It might be old news to many of you now but, on International Women’s Day, I’d like to bring your attention back to a couple of things that have been brought to light in the media this year from the world of big business (and charity). Instances that not only act to keep damaging power structures in place but have also, in one case, been detrimental for women.
I’m talking about the infamous Gillette advert and the collaborative blunder that was the Spice Girls/Comic Relief t-shirt.
Both are examples of modern capitalism trying to fool us into believing that the system is “on our side”, whilst simultaneously embedding the very structures which are oppressing women, creating inequality and fueling toxic masculinity.
Let’s start with Gillette. Whether you liked the advert or not really isn’t the point. The fact, here, is that the public needs to be awake to how modern business is trying to commercialise social movements (like feminism) in order to make money and further cement their power. It used to be that companies like Gillette helped to sell the “American Dream” with depictions of traditional gender roles. Now that’s no longer cutting through, they’re jumping on the #MeToo movement.
It is well-known that one of the aims of advertising is to harness public debate to legitimise further extraction of profit by big business. And business has always been privy to the fact that selling identities is an important way of motivating consumers to buy products and retain brand loyalty. Adverts like the one we’ve seen from Gillette might seem revolutionary, but we’ve been here before. Virginia Slims, anyone?
Then there’s the Spice Girls and their t-shirts for Comic Relief which were found to be made in sweatshop conditions. You might have thought the Spice Girls would stop right there, but just last week Baby Spice was spotted promoting another charity tee made in an exploitative factory. The criticism directed at these charities and the Spice Girls is absolutely justified, but are we really surprised? Modern charity, like modern business, is hopelessly tied up in the current mess.
Although most charities would tell you that their aim is to do themselves out of business, they are so focused on short-term needs that they never get to tackling the root of the problem. This is how you can get a t-shirt for gender equality which relies on exploiting women’s labour in Bangladesh.
Of course, charities like Comic Relief do help to tackle inequalities and undoubtedly, they improve the lives of many women. But it’s going to take a serious amount of time to actually create a better world for women if we don’t change the system that locks in inequality. In this way, charity really is a Band Aid solution.
So, what should we do about the situation? Firstly, we need to wise up to how market capitalism operates. We can give a pat on the back to businesses that see the light, but we shouldn’t allow this to obscure the fact that it is the current structure of business that is creating the conditions of exploitation and poverty around the world in the first place.
Recognising that business can positively shape society is a step in the right direction (Gillette) but how about changing the structure of your business so that shareholder profit is subordinate to the needs of society and so drives greater equality?
Secondly, we need to back solutions which fundamentally change the way that society and the economy operates. Charity is wonderful in its own way (and is vital in the current state of affairs), but individual organisations are restricted by their legal structure and a culture which puts short term needs of beneficiaries ahead of long term reform.
Reforming business and promoting new models such as social enterprises, which have an express mission to create a better society and protect our planet, are more likely to bring about change because they reshape our economy. Social enterprises are turning modern capitalism on its head, putting people and planet before shareholders. Rather than charity which seeks to mop up the mess left by the market, social enterprises are providing products and services that are helping to build a better world.
As consumers, backing this solution means that instead of buying that charity t-shirt which might later fund work to help those same women it just exploited, or the tokenistic one that says “We Should All Be Feminists”, what we should all really being doing is supporting businesses that are creating a better, more equal society. That being said about the slogan tee, if you do want to add fun feminist quotes to your outfit, I can recommend this bag. It was created in collaboration with feminist wonderwoman Caitlin Moran and made by Freeset – a social enterprise that provides fair work and training opportunities for survivors of sexual exploitation and which reinvests its profits back into the local community. This is just one example of many businesses that are making products creating positive change and that support women.
There’s also Hey Girls who are tackling period poverty with their ‘buy one give’ one sanitary products – for every pack bought they give one to a girl or woman in the UK who can’t afford them. Or Juta Shoes, who make beautiful espadrilles from recycled leather which are handcrafted by migrant women facing barriers to employment, helping them access training and job opportunities. Then there’s Divine Chocolate, which is not only majority owned by the cocoa farmers who supply them, they also provide support especially for women through training programmes within their co-operative in Ghana.
What’s more, social enterprises are fundamentally challenging traditional gender roles. Over 40% are led by women in the UK. This still isn’t good enough, but it is much closer to parity than traditional private enterprise and it goes to show how closely linked gender equality is to shaking up mainstream business.
The stories mentioned here must act as a warning light, reminding us not to be deceived by modern advertising and celebrity endorsements into backing business as usual.