Behind the Green Veil: Notes from Stan Cox

Stan Cox has an excellent report on greenwashing today. It looks to be drawn from his important new book.

One of the sections of Cox’s report deals with the Body Shop, the highly-touted cosmetics corporation run by the recently-passed Anita Roddick. Supposedly a proof of the viability of green capitalism, the Body Shop turns out to have been rather less than such. As Cox explains:

For more than 30 years, The Body Shop and its CEO, self-styled anti-capitalist capitalist Anita Roddick, avidly cultivated a corporate image as pioneers of high business ethics. But The Body Shop has been dismissed by critics as no more than a world leader in pale-green consumerism.

A 1994 expose by John Entine [6] charged the company with exploiting workers, franchisees, and indigenous peoples who supply ingredients; using artificial and sometimes harmful chemicals in products labeled as “all natural”; selling bacteria-contaminated products; flushing toxic chemicals into sewage systems; and promoting overconsumption of costly but Wal-Mart-quality products.

Others have blasted the company’s much-publicized relationships with indigenous peoples who supply some of their ingredients. An anthropologist who worked for more than thirty years among Brazil’s Kayapo people charged in 1995 that The Body Shop purchased much smaller quantities of products like brazil-nut oil than the Kayapo wanted to sell, and forbade them to sell to other companies. The company did that, he charged, because the real purpose of the project was to acquire not oil but rather the exclusive right to heartwarming photographs of the Kayapo that would appeal to the tastes of “Western ecoliberals.”

Cox quotes Entine’s conclusion:

Ethical or not, The Body Shop can’t be considered an environmental leader, wrote Entine on the occasion of Roddick’s death last year: “She sold cosmetics made mostly with water, colorings, fragrances and preservatives made from petrochemicals. Body Shop packages beauty notions in plastic bottles, an anathema to serious environmentalists, and ships them around the world in carbon-belching trucks and planes. From an environmental perspective, its business model is a train wreck.

This is a fine conclusion, but notice again the punch-pulling tendency of even the best critics of big business marketing. Notice how the concept of “cosmetics” escapes analysis here, despite the fact that cosmetic-wearing is a human behavior that has been immensely shaped and expanded by corporate marketing itself. How green is it to buy and wear make-up? Not very. Nevertheless, it is a very lucrative thing for corporate investors.

For those interested in this topic, I would refer you back to an item I discussed in my own book, The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life. There, I reported on what I learned after studying Cover Girl cosmetics marketing documents archived at the Smithsonian Institution.

One thing I learned there was that wearing make-up was still not a common, everyday practice among teenage girls well into the 1950s. In that climate, marketing consultants to the Noxzema Chemical Company (long since absorbed by Procter & Gamble) hit on the idea of putting Noxzema’s astringent ingredients into make-up and pitching it to teen girls as a way of extending Noxzema’s product line by giving teen girls an quasi-medical anti-acne excuse to ask for and use cosmetics. By the 1980s, when teen girls took cosmetics to be a preface to every day of their lives, Cover Girl, the resulting new make-up brand, had it marketers crowing about how “today’s consumer — she may use up to 11 products to get the natural look.”

Such is the stuff of capitalist normalcy. And the real, behind-the-scenes reason for the extension of commodities was not any kind of concern for girls. It was concern for the Noxzema Chemical Company. “We need products to advertise, and you don’t have any for us” one Noxzema executive reported to his superiors. “Now, what you’ve got to do to help [the] company grow is to get some new products.”

The result was a “natural” example of big business marketing in action.

Facebook Never Forgets

The second-most-emailed story today on nytimes.com is a report on the near impossibility of taking your personal data back from Facebook, the website that allows unwitting registrants to post bits of verbal and visual swag about themselves in exchange for letting Facebook “harvest” extremely precise and commercially valuable information about the users.

Turns out, once you walk into this trap, your data have no way to get out.

Are you a member of Facebook.com? You may have a lifetime contract.

Some users have discovered that it is nearly impossible to remove themselves entirely from Facebook, setting off a fresh round of concern over the popular social network’s use of personal data.

While the Web site offers users the option to deactivate their accounts, Facebook servers keep copies of the information in those accounts indefinitely. Indeed, many users who have contacted Facebook to request that their accounts be deleted have not succeeded in erasing their records from the network.

“It’s like the Hotel California,” said Nipon Das, 34, a director at a biotechnology consulting firm in Manhattan, who tried unsuccessfully to delete his account this fall. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

It took Mr. Das about two months and several e-mail exchanges with Facebook’s customer service representatives to erase most of his information from the site, which finally occurred after he sent an e-mail threatening legal action. But even after that, a reporter was able to find Mr. Das’s empty profile on Facebook and successfully sent him an e-mail message through the network.

