Sep 25, 2012

Multinational Companies and the need of consumption pedagogies (Essay written in spring 2011)

Multinational Companies and the need of consumption pedagogies

Of the top one hundred economies in the world, fifty two are companies (Brubaker 2007, p. 27). This gives companies ever imagined power.

I have always been relatively conscious of the two faced nature of multinational companies. I am worried about the fairly recent development in where multinationals are becoming more and more influential. We as consumers should be aware of the consequences that our choices bound to cause. Still I am reluctant to believe that people really are willing to achieve full realization, and to think beyond their self-interest even if they would have a good will to do it. Naomi Klein (1999) talks of a phenomenon of obsessive branding where companies have started to create and sell images, lifestyles and attitudes instead of concrete products. Even children worship brands and use them as tools to build up and process their identities. Our life, and whole existence, is signified by brands and measured with indicators of material well-being. Life is nothing without the newest Apple device or Gucci handbag. The suck of materialism has gotten strong. As a teacher I think that one of my most important objectives is to make my students see that the reality conceals many inconvenient truths worth considering as consumers and moral agents. Today’s problems and moral negligence demands radical re-evaluation of values and methods to become more aware of global consumerism and the defects of multinational companies. In this essay I will exam multinational companies from a teacher’s perspective. Consumerism and global justice are themes that every educator should keep in mind when implementing teaching and giving examples of morally enduring choices to children. Hopefully in the future children as adults would have motivation to change the current course of ugly and repulsive consumerism into something more useful. In the end it is a matter of conscience.  

Multinational or Transnational Companies (MNCs or TNCs) such as McDonalds, Ford, Sony, H&M have substantial power over our lives. I will use the term “Multinational(s)” to cover the essays conceptual versatility. The Multinational is a company that controls operations or income-generating assets in more than one country. They are owned in their home economy and invest in foreign economies. From the nineteenth century onwards have business enterprises controlled the world’s economic order. Within the last hundred years their achievements have been remarkable. The Multinationals developed, manufactured and provided products and goods and put in place banking, trading, and informational infrastructure for the global community. Also transportation and communication network was established thanks to efforts and funding of invest-eager corporations. After the meltdown of the global economy and times of wars the Multinationals started to regain their positions and expand to new potential market areas. (Jones 2005, p. 5; 285; 287.) We cannot argue about the good contributions provided by the Multinationals but still we can raise some problematic features surrounding their rise and the growth of influence.  

Since their birth the Multinationals have had effects on both home and host economies. Countries have gained in income but also had losses because of transfers of resources from economy to another. Shifting production elsewhere has also reshaped domestic economy. Decisions made by the multinational companies have impacts on many levels. In host economies it has been witnessed that companies create employment but suppress the local productivity. Increase of imports has followed expand of exports. Many countries have also felt that importing foreign goods or exchange of commodities is only another form of cultural colonialism. In any case the impact on host economies depends on the features and nature of the receiving culture and the type of the investment. (Jones 2005, p. 294.) Generalizations about the consequences are difficult to generate. In any case the Multinationals have the power and ability to shape any country’s economic state for better or worse. They can be agents of development or catalysts of even more severe poverty and economical inequality. 

The Multinationals have also impacts on areas other than economy. Political and social landscape has also been bound to shape as a result of the emergence and expansion of the Multinationals. Their activities have both positive and negative effect on individuals and human rights. The concern for protecting human rights in poor countries is more than justified but so far the Multinationals have pretended to be handicapped and unable to face their glocally manifest social responsibilities. This urgency for responding global fears must also bring forth actions to create enforcing set of standards how to run up a company. Means of monitor and control are necessary to see justice happen. It is not so much of a question of what but how. Whether the answer lies in restructuring international organizations, linking their strengths, enhancing private actions and media exposure, or creating a single intermediary institution, or regional or global governance, it has to be found soon. The main problem is how the ethical code of conjuction should be made legally binding. Should there be a globally solid jurisdiction over companies and their behaviour? (Monshipouri, Welch & Kennedy 2003, p. 971; 987988.)

