“Voting With Your Dollars” Has Always Been a Flawed Idea

In the days of the British slave trade, “commercial abolitionists” urged against the purchase of slave-made goods. This business-friendly approach counseled consumer abstention as a form of political advocacy — just like the “ethical capitalism” of today.

Designed in the shop of Josiah Wedgwood, a shareholder in the Sierra Leone Company, the Wedgwood design from East India sugar bowls and teapots became the very seal of abolitionist societies around the Atlantic. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Through a stunning series of events in early nineteenth-century Britain — Parliament’s ban on the slave trade after 1807, its manumission of some 800,000 enslaved subjects in the West Indies in 1834, and its termination of the subsequent “apprenticeship” system in 1838 — the world’s preeminent slave-trading power transformed into one dedicated to industrial capitalism, wage labor, and abolition. Even more shockingly, the demise of slavery occurred without a democratic revolution or serious challenges to Britain’s aristocratic, imperial system.

Ever since, scholars have debated how exactly this happened — as well as the relationship between slavery and capitalism. Writing in the 1940s, Eric Williams, the Oxford University–trained historian and future president of Trinidad and Tobago, vigorously rejected both the prevailing lionization of abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce and the efforts of free market liberals to separate the emergence of industrial capitalism from the slave system. British industrialists, Williams argued, had tolerated slavery when and where it was in their material interest to do so. The barbarous system had only declined when it became unprofitable. “British capitalism had destroyed West Indian slavery,” he concluded, “but it continued to thrive on Brazilian, Cuban and American Slavery” — and, he pointedly added, with little dissent from the humanitarian abolitionists.

Williams’s economic decline thesis has since lost favor among academics. But his early pronouncement that slavery funded the industrial revolution, and that antislavery promoters of free trade harbored distinctly unhumanitarian motivations, has inspired something of a renaissance among today’s scholars of slavery and capitalism.

Bronwen Everill’s recent book, Not Made by Slaves, offers a penetrating new perspective on abolition in the British Empire by spotlighting a particular cast of characters: the commercial abolitionists in West Africa who fashioned a consumer-focused, business-friendly antislavery ethics. These figures sought to prove the moral and economic superiority of non-slave labor while profiting from the transition away from slavery.

Their efforts centered on the consumer’s role in the global economy. Awash in new theories that wedded capitalism and humanitarianism — popularized by Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776) — commercial abolitionists argued that consumer choices, far from reflecting mere preferences, amounted to moral endorsements of an entire supply chain. With the right policies and products, individual consumers could “vote with their dollars” against slavery.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not imagining things. As Everill shows, commercial abolitionists pioneered the modern practice of casting capitalism itself as an engine of reform. The “philanthrocapitalism” of today was prefigured in the “legitimate commerce” and “free produce” of yesteryear.

Commodification and Consumption

The primary architects of “ethical capitalism” in the late eighteenth century were the British and American traders operating in the Upper Guinea Coast region of West Africa. At the time, British traders were flooding West Africa with imported goods. From textiles and beads to liquor and firearms, imported commodities ignited a storm of consumption, competitiveness, and credit that pulsed through the region, intensifying the slave trade and sparking a prolonged slave rebellion from 1785 to 1798.

In this cauldron of unrest, the commercial abolitionists harnessed “the new logic of the consumer revolution” and deployed “the power of consumers to put pressure on slave traders and planters to end the practice of Atlantic enslavement.” Rejecting the power of slave revolts, these business-minded men argued to consumers and investors alike that freely sourced goods would redound not only to the interests of humanity but to everyone’s pocketbooks.

For the commercial abolitionists, slavery was less the fault of slave traffickers than consumers. When William Fox, the British abolitionist and pamphleteer, urged a boycott of West Indian slave-grown produce, he argued that “the slave-dealer, the slave-holder, and the slave-driver, are virtually the agents of the consumer.”

Consumer boycotts, though, were only part of the commercial abolitionists’ crusade. The drive for free produce — products made by “free” labor — and the cultivation of an ethically aware customer base required new abolitionist brands. Commercial abolitionists adorned their wares with a striking image: an enslaved person, on bended knee, supplicating to heaven. Designed in the shop of Josiah Wedgwood, a shareholder in the Sierra Leone Company, the Wedgwood design quickly leapt from East India sugar bowls and teapots to the very seal of the abolitionist societies around the Atlantic. Middle-class consumers now had an opportunity to advertise their antislavery bona fides, melding marketplace aesthetics with moral value.

But problems with the abolitionist brand emerged at every turn. “Free produce” goods were more expensive than slave-made products, limiting the already fractional consumer base to well-off activists. Counterfeiting — for example, deceptively branding slave-produced West Indian sugar as East Indian — plagued commercial abolitionism, whose proponents could only wield reputation in the absence of regulation. Even those committed to free produce found themselves frustrated by the uncertainty of international supply chains sourcing products of unknown ethical provenance.

Making Antislavery Pay

While the moral guilt of the supply chain could not be so easily assuaged, commercial abolitionists could at least secure policies to make their products cheaper. To that end, they lobbied Parliament for new tariff regulations to level the competition between slave and non-slave producers. Tariffs, they argued, had long distorted the market in favor of slave industries; they must now re-distort the market in favor of free-labor industries.

