After numerous occasions of declining pitches for projects in the name of morality (the last of which has caused more of a backlash than normal), I was inspired by my friend Rowan el Shimi to put together this blog post through which I can comprehensively explain why I refuse to work with the majority of potential clients; what the reasoning behind it is, and why I end up favoring work with certain clients over others.
Please note that this is a blog post where I express my opinion. I don’t ask you to agree, and I don’t claim to carry the truth that has been extracted from reliable sources. In fact, I don’t care what you think about what I have to say.
As a professional (regardless of the field), I have a bit of influence, and every decision I make counts. I’m responsible for my actions, and should stick to the set of principles that I believe in, and follow them to lead by example. Between capitalist greed, extreme poverty, corruption favoring corporations handling millions with billions of people worldwide struggling to survive, and the lack of resources to sustain our lifestyle, we find ourselves at a horrendous state.
As Annie Leonard illustrates in her outstanding short documentary The Story of Stuff, the materials economy is set up so that we are constantly exploiting our limited resources in an ever-accelerating rate. Resources that will inevitably run out:
Relevant points from the documentary:
- Natural resources are limited, and will run out very soon
- Rich countries are using disproportionally more resources than poorer counterparts
- Externalizing costs means that the products we buy have been paid for by natural resources and labor
- Our consumption levels are absurd, and they desperately needs to be reduced
- Marketing contributes to perceived obsolescence by indoctrinating the public into believing that we are not good enough, and that we need to shop to improve
Therefore, I try to avoid contributing to any entity that is responsible for products that push us deeper into the materials’ crisis. Even though I’m part of the hypocrisy myself for consuming and destroying resources from all parts of the globe (thanks to my laptop, cell phone, meat, clothes, etc.), I choose not to promote it for others to follow.
For example, I am capable of carrying out social media campaigns as well as design platforms to persuade the young audience that it is ‘cool’ to purchase a certain brand of candy. In fact, I can work hard to make that brand outdo its competition, and boast an image that many of the target audience would strive to associate themselves with. But I would never want to do that. Any product that is not essential and is harmful to our well-being is a no-no in my book, and I would never agree to work with its manufacturers, producers, distributors or sellers.
Needless to say, it is almost impossible to even consider a multinational company looking to extract resources from Egypt and send it back to Geneva and New York.
An ever bigger issue for me is exploitation of labor. The fact that there are people who work tirelessly in terrible conditions and barely make enough money to survive just so that a chosen few can continue with their lifestyles, is depressing.
Exploitation is broadly defined as utilizing something to benefit from it, and/or the selfish utilization of a resource as a means to an end. Many consider the term only suitable for large corporations such as Apple, where factory workers have to go through such unbearable conditions, that many commit suicide, and nothing’s improving. However, sweatshops are examples of extreme exploitation, because resources (both natural and labor) are constantly exploited, everywhere.
As Karl Marx has pointed out, exploitation is the difference between the profit generated to the owner of the business, and the compensation to the worker for his or her effort, in the form of wage. In fact, in his book, Capital, Marx came up with the precise formula to measure the percentage and the quantity of the exploitation, summarized in the following:
“The rate of surplus-value is therefore an exact expression for the degree of exploitation of labour-power by capital, or of the labourer by the capitalist”
Which brings me to a pivotal point in my book: If you are making profit, you are exploiting. There is no such thing as generating profits without the exploitation of natural and, especially, labor resources. If you’re a business, your aim is to make money, and this means making the most out of your employees, and paying them the least. You could be paying them higher salaries than your competitors, but it would still be exploiting, otherwise you wouldn’t make profit to sustain yourself and would go out of business.
The basic worker
In Egypt, an ‘office boy’ (a male dedicated to doing some cleaning, providing drinks, and running basic errands) typically makes between 500 and 700 LE a month, and is usually the first to arrive, and the last to leave. He refers to everyone as Sir (and wouldn’t dare receive equal treatment), and has to put up with potentially being told off (and sometimes yelled it) without answering back (or else he could be thrown out). The average employer would feel a form of self-fulfillment for providing a job to someone who’s under-qualified. In fact, by paying him slightly more and being friendly, he or she could be considered a philanthropist!
