"The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter's goal is money, profit; the nurturer's goal is health: his land's health, his own, his family's, his community's, his country's."
- Wendell Berry
Retail in 2020 can be a bit tiring. Mega-funded businesses taking a loss on every sale, brands sending you text messages, and shiny things with interest-free payment plans. At this point, we’ve all ordered something pretty from an online ad, only to find that the embossed, spot gloss, holographic packaging doesn’t make up for the extra cash you dished out for the sexy DTC brand. Even if it got delivered absurdly fast and it looks good on Instagram, it doesn’t have any special powers and you feel a bit ripped off.
At the start of Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, Berry presents a contrast of nurturing vs. exploitation. Nurturing is the act of farmers tending to the land for generations. Exploitation is the act of stripminers carving away earth until it’s entirely depleted.
When the book was published in 1977, its purpose was to raise awareness on how industrial farming practices were having deep consequences on American land, communities, and culture. Not only do Berry’s predictions seem prophetic for their time, they feel just as relevant to the current moment. When I first read Unsettling, it seemed to bring my feelings of burnout and dissociation into perfect focus.
I wasn’t just getting tired of trying to sell stuff. I was getting tired of buying things, too. I’d seen a few too many brands with the same fonts and colors, the same weird lil’ illustrated people, and the same websites and emails. Suddenly, I felt like a sucker for wanting these ordinary products with seemingly extraordinary exteriors.
As Berry said in a 2019 interview, “Exploitation leads, with perfect logic, to exhaustion.”
Berry argues that the mentality of exploitation is built into the American identity. Our thirst for gold initiated our westward expansion. Slavery was the fuel for our industrialization.
There are not two sides; exploiters and nurturers, good guys and bad guys. It’s a division within ourselves and we all carry both the benefits and consequences of exploitation.
“Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity? (That is: How much can be taken from it without diminishing it?”
- Wendell Berry
Berry’s stand was against business interests exhausting land for profit. Unrealistic expectations for crop yields led to the depletion of soil and introduction of hazardous chemicals into our food supply. But it isn’t just our physical landscape that has been eroded to oblivion and poisoned for a quick return. Our digital “places” are under constant pressure to yield greater and greater commercial value as well.
When I logged into Instagram last week, I found that my notifications button, where I’d typically go to see likes and comments on my content, had been replaced by a shopping cart icon. The tab in the bottom right of my UI now took me to a page of product listings from businesses on Instagram. An essential feature of a social app was deprioritized in favor of an unnecessary feature to make me buy more stuff. I wasn’t the only one who was annoyed. The app’s layout seemed to change almost daily and was inconsistent depending on the user. These UI tests by Instagram were obviously met with backlash by users. The breadth of these tests were a sign of carelessness on the part of Instagram. The problem wasn’t that they were looking to further commercialize their product, it’s that they so obviously diminished the quality of the product to get there.
These changes speak to a mindset that human attention, like gold ore or crude oil, is a resource needing to be extracted and formed into something useful — a purchase. It isn’t, though. And “users”, the term for multi-dimensional people in a flattened digital world, are no exception to the rule: exploitation leads, with perfect logic, to exhaustion.
When we pressure people to buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have at moments they didn’t plan to shop, it’s not just questionable ethics, it’s shortsighted business. When we do this, we erode trust and deprive resources from our customers.
If you’re skeptical of my argument, it may be because things are actually pretty rosy at the moment. We’ve had nearly a decade of economic growth. But we had one obvious blip in that trajectory, and it was early quarantine. It can feel a bit hard to remember now, but we sat inside and hoarded cans of soup and bags of rice. We pushed small children out of our way in the grocery store aisles to get the last roll of toilet paper (we all did that, right?)
At that moment, many of us slowed our spending. We hit pause on big purchases because we didn’t know what would happen. And when that spending slowed, even for a brief moment, the system showed signs of weakness. Advertising on Facebook and Instagram tanked and brands bombarded us with emails that began with “In these trying times” and ended with measly 15% off coupons that expired in 24 hours. It was bullshit and we knew it.
But not all brands were satisfied with trite niceties. Many companies gained brand equity by nurturing. Rogue Fitness pivoted to manufacturing personal protective equipment and hired more than 200 people in their Ohio community. Pattern Brands made their “Text a Chef” service free for everyone and hosted virtual events focused on finding balance at home. Without knowing whether the downturn would last two months or two years, companies with the mindset to nurture knew their responsibility was to support their communities.
We have to know that a careless march towards commercialization is one that can lead to our own demise, as consumers and as retailers. Turning internet spaces into places to buy things doesn’t make them bad, just as non-commercialized internet spaces aren’t inherently good (ahem, Parler). The problem here is not commerce itself but exploitative commerce. Retailers have a unique opportunity to provide tangible, healthy services to their customers.
But if it’s not useful, it won’t last. And if it’s a one-way exchange, eventually all the resources will be on one side. The longevity and worth of our ventures depend on their effectiveness in bringing health to our families, our communities, and our customers.