This problem may not seem relevant but actually it is one the most critical in the field of business ethics. Are multinationals really putting a real effort to improve the quality of working conditions, wages, labour rights and so forth. Actually it is relatively difficult to discern the real causes of flaws in global capitalism. But anyhow the Multinationals tend to sustain the present situation instead of changing it for the better. Of course they will react when forced to, but it seems that globally people miss to see the big picture. Multinationals would not change their practices if not forced to co-operate and correct the current state. Here even a one particular consumer can make a significant ethical statement and a choice. From the educational perspective we need to understand that the Multinationals cannot function properly without the consumers and their willingness to buy their products. That’s why we have to enlarge our understanding in these issues. I think the question brought up needs to be solved but it may require solutions beyond politics. Education is one of the means to build up and improve the awareness of people This way the Multinationals are also forced to take correcting measures albeit this might take ages to carry into effect.  

The dominance of the multinationals is deeply interwoven with the general progress of globalization which can be summarized as the global circulation of goods, services and capital but also of information, ideas and people (Brubaker 2007, p. 23). Globalization as a historical process has proven its worth but at the same time it has produced number of severe side-effects. Its transplanetary nature provides possibilities beyond imagination but we can also easily identify the problems it brings forth. The current model of globalization has reinforced geographically uneven patterns of development. The inequalities between poor and rich countries have widened even though standards of living have gotten higher in some regions (Perrons 2004, p. 319). Still despite the acknowledged facts it is very difficult to live morally in the global economy where all actions are interrelated. This makes it even harder to show to children how they should live and be responsible and critical consumers. 

What is happening in the world from global point of view then? The appétit of the Multinationals is insatiable and their competiveness fatal. There are several reasons driving multinationals to compete such as a more open approach to trade, globalization of consumer tastes, a willingness to accept product and ideas from other countries, access to information and large scale economic potential. The Multinationals are moving the globe into the direction of similarity and state of convergence. Demographics, trade and media all show us how the world is becoming one instead of many. (Ind 1997, p. 134; 137.) The segments of life are becoming similar everywhere: family types, jobs, sports, luxuries, necessities, communication etc. I cannot see how this could be a desirable course for the future. Even if companies adapt and apply strategies which honor cultural distinctions, risk of permanent losses of traditional values is apparent. Global corporate culture has already put national heritage out of fashion. I already have personally seen how the world is evolving into one homogeneous mass where cultural distinctions are merely decorations. Luckily there are still those who believe the opposite, and I am also destined to be optimistic.

There are many possibilities to challenge the oppressive realities behind the food we eat, clothes we wear or devices we use (Brubaker 2007, p. 111). Through responsible and cognizant choosing we can really choose otherwise. This is a message that should be shared to young people also. On the other hand I should accept the idea of certain kind of cosmopolitanism but again at the same time praise the locality. The global citizenship is a primary goal for education without any doubts. To my knowledge also understanding the principles of global business and consumerism promote children to shape both their moral consciousness and moral personality. This means that children cannot only clarify their own judgments but to become more aware of the rights and needs of others.

I think many of us normal citizens and consumers do lament and feel bad about the situation, but they lack the true insight and will to oppose the domination of the Multinationals when necessary. Luckily we have witnessed how people are ready to march for their cause, but this doesn’t seem to be effective enough.  The people need to empower themselves and gain intellectual resources to form a solid opposition. According to Klein (1999) people should govern themselves. For example workers have the potential to make a change and demand acts of respect for their rights. It is not enough to let others try to make the necessary effort. Problems should be encountered with means of increased self-determination. The world has after mid-nineties witnessed many forms of resistance with varied agendas. Everyone shares the same goal to get justice and oppose the dominant rule of capital giants. (Klein 1999, p. 441; 445.) It gives also to us educators a meaningful signal. We need to see education as a powerful emancipating force. Teachers are the vital source for children to learn how future can be turned for the better.