The following are misconceptions that come as a bi-product:
- The office boy is being offered a job, which is something he should appreciate
Not if his salary is not enough to feed himself, let alone his family
- At least he’s being offered a job, as opposed to nothing at all
That may be true, but that doesn’t mean his weakened position is not taken advantage of. Otherwise he’d be deemed unaffordable
- If he’s not happy, he could leave
Far from true, especially given how 40% of Egyptians are on or below the poverty line, and many are unemployed and desperate
- He is receiving more than what many would pay him
The might be true, but his value is determined in a market that is entirely based on exploiting resources and making money. His value is not based on his output. When you are about to offer him a salary, why not think how he contributes to the income, and compensate him accordingly? Why do you use his market options (or lack of) as an indication, as opposed to his output?
If you are to expand this example to a larger scale, it soon becomes clear the amount of exploitation involved in large corporations that recruit thousands. For that reason, I refuse to work with clients that boast a roster of thousands of employees making minimal wages, while the owners are packing millions.
Generally speaking, I’m not at all fond of corporations that work on investments and business consultancies. The idea that a company’s sole purpose is to strategically aid other companies in making money, and benefit itself in the process, is despicable. As if exploitation isn’t enough as it is, consultancies attempt to reduce costs and boost income to make even more cash, and shove the exploitation to extreme levels.
Here’s a short clip from an interview with Noam Chomsky where he talks about self-destructive capitalism, and slave labor.
Sadly, we are indoctrinated to believe the following:
- There is a bottomless pool of money out there to make
Obviously not. It’s surprising how many can be so naive so as to believe that there’s unlimited resources to fight for. The current approach to resource usage is anything but sustainable
- We can all be wealthy
Impossible. With today’s capitalist society, money is made via exploitation. You need someone with the capital, and workers to be exploited
- Anyone can be rich
Not everyone. And in a country like Egypt, hardly anyone can grow beyond his or her predetermined socioeconomic background. Even if a person from a lower income background was given equal opportunity, he or she would only be able to become wealthy at the expense of the limited resources, i.e. at the expense of counterparts striving for the same
- It is normal for there to be rich and poor
Now it is, but it doesn’t have to be. While a small elite of Egyptians own cars (regardless of the make), have had the opportunity to travel abroad, eat meat everyday, and have enough clothes to dispose of, the huge majority struggle to survive till the end of the month. That is not fair, and it should not remain that way
Therefore, there’s no such thing as a ‘pure’ business that benefits the world more than it harms the people and resources. That is the way it will remain until the revolution takes place and everyone gets direct access to resources that are subsequently allocated fairly. However, until we reach that stage, we are still part of the system and need to make money.
I choose to work with companies that carry out minimal exploitation. Whenever I’m in for a pitch for any web design and/or social media project, I ask myself the following questions:
- Does the client make profit?
If yes, then what resources are they exploiting, and to what extent? If not, then where do they get the money from (sometimes worse than profit-driven companies)?
- How many employees are there? How many partners are there?
A school of 4 partners collaborating and doing everything between them is almost a dream come true. A company with hundreds on the pay roll is not (regardless of the nature of their business)
- What benefits does the client bring?
Providing jobs is certainly not one of them. But perhaps they educate, or promote culture, or aid the art movement, or help empower people by connecting them across space and time to bypass mainstream media – there are numerous possibilities
- Is the exploitation little enough to be mostly made-up for by the benefits?
Some industries will never make it altogether; such as equity, investment, insurance, business consultancies, stock brokers, etc. Others are in pole position to overcome the hurdle, such as renewable energy, academic and cultural institutions, open-source projects, etc.
- Would Ali Azmy approve?
Could save you from all the above!
If the client fails to qualify, then I turn down the project take it on myself to specify why. While I have been advised to avoid such confrontation and just excuse myself without hopping on the soap box, I insist on being blunt. Firstly, I do not enjoy lying and I’m not very good at it. More importantly, I have thought long and hard to build my principles, and I feel it is my responsibility to to stick to them and promote them. I would like to think that by doing so, I’m making this world a better place. Otherwise, I’m just dust in the wind, another brick on the wall, and yet another exploiting consumerist that talks a lot, and doesn’t do squat.
The world won’t change for the better if we turn a blind eye on pressing issues like social injustice and poverty. Change takes place when we actually do something about it. That’s how revolutions happen, and I plan to be a part of it.