West Africa once again served as a proving ground. Commercial abolitionists in Britain and the United States — British firms such as Macaulay & Babington and American ones such as Brown & Ives — needed to demonstrate the viability, efficiency, and profitability of plantation production in places like Sierra Leone and Liberia, first to undermine the slave trade and then the entire Caribbean slave plantation system. Outfits such as Zachary Macaulay and James Cropper’s Tropical Free-Sugar Company arose to develop “legitimate commerce” in West Africa and spearhead the abolitionists’ protectionist campaign.

Ultimately, however, the commercial abolitionists’ lobbying efforts muddled their motives and left them open to attacks by proslavery opponents. The slaver-merchant class reveled in pointing out the apparent hypocrisy of brandishing moral arguments to benefit one’s business interests. What’s more, the critics could readily point to “free” plantation practices that bordered on slavery. In the 1820s, accusations of serfdom or indenture on Macaulay and Cropper’s plantations in the East Indies dealt a humiliating blow to the fundamental precepts of commercial abolitionism. Similar charges reappeared from the 1830s to the 1850s.

Placed on the back foot, defenders of ethical capitalism rushed to defend their project. Commercial abolitionists argued that “free labor” in the British colonies was still inefficient due to a lack of education and training; hence, a temporary period of apprenticeship — marked by poor working conditions and continued colonial oversight — was necessary. In West Africa, this meant defending domestic slavery as a stabilizing institution in an economically backward region (destabilized, they freely admitted, by centuries of slave trading).

Blue glass antislavery sugar bowl, c. 1830. (British Museum)

“The rationale that allowed a shift among free-produce consumers toward accepting unfree labor conditions globally,” Everill explains, “was the argument that African slavery, or East Indian slavery, was different from New World slavery.” Because “nothing was as bad as white-owned plantation slavery, and therefore everything else” — even indentured or enserfed labor — “could be described as ethical capitalism.” The plight of exploited laborers caught in “benign” systems of African or Asian domestic slavery could be rationalized away — by distance and relativism — like a lump of sugar dissolving in the backwater.

Everill shows that the purpose of the new commercial ethics “was to use global free trade to find the cheapest free labor. The wages paid to those laborers would ‘civilize’ them, allowing them to participate in global commerce and gradually raising their standard of living.” Consumers could continue luxuriating in their tropical goods without assuming the moral burdens of unadulterated chattel slavery operating in their imperial dominium.

From Whitewashing to Greenwashing

The fair trade movement coalesced in the 1990s around the idea that Global North consumers of coffee, chocolate, bananas, and other tropical goods ought to know the products’ origins, from working conditions of growers to the dynamics of production. Consumers could then moralize the marketplace with ethical purchasing.

After launching in 1997, Fairtrade recruited farmers into membership, set and enforced production standards, and marketed their products to consumers with its trademarked logo. Companies flocked to the program.

But, in the past decade, corporations have increasingly abandoned Fairtrade and other third-party certifiers for their own in-house schemes, with their own bespoke (and opaque) standards. According to Ecolabel Index, there are now some 455 different sustainability logos peppering supermarket shelves. For these corporations, the point is not merely to overwhelm the consumer but to mystify any claim of authenticity — simultaneously shedding accountability and increasing control over the production process.

A similar trend can be seen in the rebranding efforts of apparel companies following the sweatshop scandals of the late 1990s. Instead of surrendering power to regulators and workers, brand executives launched a corporate social responsibility blitz centered on public relations. They deployed the rhetoric of empowerment, partnership, and “girl-led” development while self-regulating through handpicked sweatshop inspectors and NGOs — laundering reputations while busting unions and continuing to impose immiserating price pressures on suppliers unable to meet production costs.

These days, in the face of global inaction on climate change, sustainable consumerism has become the practice du jour for the ethical buyer. Purchasing the right products can seem like the most practical way the average person can wield some power. But, as climate activist Philipp Chmel argues, “sustainable consumerism also has a more starkly regressive aspect, for it constitutes a shift in responsibility away from production and business and toward the consumer.” When “saving the planet becomes a matter of personal choices rather than general social regulations,” it follows that “people with low incomes often simply can’t afford a good conscience.”

Meanwhile, as Nicole Aschoff writes, “big investors and fund managers are positioning themselves as ethical intermediaries at the center of a new movement for ‘impact investing’ — investments that claim to prioritize environmental, social, and governance concerns,” so-called ESG metrics on everything from carbon emissions to company diversity. Again, these figures are almost entirely self-reported.

In short, yesterday’s commercial abolitionists are today’s green capitalists. They insist that a deeply hierarchical, profit-obsessed economic system can be harmonized with moral values — in the past, antislavery, and in the present, ecological sustainability. Undergirding both is the fundamental assumption that the harms of capitalism can be solved by capitalism — it’s all a matter of tweaking incentives for consumers (while undercutting workers and absolving multinational corporations).

It’s telling that Not Made by Slaves can chronicle the saga of the commercial abolitionists without much reference to enslaved peoples’ militant struggles against bondage and colonial domination in the Caribbean and wider Atlantic. But that is precisely the point, and one of the other lessons we might take from Everill’s impressive and challenging historical study: Businesses may indeed co-opt the language of social justice so long as they can sell it to consumers. Yet only worker-centered collective action has the potential to save, and remake, the world.