manufacturers, but instead to buy something that is essentially the same, just without the logo of a well-known brand. Of course, again, I can't argue that for someone who may not have enough money for an original, this is a nice alternative. But again, the problem is that the products are often priced much lower, which may mean that they are not manufactured by workers who would be paid an appropriate wage for the product. Another problem with "dupes" is the frequent copyright infringements, as the product may present itself, for example, with the same packaging, logo (with letters added/removed) or characteristic colours. Not to mention that the quick introduction of a similar product on the market just for profit can have dire consequences as it may contain unapproved/harmful substances. We can also very often assume from a quick introduction to the market that things are not of high enough quality, which leads to buying new and new, again putting a burden on the environment.[8] [9] Is it really worth it to us and more importantly, do we really need it? Is it something we can't live without?

I would conclude this part by looking at one company - Temu. Temu is an internet company that was only founded in 2022 and is already one of the most downloaded apps at the moment. Temu has also become known for its motto "Shop like a billionaire", which actually implies that we will be able to buy a lot of things (like millionaires), but thanks to Temu's constant promotions and discounts, we won't even spend that amount of money and actually save. But did we really? One thing we are definitely not saving by doing this is planet Earth. Temu itself, by this behaviour, is only contributing to consumerism, which is already a big problem at this time. Not to mention that we don't actually buy quality products, how could we for such a price, which leads to more and more purchases and more and more wasted stuff and money. [10] [11]

What to do about it?

I hope I have at least somewhat outlined this problem. If  this issue interests you, and it certainly should, I recommend being more cautious about what we buy and where it comes from. The best thing would be for each of us to shop sustainably and ethically, not just in relation to the clothes mentioned, but in relation to all goods. Surely, at this point, I would see the arguments coming up again that not everyone has enough money to buy only sustainable things / sustainable materials. Yes, I understand that, but surely a cheaper alternative can be shopping in second hand shops and second hand in general, for example. I think that these options are already quite widespread in our country too, and it is certainly much better not only for your wallet, but also for the workers, who get almost nothing in return, and the environment, which must not be neglected.

A good way to learn more about this issue is generally through further education, which will certainly be helped by films and documentaries, of which there are many, although they mostly deal with fast fashion and its implications. For example, the movie The True Cost follows stories from several countries that depict the negative impacts and catastrophic consequences of fast fashion [12] a jejími dopady. Například film The True Cost sleduje příběhy z řady zemí, které zachycují negativní dopady a katastrofické následky fast fashion [13], or the documentary The Machinist, which follows the lives of workers who produce clothes for global brands such as H&M and Zara in factories in Bangladesh [14].

But to answer my own question, yes, I believe it is possible for human rights and capitalism to coexist. Although my critical view of the whole contemporary approach may seem very negative, I believe that we can still achieve a balance. What is important is that the people who profit from this human suffering see that we do not like the situation and are forced to change their attitude and the limits of what they are willing to do for profit. Yes, I know it's easy to say, but we need to start doing something about it and I remain optimistic that something can still be done.

 
Human Rights Critique of Capitalism - Magdaléna Milbachová
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Suggested cittion: Milbachová, Magdaléna, Lidskoprávní kritika kapitalismu, CHR - Student Blog, 7/1/2024, https://www.chrprfcuni.com/post/human-rights-critique-of-capitalism

 

[1]  BURKE, Jason. Bangladesh garment workers suffer poor conditions two years after reform vows. The Guardian [online]. 2015 [cit. 2024-01-05]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/22/garment-workers-in-bangladesh-still-suffering-two-years-after-factory-collapse

[2]  Bangladesh: Abuse of workers’ rights on increase, warns ITUC. The ITUC [online]. 2021 [cit. 2024-01-05]. Available from: https://www.ituc-csi.org/bangladesh-abuse-of-workers-rights?lang=en

[3]  ZENZ, Adrian. Coercive Labor in Xinjiang: Labor Transfer and the Mobilization of Ethnic Minorities to Pick Cotton. New Lines Institute [online]. 2020 [cit. 2024-01-05]. Available from: https://newlinesinstitute.org/rules-based-international-order/genocide/coercive-labor-in-xinjiang-labor-transfer-and-the-mobilization-of-ethnic-minorities-to-pick-cotton/

[4]  These Brands Are Still Linked to Uyghur Forced Labor. Help Stop Them Now. Save Uyghur [online]. 2021 [cit. 2024-01-05]. Available from: https://www.saveuighur.org/these-brands-are-still-linked-to-uyghur-forced-labor-help-stop-them-now/

[5]  SMITH, Alexandra. Can Human Rights And Capitalism Ever Be Truly Compatible? Human Rights Pulse [online]. 2021 [cit. 2024-01-05]. Available from: https://www.humanrightspulse.com/mastercontentblog/can-human-rights-and-capitalism-ever-be-truly-compatible

[6] People commonly referred to as Gen Z are those born between 1997 and 2010 (some extend this up to 2012), while millennials are those born between 1981 and 1996, although these boundaries should be taken with caution.

[7]  These are mostly videos where people show what they bought.

[8]  KHAN, Coco. Are knock-off fashion ‘dupes’ unethical? We ask an expert. The Guardian [online]. 2022 [cit. 2024-01-06]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2022/may/20/are-knock-off-fashion-dupes-unethical-we-ask-an-expert

[9]  BELL, Amelia. What You Need To Know Before Buying Beauty Dupes. REFINERY29 [online]. 2021 [cit. 2024-01-06]. Available from: https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/beauty-dupes-ethical-problems

[10]  MURRAY, Conor. What To Know About Temu: New Chinese-Owned Fast Fashion App Draws Comparisons (Good And Bad) To Shein. Forbes [online]. 2023 [cit. 2024-01-05]. Available from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/conormurray/2023/02/17/what-to-know-about-temu-new-chinese-owned-fast-fashion-app-draws-comparisons-good-and-bad-to-shein/

[11]  OSBORNE, Hilary. Shop like a billionaire? I bought six items from Temu – the app that’s sweeping the world. Forbes [online]. 2023 [cit. 2024-01-05]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/money/2023/nov/09/shop-like-billionaire-bought-six-items-temu-app

[12] Fast fashion is a term for clothing that is an alternative to "regular" clothing, as it is cheaper, mass produced and mainly focuses on the latest trends, which makes it very appealing.

[13]  The True Cost [online]. [cit. 2024-01-05]. Available from: https://truecostmovie.com/

[14]  BLADT COHEN, Tatjana. The Machinists. IMPACT JOURNEY [online]. 2018 [cit. 2024-01-05]. Available from: http://impactjourney.org/the-machinists/

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