The Sympathetic Consumer
Moral Critique in Capitalist Culture
Tad Skotnicki



The Rise of the Sympathetic Consumer

ON APRIL 24, 2015, a UK-based nonprofit organization called Fashion Revolution staged a “social experiment.”1 It documented the experience with a brief video. In the heart of Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, a commercial and transport hub, Fashion Revolution placed a vending machine that promised t-shirts for the bargain price of two euros. The vending machine—flaunting an eye-catching, geometrically patterned shell of teal and black—offered row after row of white t-shirts packed in clear plastic with a minimal black and white label and script that read “FashRev.” “People want fashion for a bargain,” the documentary began, moments before the screen cut to dozens of different people facing the machine, one after another, intrigued by the promise of a cheap t-shirt: Two women, brown shopping bags at their sides, approached cautiously; next, a solitary bearded man with close-cropped hair and a light-brown leather bomber jacket took an interest; then, a pair of young men sidled up to the screen, faces alight as though they couldn’t believe their luck. Others gathered around to wait in line or to simply peer over the shoulders of the intrepid bargain hunters. “But would they still buy it,” Fashion Revolution asked, “if they knew how it was made?”

Once those at the machine inserted their two euros and selected the desired t-shirt size on the touch screen, a video began to play. “Meet Manisha,” the screen read, “one of millions making our cheap clothing for as little as 13 cents an hour each day for 16 hours.” The text was superimposed over still images of dignified, predominantly female workers in dingy, crowded factories. While the video played, a camera in the vending machine captured the reactions of prospective buyers as they learned the story behind their bargain-priced t-shirts. One of the women with the brown shopping bags, aghast, covered her mouth. New faces trembled before the vending machine, somber and tense. A mother and father clutched their child. A solitary young woman stood transfixed. After the story of the t-shirt concluded, a question flashed across the screen, “Do you still want to buy this 2€ t-shirt?” More and more new faces appeared in the video. Some laughed nervously. On the vending machine screen, to their left, the prospective buyer could choose to continue with the purchase. To their right, they could choose to donate to Fashion Revolution. As the soundtrack pivoted toward an inspirational crescendo, person after person reached with their right hand—or awkwardly with their left—to select “donate.” A father encouraged his little girl to do the honors. Even more new faces, now betraying both relief and purpose, chose to contribute. The documentary concluded: “People care when they know. Help us to remind the world.”

Two years after the Rana Plaza garment factory disaster in Bangladesh—a 2013 building collapse that killed 1,134 and injured almost 2,500—Fashion Revolution used this vending machine to make a dramatic point about the origins of fast fashion. The organization spearheads a range of efforts to transform the fashion industry including a social media campaign that encourages consumers to publicly ask brands #whomademyclothes. Workers can reveal themselves to consumers, too, by posting images of themselves holding signs that read “I made your clothes.” This campaign draws attention to the laborers behind branded goods and pressures manufacturers to disclose these hidden working conditions. When they see who make their clothes and learn of their working conditions, Fashion Revolution expects that consumers will feel the weight of their responsibility to these invisible laborers.

Just over a century earlier, with less technical flare, a group of reform-minded women in the National Consumers’ League took on a very similar problem. In 1904, the league told of the “Travesty of Christmas.”2 “For thousands of men, women and children,” a member wrote, “the holiday season has come to mean chiefly weariness due to excessive work, followed often by illness and still oftener by an enforced holiday without pay, a bitter inversion of the order of holiday cheer.” A veritable “army of workers”—from employees in the stores and delivery boys in streets to laborers in factories and in tenements—exposed themselves to “bitter hardships,” moral turpitude, illness, and even death. But the perpetrators of these “Christmas cruelties” were not greedy manufacturers or heartless shop owners. “These things occur,” the league continued, “not because employers are deliberately cruel, but because they must meet the demands of their customers or fail. The customers cause the suffering, faintly hinted at in this brief sketch, not because they are deliberately cruel, but because they are thoughtless.” It was the task of the National Consumers’ League to build a thoughtful consuming public, one that took to heart the conditions of those laboring to manufacture, sell, and distribute goods.

If people became thoughtful consumers, league members argued, this would spur changes in the production process. In that spirit, the NCL developed a label for goods “made under clean and healthful conditions.” Any articles bearing the label—typically, though not exclusively, textiles—were “authorized after investigation.” League members were directly involved in the investigation of working conditions in industries from mining and farm-working to tenement homework and department stores. Further, the league publicized these findings to educate and organize the public as consumers. As with Fashion Revolution, the National Consumers’ League hoped that, upon learning about the hidden costs of their goods, consumers would feel their responsibility to those harmed and shop accordingly.

Nearly one century before the National Consumers’ League, in 1792, the abolitionist movement was in bloom. Agitators and visionaries penned pamphlets and poems to advance the abolitionist cause. One such pamphlet began with a verse from the Apostle James: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” The pamphlet picked up where the Letter of James left off: “Now, if many thousands are made fatherless and widows, by the grievous oppression of our fellow creatures in the sugar colonies, and by the trade to Africa for negroes, to supply the place of those who are worn out, or destroyed by excessive labour and cruel treatment, is not the produce of such labour polluted with blood?”3 The anonymous author insisted that the rum and sugar produced by enslaved people were polluted, spiritually and physically, and that it was the duty of all Christians to refrain from the “purchase and use” of slave-made goods.4 The author presented slave-made rum and sugar in terms of the goods’ origins and consumers’ responsibility for them: “[I]t must be admitted that the consumers are supporters of those iniquitous proceedings; and without them the slave-trade, with its lamentable consequences, must soon cease.”5 To fend off arguments against this anti-sugar campaign, the author appealed to the law and scripture, which confirmed the consumer’s responsibility. Lest the individual consumer lose heart at her diminutive contribution to the cause of the oppressed Africans, the author concluded, “Let not any be discouraged by looking at the little that is in their power to do; but rather be concerned to be found faithful in that little, leaving the event to Him who hath begun powerfully to plead the cause of the greatly oppressed people; and is able, as he hath promised, to carry on the work of their deliverance, to the praise of his own great name.”6 The British imperial consumer of slave-grown sugar, too, was charged with the responsibility of ethical purchasing.

