Political Purchasing (part 1)

In the UK, politics is becoming more polarised. Despite some recent victories, centrist parties across Europe have seen a long-term downward trend in popularity. Far-right and green parties have gained ground. Generational gaps in beliefs are becoming more pronounced. More than ever, voters are picking a side. With the climate crisis set to increase in impact in the UK, it would be reasonable to speculate that this trend might continue, or even accelerate.

For those concerned with climate issues, there is an increasing belief in the importance of transforming politics and economics over individual ‘eco’ purchasing choices and behaviours. The idea that 100 companies are responsible for 71% of emissions has established itself in discussions on global heating. The increasing traction of campaigns supporting Green New Deal like policies further supports this, and despite Insulate Britain’s methods being wildly unpopular, the majority of Brits support their aims.

How might the increased demand for transformational climate politics, especially among younger people, be reflected or co-opted by large businesses? This project explores possible future developments in this area.

  1. Explicit corporate political affiliation

Companies embed politics in their structure and actions. Most directly, a company’s profits might fund lobbying or party political donations. But politics is embedded in every part of a business: in the pay ratios between highest and lowest paid workers, in corporate governance, in PR & public statements, and in internal policies that all work to preserve or disrupt the status quo. Despite this, companies have historically generally seen fit to present as apolitical in order to widen their commercial appeal.

In the past five years, numerous high-profile brands have been pressured to take a political stance on specific issues in response to campaigns or social media controversy. In 2016 Kellogg’s pulled advertising from the far-right Breitbart news platform following pressure from Sleeping Giants and the resulting public outcry. Campaigns such as Stop Funding Hate have seen some success in encouraging progressive presenting companies to pull advertising from racist or otherwise harmful publications.

Many corporates sought to harness the power of this cultural moment, going beyond pre-empting public backlashes to incorporating a veneer of progressive politics in their corporate identity. Dubbed Corporate Wokeness, multinational corporates publicly engage with Black Lives Matter, trans liberation, gay pride — any social issue that has captured the public attention. They encourage people to choose love, race together, and be more human – whatever these mean. But with elements of these struggles being anti-capitalist, or at the very least anti-exploitation, companies whose entire business models rely on cheap overseas labour are often left walking a tightrope in their messaging in order to not seem cynical & hypocritical.

Kendall Jenner chooses love, for Pepsi

Campaigns that have engaged with social justice issues have had mixed results. Pepsi pulled their Kendall Jenner ad after serious backlash, but Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign has been highly successful. After an uncertain start, less adventurous brands have been following suit now the ground is safe to tread. This form of advertising and PR has become completely normalised. So how will it evolve, and what’s the next step for Nike, Pepsi, and Dove? Will smaller or newer companies outflank them by offering more targeted ideologies? Might startups cut to the chase and position their political affiliations as a more central part of their branding and communications? Could existing brands, perhaps when they are struggling, use a political pivot for a last ditch attempt at survival? What will more adventurous brands do to stand out? Could we see brand partnerships between political parties and companies who have both seen better days?

2. Labour Label

Carbon labelling is an often discussed method of improving transparency around product emissions and general climate literacy. It lets potential buyers of goods know how much carbon is emitted during the production of an item, in much the same way nutritional information is displayed on food. As early as 2007, Tesco pledged to include carbon labelling on all products, but then dropped this commitment in 2012 after what they claimed was a lack of industry uptake. Currently, it is rare to see carbon labels on consumer goods, and the result is that it’s impossible to make genuinely informed purchasing choices. But with the accelerating onset of climate disaster, consumer product heavyweights such as Unilever and L’Oréal have announced they will bring in carbon labelling on all their products over the next 2–5 years. Maybe this time it will be true.

Since 2016 I have taught product design students how to analyse and estimate the amount of carbon that will be released through the materials, production, transport, and disposal of their designs. Using these methods, designers can optimise their proposals to be as sustainable as possible. One thing that has become clear to me throughout this process is that a knowledge of carbon divorced from a knowledge of economic factors is of little practical value. If a student discovers one material in a design is particularly harmful, naturally the next step is to swap it for another. But what if the more sustainable alternative is twice the cost, causing the customer to choose a different, less sustainable product? In this scenario, true climate awareness requires a clear understanding of costs, and how these costs affect human behaviour.

Of course, the role of a designer and someone buying some cornflakes is different. You shouldn’t need a master’s degree in industrial design to buy groceries. But if we accept that for designers, carbon is not enough and understanding human factors is an integral part of climate literacy, why is that not the case for the consumer? In order to better understand the climate cost, it helps to understand the time cost — time that could have been spent on solving climate problems, lowering the worker’s carbon footprint by walking instead of driving, fixing instead of replacing.

The labour labels concept explores the potential impact of taking the idea of carbon labelling further, making additional information about the creation of the product available to anyone who might buy it. It seeks to spark discussion about whether we have a right to know how much labour goes into our products, and how this affects what we think about them and how this information might change how we feel about buying them.


Labour labels are also useful for helping us think about the goods we buy for non-climate related reasons. Handcrafted luxury goods can claim a premium. Rolex claim it takes skilled craftspeople a year to manufacture higher end models. But some consumers would prefer less labour be involved in an object’s production, freeing up time for more important pursuits.

For luxurians of all politics, Labour Label helps to find a product aligned to your beliefs.

Labour labels aid the consumer to weigh up whether their actions are exploitative. Has a large amount of work gone into an inexpensive item? How is that possible, economically? Has a tiny amount of work gone into something pricey? Then where is the money going? Whether there is exploitation, and if that is good or bad, is up to the customer to decide. As we move into a future of increasing automation, the worker hours embedded in each product could become a valuable brand asset, high or low.

Co-op and union product markings

3. Hidden Pattern Endorsements

The emerging climate disaster will open up opportunities for business partnership with grassroots organisations and NGOs. Companies such as Ben & Jerry’s have attempted this in the past, including with Black Lives Matter, although it caused considerable controversy.

Might we see companies attempt to use coded messages to signal to savvy consumers, keeping the message away from a more conservative customer base?

Morse code in a Jeep footrest

Large sections of the internet are obsessed with finding hidden patterns used by shady elites manipulating our everyday lives. However, for the most part, these are totally delusional.

Twitter user speculates that Wayfair are selling children in the guise of office cabinets

But what if the conspiracists are (partially) right, and hidden patterns actually are a great way to communicate on a large scale with plausible deniability? With a coordinated clandestine PR campaign denouncing everyone who brings up the message as weirdos, it might just work. At the very least, the resulting social media fallout if it was discovered would be good publicity.

Braille message hidden on Nike shoe

4. Political donation browser add-on

What’s more ecological — a product that causes minimal direct harm, but supports political parties that enable inaction at national and international levels? Or a product that is more CO2 intensive, but funds political parties with a vision for a fair and sustainable future?

This browser add-on is a simple way to stay informed on whether the platform or the product you are viewing online is funding political donations or lobbying. It will also include basic information on where this money is going.

Data is taken from a range of sources, including the Electoral Commission and opensecrets.org. When data is available, a political compass shows the balance. More info is available on a click-through.


Political purchasing is an ongoing project exploring future developments in consumer culture, corporate communications, and greenwashing.