The riots and looting last week were a pyrrhic victory for global consumer brands. The aim of marketing is to make consumers want and acquire – preferably in exchange for money – your products. On the evidence of the looting, brands that have thrived on appealing to the mass market as well as certain sub-cultures of urban youth won a resounding, if perverse, endorsement.
As the violence on the streets abated and the police raided homes, court appearances revealed the objects of desire in all their mundane ubiquity. Trainers, mobile phones, flat screen TVs, jeans and T shirts had been taken home from carefully selected and ransacked shops and were then confiscated as those arrested were hauled off to face justice. These were mass produced consumer goods that for some have high status but which, despite the apparent glamour attached to names like BlackBerry or Burberry, are not the scarce, exclusive, expensive items with which elites mark themselves out.
Many of the consumer goods the looters wanted are the products of huge global corporations. They are brands that are often made by workers in rapidly urbanising developing countries, sometimes in terrible conditions. These goods now represent a link that spans the world, a disenfranchisement that for all its different manifestations is shared by workers and consumers alike – the fate of the non-citizen who has only a role to play in a bigger system.
Many of the journalists and filmmakers who entered One World Media’s annual awards this year had covered the production end of this system in their work, thereby illuminating the interconnectedness of our world.
An outstanding example was Kathryn Hille of the Financial Times, one of the nominees for Journalist of the Year. Kathryn had had a phenomenal year of reporting from China, explaining the emerging character of the country as it rapidly industrialised, in a way that combined sharp analysis with the human face of the stories. A major focus of her work was Foxconn, the world’s biggest electronics manufacturer and China’s largest private employer. Amongst the products its workers turn out are Apple’s iPad and iPhone. Companies like Dell, Nintendo and Nokia all sub-contract production to Foxconn.
Kathryn reported that a spate of suicides amongst workers last year was linked to working conditions. Chinese academics have described Foxconn factories as labour camps rife with worker abuse and illegal overtime.
BBC3′s series Blood, Sweat and Luxuries regularly shines a spotlight on the price being paid by workers and the environment in developing countries for the north’s system of consumerism. Their programme on gold and electronic waste won our Popular Features award this year. Ricochet’s film followed three young Britons to Ghana who experienced for themselves what labour conditions, supply chains and lack of education mean for the people there who produce products destined for the UK or who deal with the UK’s exported waste.
The Guardian’s global development website, which won our Millennium Development Goals award, regularly chronicles the impact of western consumerism on those countries in the developing world that provide raw materials like oil or minerals or the cheap labour needed to produce high volumes of low cost mass market goods like the trainers, jeans and T shirts last week’s looters went for.
In the aftermath of the riots, as debates rage about the causes and consequences, value systems are examined and policy responses formulated, let’s keep in sight the ways in which some of the most exploited peoples and countries of the wider world – those who make products so desired people will riot and rob to acquire them – have been made visible. We need to take heed of Kathryn Hille and others like her who report from distant lands and remember that how we, the good and bad alike, live here, today, is connected to the lives of others in more ways than we think, whether we pay for the goods we so desire or not.