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by: Sharai Hoekema
consumerism  a society built on exploitation

Back in 2006, a heated debate in the Dutch Lower House between then prime-minister Jan Peter Balkenende and a representative from one of the opposing parties, took an unexpected turn. As the economic revival was discussed, Balkenende let slip in the heat of the moment: “We must get back that VOC-mentality!”

It led to yet another heated debate. The prime-minister quickly retracted his statement, claiming that he had only meant to refer to the notorious organisation’s taste for exploration and expansion. The VOC (“Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie”), was a private Dutch trade organisation that held a monopoly over overseas trade between the Dutch Republic and India and the whole of Southeast Asia. In many ways, it was the very first multinational corporation that played a major role in the rise of corporate-led globalisation. It was both innovative and pioneering.

At the same time, it was an organisation that earned millions over the backs of poor countries. It rapidly depleted scarce resources abroad, without regard for the environment or properly rewarding the countries or indigenous people. Even worse, it actively practiced slavery in its territories, exploiting those considered ‘inferior’ for hard, dirty and dangerous work without any form of payment - rather, selling them to plantation owners and leaving them in an abysmal situation without rights or proper treatment, even subject to beatings, violence and other hardships.


The public outcry was loud and clear. Funny, as the current globalisation is - roughly - still the same as it was back then. Granted, we do not actively encourage or tolerate slavery, violence, or robbery of natural resources. That is, unless it interferes with our current standard of living. Once we might lose our favourite palm oil-infested body lotion that is sure to make our skin glow. Or the latest, hottest line of popculture related t-shirts for € 3 each at low-cost clothing manufacturers. Or not have the supermarket selling strawberries during wintertime. 

Apparently we are eager to intervene if these products are taken away from us. Yet only few people understand - and even fewer act on! - the fact that our standard of living and consumerism stands in stark contrast to the wellbeing of our planet and poor countries. After all, we want strawberries and that hot new punkband t-shirt right now! Let the consequences be damned, we need our Dove facial creams!


Traffic sign, blue sky, text exploitation

Our economy and welfare do, just like back in the 16th century, still hinge on the exploitation of other countries and people. We deplete scarce resources, such as palm oil, which is a major contributor to the loss of tropical rainforests. We exploit the population of low-cost countries, with looser regulations on work safety and work hours, through sweatshops, without paying appropriate wages or taxes and under God-awful working conditions. Would it really be a stretch to compare these sweatshops to the plantations?

But hey, our constant hunger for the latest fashion, that is slowly turning into a wear-twice-buy-new industry, surely justifies the extra work that it require, flowing right out of little children’s hands. These kids will enjoy the cute prints of 90s TV shows as well, right? They might actually enjoy the work and end up being big time designers, we might actually be doing them a favour!

Although these workers might actually be the lucky ones. Their next-door neighbour might be working in an electronics sweatshop, producing your brand new iPhone or a lithium-ion battery for your electric car. Not just tedious, but most of all dangerous. Fat chance that he might not live long enough to be able to finally afford one of these fancy smartphones he spent his entire life putting together.


As most of us were taught from a young age onward, you either do something well or you don’t do it at all. Somehow most of the corporations ruling our planet - enabled by grab-happy consumers - seem to have misinterpreted this. 

Take the strawberries that I mentioned above. Logic would dictate that if there are no decent strawberries available locally, you just do not sell them in your supermarkets and wait for the next strawberry-season to arrive. A consumer would not buy a ticket to fly out to Israel and purchase his strawberries there, right? Much too costly and time-consuming.

However, the industry does just that: strawberries are flown in, as are bananas, flowers, pineapples, melons, oranges… All to be able to provide all products to consumers around the year, even if it is not the ‘season’ for it. What’s so bad about certain products only being limited to a certain period of the year? Let Mother Nature do her job, as she knows when to grow which produce. 

Nature should not be strained through monocultures or artificial productions. Nor should we waste energy and pollute the environment by flying in products from abroad and provide 24/7 power to greenhouses. Nor should local populations be forced to exploit their land and resources, even their children, in order to help us, spoiled consumers who refuse to give up our tropical fruits, H&M clothes, made-in-China toys, fancy sneakers, bananas and coffee.

Red map of China with text made in china

Have we really ‘lost’ that VOC-mentality and moved on to a more sustainable form of globalisation? Are we earnestly trying to run a global economy, as the multinationals are certainly rooting for and adding to, or are we just accelerating destruction on a global scale? 

It probably says enough that most consumers will not consider these to be rhetorical questions.

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