Education needs to address the challenges children face in the more and more globalized world. Curren (2010) thinks that it is necessary to discuss the ways our actions impair each other’s interests, and how to avoid harming interests of others. Sooner or later there will be necessary adjustments in the ways we live. It is inevitable to take educational steps towards a world of global caring and justice. Children need to hear and learn about things surrounding them, and grow into shared consciousness. Everyone is entitled to a protected and stabile well-being where basic needs are satisfied. So individuals should know how to value co-operation and take responsibility for universally stressed moral obligations. Education calls for criticism and well-informed critical capacity to guard against the strategies used by corporate front groups and others to misinform, discourage, and subvert cooperation. (Curren 2010, p. 7173.) In other words it is important to teach children to think for themselves - critically and in a cosmopolitan manner. 

In a teaching context it is a tricky subject to make the right statement whether to choose this and leave that one on the shelf. It doesn’t happen with a snap of fingers that people would just learn how to address global problems and response in an all-beneficial way. Especially children are hard to turn around after they have tasted the deliciousness of consuming. Consumerism is a monster fed by multinationals. Without manipulation, fulfillment of social and personal needs, and habituation it would not exist at all. Consumerism is promoted by clever people with the obvious assistance of the mass consumers. It gives a sense of belonging and authenticity, boosts freedom and individual expression and helps people to deal with confusions about social identity and life-expectations (Paterson, 2006, 5053). Consumption defines us as human beings: you are what you buy. The main criticism against consumerism is not that it would be bad per se but the side-effects it causes. We cannot erase the fact that the spread of consumerism to some extent accelerates poverty and economic unbalance. Many aspects of consumerism are inextricably linked to the learning and enacting of oppression, and to ecological, environmental, natural resource, and cultural destruction across the planet (Koh, 2011). This should encourage us to question the living habits we share. Critical consumption pedagogies are required so that we could “talk back” to the all pervasive ideology of consumerism that tells us that consumption will make us complete or happy.  

   The Multinationals are in my opinion manifestations of global malevolence. They affect directly or indirectly in lives of millions. They are accused of exploiting underdeveloped countries and ignoring the problems this approach will produce. There is an ongoing debate whether the rich countries should accept the costs of welfare upkeeping or whether it should try to build economic growth on more ethically enduring foundations (Monshipouri et al. 2003., p. 967). Many recognize that multinationals are not only protecting their interests but also giving contributions to those countries in which they operate. Jobs are created and improvements introduced in forms of technology and new innovations. Still companies cannot hide their obligation to carry their part of social responsibility. Individualization, liberalization and free trade are bound to have fatal consequences if people don’t realize that the Multinationals and the mechanisms of consuming need to be changed. As educators we are responsible for the raising of new generation conscious consumers. In essence education holds many answers. My part is to stay focused and send this vital message forward.   

Brubaker, P. (2007). Globalization at What Price? Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press. 

Carron, R. (2010) Education For Global Citizenship and Survival. In Y. Raley & G. Preyer   Philosophy of Education in the Era of Globalization (pp.67-90). London: Routledge.

Ind, N. (1997). The Corporate Brand. New York: University Press.

Jones, G. (2005) Multinationals and global capitalism: from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. Oxford: University Press.   

Klein, N. (1999). No Logo. New York: Picador.

Koh, A. (2011, February). Consumer Pedagogies. Paper presented during the course Introduction to Film Studies, HKIEd, Hong Kong.

Monshipouri, M., Welch, C. & Kennedy, E. (2003, 25.4). Multinational Corporations and the Ethics of Global Responsibility: Problems and Possibilities. Human Rights Quarterly. (pp. 965989).

Paterson, M. (2006). Consumption and Everyday Life. London: Routledge.

Perrons, D. (2004). Globalization and Social Change. London: Routledge.

1 comment:

  1. I do not know that much about critical pedagogy, but scholars like Paulo Freire and Peter McLaren seem to be key people in the field. In Finland, of course, Juha Suoranta.