The Times reporter explains the reason:

Tensions remain between making a profit and alienating Facebook’s users, who the company says total about 64 million worldwide (MySpace has an estimated 110 million monthly active users).

The network is still trying to find a way to monetize its popularity, mostly by allowing marketers access to its wealth of demographic and behavioral information. The retention of old accounts on Facebook’s servers seems like another effort to hold onto — and provide its ad partners with — as much demographic information as possible.

As usual, the whole scam is cloaked in layers of dishonesty:

Facebook’s Web site does not inform departing users that they must delete information from their account in order to close it fully — meaning that they may unwittingly leave anything from e-mail addresses to credit card numbers sitting on Facebook servers.

And if you doubt the immense importance of this whole shebang to our overclass and its big business marketing juggernaut of behavioral and technological dictatorship, consider the fact that none other than Microsoft has already paid the creeps who own and run Facebook a quarter-billion dollars — for a mere 1.6% share!

Draw your own conclusions, but I will say this again: If our out-of-control overclass and its political representatives hadn’t been keeping the FTC in an induced coma over the past several decades, this kind of fraud and theft would be punished. As it stands, it’s all treated as a simple matter of “personal responsibility” — for those at the bottom only, as always, of course.

One hears the voices of mega-over-privilege tittering out from the “third homes” of the world: “Let them eat cookies, and caveat double-emptor! Forever.”

New CT Feature: Visual Evidence of Corporate Capitalism’s Extreme Decrepitude

One good thing the internet can do is show pictures, which really are often worth 1,000 words.

Hence, I’m hereby launching another new occasional Consumer Trap feature — the Visual Evidence of Extreme Decrepitude, or VEEDs.

Our overclass of major corporate shareholders entered into its terminal decrepitude in the 1970s, when its military and ecological/energy requirements first decisively revealed their true nature and non-sustainability, and when their system for endlessly further enriching themselves also revealed its inability to tolerate any meaningful reforms.

Ever since the “Reagan Revolution” officially enshrined their “new” policy of responding to all challenges by redoubling the same old efforts and keeping the ostrich’s head firmly down in the sand — i.e., the policy we’ve lived under ever since, regardless of the (R) or (D) asterisk attached to the various admittedly and committedly bipartisan “leaders” that have followed — their system has been busily squandering its own seed-corn. This, of course, happens to be the seed-corn of the whole human race, as well. Under present arrangements, it still just happens to belong to the commanding “entrepreneurs” among us.

So, without further ado, permit me to unveil the first in a running series of visuals showing why radical socio-economic reform and wealth redistribution are in very pressing order:

What is this? A new kind of movie theater?

No. It is a picture of the personal “media room” of one Jeremy Kipnis, son of a famous “classical” (i.e., old European) music conductor. Its cost to build? $6,000,000 US.

The “enterprising” Mr. Kipnis, you see, is hoping to use his inherited wealth to go around and provide other obscenely over-privileged persons with the pleasures of this “Kipnis Studio Standard.” As one slavering “audiophile” blogger reports:

Kipnis sees the KSS as a laboratory, an ongoing experiment to advance the state of the art. And it’s not just for himself; he’s dead serious about selling the KSS to movie-industry professionals and wealthy home theater aficionados. He sees his huge screen as an intrinsic part of the experience. “It’s an unprecedented level of immersion that I’m looking for.”

In the year 2008, this is the stuff of elite living. Watching the self-same cartoon-movies as the masses, but in media rooms of such unimaginable ornateness and gilded over-construction that they make a Versailles parlor look like a cabin in the woods.

Peak oil, mass poverty, ecological and military crisis, domestic and international bubbles-first economic mal-development?

“What’s that, friend? I can’t hear you. I’m watching the new Pixar cartoon in my KSS room!”

Big Brother’s Shopping Cart

For those interested in the institutional workings of market totalitarianism, I very strongly recommend watching this 6 minute, 27 second video on the coming of the Media Cart.

This warm, comfortable little market-totalitarian insider’s video really speaks for itself, if you happen to understand the nature and logic of big business marketing. The only aspect you might miss without my comment is the fleeting but important mention of this extra “added value” to the capitalist: still-further reduction of in-store “labor costs” — i.e., jobs in the already scandalously understaffed retail sector.

This Media Cart monstrosity, you see, is not not just another new emplacement of an Orwellian telescreen for spying on those tellingly called “consumers,” but also a new way to further automate the work of the store clerk. Now, capitalists can run their mega-marts with 6 instead of 10 near-minimum-wagers.