Conscious Capitalists for Slave Labor

An Uigur woman picks cotton in a field
An Uigur woman picks cotton in a field / Getty Images

Your Patagonia fleece may have been made with slave labor but the polyester was 100 percent recycled.

If you need any more convincing that "conscious capitalism" is merely a public relations stunt designed to pad the bottom line, look no further than a weekend New York Times exposé revealing the lobbying campaign underway to water down a congressional bill that would outlaw the importation of goods produced by Chinese slave laborers.

Among the companies shelling out millions of dollars on lobbyists so they can continue to exploit China's persecuted Muslim minority are corporate giants Coca-Cola, Nike, and Apple. Those companies deny relying on forced labor, but an Australian report issued in March suggests otherwise, and all three have spent heavily on lobbyists to weaken the bill, the Times says.

Those companies, along with Patagonia, also fingered in the report, have been vocal proponents of so-called conscious capitalism, the view that businesses should exist not to maximize shareholder value but to serve whatever faddish political cause happens to be the flavor of the month. This brilliant feat of public relations is how a rapacious and soulless high-end clothing company like Patagonia has managed to position itself as a holier-than-thou environmental savior even as it exploits slave labor in the hinterlands of totalitarian China.

"What I see beyond [making money] is very important," the former Coca-Cola CEO Glen Walter told Georgetown University students in 2013. "It's the ability to be a part of what we call 'conscious capitalism.' We have a purpose that allows us to take those amazing resources and the proceeds from those resources and very humbly do things that impact the world in amazing ways." We imagine their message to Congress is closer to Eddie Murphy's message to the company's onetime brand ambassador, Bill Cosby.

As ever, these companies have managed to do well by "doing good." Patagonia's decision to weave left-wing politics into its corporate fabric has led it to a valuation of around $1 billion.

The outdoor clothing company recently joined Coca-Cola and Nike in pulling ads from Facebook, an attempt to strong-arm the company into policing so-called hate speech.

We assume that whatever business they have lost from that moral crusade pales in comparison to the costs of moving production away from Xinjiang's slave laborers—and that their investment in lobbying is intended to ensure business continues to boom. We don't condone it, but we wish they would concede their attacks on Facebook, like every other preening brand-building exercise they partake in, are motivated by the same cynical and craven calculation.