BOOK (2000)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 July, 2010, 12:00am

No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies
by Naomi Klein
(Knopf Canada)

The idea that if something is cheap, then someone had to suffer making it has been a tenet of the political left for years. That idea is as true today as ever, but as Naomi Klein's influential 2000 book No Logo made clear, items no longer have to be cheap for workers to be exploited.

Klein's book charts the move away from manufacturing items to branding that occurred inside big corporations such as Nike during the 1990s, and explains how this had negative repercussions for workers across the globe. It's a well-researched journalistic analysis which was recently republished in a 10th-anniversary edition that updates some of the book's topics.

Klein's work is expansive, examining everything from the effects of Starbucks' brutal corporate tactics in the United States to prison-like sweatshops in the Philippines. But the heart of her thesis is contained in a change of approach made by US corporations in the 1990s, from manufacturing to branding.

Before the 1990s, companies such as Nike focused on the objects they produced, usually in factories they owned. During the 1990s, marketing companies made the idea of the company fashionable, rather than the goods that it sold. Corporate funds were transferred from manufacturing to marketing departments, who used the money to promote brand images.

Corporations closed their factories and outsourced manufacturing to the cheapest contractors, usually in Latin America and Asia. When US companies owned their factories, usually located in the US, they were subject to labour laws that protected workers from exploitation. By outsourcing to foreign contractors, the corporations were absolved of such responsibilities. Worker exploitation grew to a disgusting degree as foreign contractors fought to be the cheapest suppliers.

Have things changed during the past 10 years? Not really, Klein says in the introduction to the 2010 edition. A good chunk of No Logo is spent optimistically detailing the NGOs and political organisations who opposed corporate exploitation in the 1990s. While these continued to grow in Latin America, they were sidelined in the developed West by the political shifts that occurred after 9/11. Workplace abuse continued.

Now the recession has changed the public's perception of branding: showing one's affluence by flashing a logo has become a social gaffe.

The BP oil spill has done much to encourage the public to look behind a company's media image for the horrible truth. After all, BP's brand rather bizarrely focused on some ersatz green credentials. But the big corporate brands are now so rich and powerful, they are simply searching out new ways to rebrand themselves for the changing times.