The Sympathetic Consumer

Across different eras of capitalist development, these activists urged people to sympathize with distant, hidden laborers via the goods that linked them. There is, here, an interlaced pattern of interpretations of the lived world and the social conditions upon which this lived world rests that I call the sympathetic consumer. The sympathetic consumer points to a cultural pattern of ideas, practices, and conditions specific to a capitalist social order—one where the exchange of commodities obscures the labor behind it and turns labor into a mere means of commodity production. This book explores several interpretive features of the sympathetic consumer and demonstrates what renders them coherent—in relation to one another and to the social conditions upon which they depend.

These interpretative features appear in activists’ campaigns to encourage ethical purchasing. One appears in activists’ visions of the consumer as the central figure in a capitalist system. When the abolitionists’ rallied consumers to the cause of the enslaved Africans and the National Consumers’ League blamed thoughtless consumers for “Christmas cruelties,” they placed the consumer at the heart of a network of production, distribution, and exchange. This systemic centrality had important ramifications. Crucially, these activists viewed it as the consumer’s responsibility to sympathize with invisible laborers. Another interpretive feature appears in activists’ practical efforts to cultivate consumer sympathy. Consider the abolitionists’ vivid descriptions of sugar plantations, the National Consumers’ League label, or the dramatic video in the Fashion Revolution vending machine. These “ways of seeing” invited consumers to imagine and look into those otherwise invisible labor conditions. Having access to such ways of seeing, these activists hoped, would encourage consumers to “feel with” those laborers and purchase with them in mind. A third interpretive feature appears in the assumptions that structured activists’ moral arguments as to why people should be ethical consumers. Their chains of reasoning, like the National Consumers’ League argument about “Christmas cruelties,” tracked the links that joined producers to consumers. The coherence of their moral case and activism depended, in other words, on the image and organization of a capitalist system.

To investigate the sympathetic consumer, this book focuses on the abolitionist movement in the late eighteenth century and consumer movements at the turn of the twentieth century (the National Consumers’ League, the Co-operative Wholesale Society, and the Women’s Co-operative Guild). Arising at crucial junctures in merchant and industrial capitalism, respectively, these movements laid a template for subsequent consumer activists—from boycotts and selective purchasing to ethical product labeling and product exhibitions. Yet the sympathetic consumer is not merely a matter of antiquarian interest, as the opening pages make clear. Thus, the book concludes with a discussion of recent fair trade campaigns and related market-based advocacy. It is, after all, this kind of contemporary consumer activism that people deride as a distinctive outgrowth of late twentieth century neoliberal capitalism. But we need not narrate these contemporary developments in consumer activism as a clean break with the past. Rather, we can tell them as a story of recurrence.7

What accounts for the recurrence of the sympathetic consumer across different capitalist regimes? My answer to that question is rather simple: These activists were all trying to make sense of commodity-exchange. More precisely, they wrestled with curiously depersonalized8 goods in exchange—that is, goods that conceal the conditions of their making and exchangeability. For all of their differences, the abolitionists, National Consumers’ League, and Fashion Revolution sought to expose the hidden conditions of production to consumers—the slavery and the sweatshops and the suffering within them. In sum, these structurally similar experiences of commodity-exchange correlate with remarkably similar interpretations, wherein consumption matters in terms of the labor behind consumer goods.

To explain, the book revisits an important, oft-misunderstood notion of Karl Marx’s: commodity fetishism. Commodity fetishism allows us to understand how people make sense of commodity-exchange and the social conditions out of which it emerges (e.g., the commodity-form and depersonalized labor, especially). According to Marx, capitalist commodity-exchange is at once banal and strange. The work of the abolitionists, National Consumers’ League, Fashion Revolution, and many others reveals a common interpretation of commodity-exchange as a contradictory unity of banality and strangeness. In this way, commodity fetishism—interpretations that depend on the appearance of commodity-exchange in a capitalist social order—can account for the recurrence of the sympathetic consumer, from an era of steam power, colonial empires, and gunpowder to one of fossil fuels, nation-states, and nuclear weapons.

Before inquiring into this pattern, though, I have invoked several important concepts that demand further discussion: sympathy, capitalism, culture, and commodity fetishism. Discussing them will clarify what it means to claim that the sympathetic consumer is a feature of a capitalist social order.


1. “The 2 Euro T-Shirt—A Social Experiment,”

2. Annual Report of the National Consumers’ League 19031904, pp. 18–23.

3. Considerations Addressed to Professors of Christianity of Every Denomination, on the Impropriety of Consuming West-India Sugar and Rum, as Produced by the Oppressive Labour of Slaves (London: M. Gurney, 1792), p. 2.

4. Ibid., p. 4.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., p. 8.

7. See Biernacki 2005; Haydu 1998; Mahoney and Rueschemeyer 2003; Skocpol and Somers 1980.

8. Throughout, I will use “depersonalized” and “depersonalization” to indicate the condition in which labor appears as abstracted, or as that which renders commodities equally valuable, in capitalist commodity-exchange. I will use “anonymous” and “anonymity” to stress the participant’s interpretation of abstract labor and goods as both banal and strange in exchange. In other words, “anonymity” and “anonymous” indicate how people interpret depersonalized goods.