“When I was 26, I went to Indonesia and the Philippines to do research for my first book, No Logo.
I had a simple goal: to meet the workers making the clothes and
electronics that my friends and I purchased. And I did. I spent evenings
on concrete floors in squalid dorm rooms where teenage girls—sweet and
giggly—spent their scarce nonworking hours. Eight or even 10 to a room.
They told me stories about not being able to leave their machines to
pee. About bosses who hit. About not having enough money to buy dried
fish to go with their rice.
They knew they were being badly exploited—that the garments
they were making were being sold for more than they would make in a
month. One 17-year-old said to me: “We make computers, but we don’t know
how to use them.”
So one thing I found slightly jarring was that some of these
same workers wore clothing festooned with knockoff trademarks of the
very multinationals that were responsible for these conditions: Disney
characters or Nike check marks. At one point, I asked a local labor
organizer about this. Wasn’t it strange—a contradiction?
It took a very long time for him to understand the question.
When he finally did, he looked at me like I was nuts. You see, for him
and his colleagues, individual consumption wasn’t considered to be in
the realm of politics at all. Power rested not in what you did as one
person, but what you did as many people, as one part of a large,
organized, and focused movement. For him, this meant organizing workers
to go on strike for better conditions, and eventually it meant winning
the right to unionize. What you ate for lunch or happened to be wearing
was of absolutely no concern whatsoever.
This was striking to me, because it was the mirror opposite
of my culture back home in Canada. Where I came from, you expressed your
political beliefs—firstly and very often lastly—through personal
lifestyle choices. By loudly proclaiming your vegetarianism. By shopping
fair trade and local and boycotting big, evil brands.
These very different understandings of social change came up
again and again a couple of years later, once my book came out. I would
give talks about the need for international protections for the right
to unionize. About the need to change our global trading system so it
didn’t encourage a race to the bottom. And yet at the end of those
talks, the first question from the audience was: “What kind of sneakers
are OK to buy?” “What brands are ethical?” “Where do you buy your
clothes?” “What can I do, as an individual, to change the world?”
Fifteen years after I published No Logo, I still
find myself facing very similar questions. These days, I give talks
about how the same economic model that superpowered multinationals to
seek out cheap labor in Indonesia and China also supercharged global
greenhouse-gas emissions. And, invariably, the hand goes up: “Tell me
what I can do as an individual.” Or maybe “as a business owner.”
The hard truth is that the answer to the question “What can
I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?” is: nothing. You can’t
do anything. In fact, the very idea that we—as atomized individuals,
even lots of atomized individuals—could play a significant part in
stabilizing the planet’s climate system, or changing the global economy,
is objectively nuts. We can only meet this tremendous challenge
together. As part of a massive and organized global movement.
The irony is that people with relatively little power tend
to understand this far better than those with a great deal more power.
The workers I met in Indonesia and the Philippines knew all too well
that governments and corporations did not value their voice or even
their lives as individuals. And because of this, they were driven to act
not only together, but to act on a rather large political canvas. To
try to change the policies in factories that employ thousands of
workers, or in export zones that employ tens of thousands. Or the labor
laws in an entire country of millions. Their sense of individual
powerlessness pushed them to be politically ambitious, to demand
In contrast, here in wealthy countries, we are told how
powerful we are as individuals all the time. As consumers. Even
individual activists. And the result is that, despite our power and
privilege, we often end up acting on canvases that are unnecessarily
small—the canvas of our own lifestyle, or maybe our neighborhood or
town. Meanwhile, we abandon the structural changes—the policy and legal
work— to others.”