At the start of Winter break, I was welcomed back with open arms—rather, desperate, outstretched ones– by the managers at the Marshalls I worked at before college in my hometown. While frantically walking around the store trying to recover clothes tossed on the floor and hung haphazardly on hangers, I noticed a pattern in terms of design. As I slid hangers across clothing racks full of holiday sweaters, I grimaced at the sight of shirts and sweaters with the words “Be Kind,” “Amour University,” and better yet, “Kindness University: Be Kind to All Kinds.”
This sort of design or “kindness merch” is sold nearly everywhere, including online shopping sites such as Etsy and Amazon, as well as fast fashion websites such as Romwe and Shein. When they’re not on display in stores, they’re merely a scroll or Google Search away. Other slogans include “In a world where you can be anything, be kind,” which equates kindness to a career path or aspiration, rather than a personality trait that all people should have. Shirts with the phrase “it takes $0 to be kind” convey the pricelessness of kindness while profiting off it in the process.
This niche of attire showcases the absurd extent to which kindness has been commodified. Virtues of love and kindness have been turned into marketing ploys and have lost their depth of meaning in the process. While I understand the intent behind these designs, it seems laughable that people would need reminders to treat other people with basic human decency. Individuals that genuinely value kindness are kind regardless of whether people remind them to be. Kindness is simply their natural approach in relating to other people.
It’s increasingly ironic that people buy these shirts with the intent of bolstering kindness in the hearts of others while supporting unethical labor practices with their purchases. The same T-shirt boasting about the pricelessness and simplicity of kindness makes no effort to support these claims by its means of production. They tend to be produced in the same fast fashion factories that buyers so often lament, produced by child labor, in unsafe conditions with long hours and limited pay. Kindness merch is the fashion equivalent of performative activism, offering no insight or practical advice about how to incorporate kindness into one’s life and turning a blind eye to the people hurt in the process. Beyond these human rights violations, the fast fashion industry also harms the environment. The cheaply produced fabrics break down easily after only a few wears and are thrown out as a result, adding to the growing landfills and fabric pollution.
These issues beg the question: is there room for “kindness” merch under the exploitative nature of capitalism? Shirts boasting about kindness are incompatible with capitalism itself and the exploitations of fast fashion. Additionally, is exploitation inevitable under capitalism? While exploitation itself is inevitable in a fallen world, capitalism is more adept at turning nearly all aspects of the human condition and existence into marketable experiences.
For instance, seemingly monotonous or ordinary parts of one’s routine have been commodified. The commodification of experiences also reinforces social groupings such as mugs or sweatshirts embroidered with “coffee lover” and hats that say “antisocial” for introverts evading social interaction. The commodification of kindness doesn’t seem particularly absurd if one considers the fact that everything is commodified under capitalism. It is only when we use external markers to validate or glorify basic human decency that this process of commodification becomes problematic.
Instead of sustaining fast fashion and engaging in half-hearted activism through kindness merch, people can buy clothes from ethical clothing brands or better yet, buy clothes second hand. As the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words, and donating to charitable organizations or working with non-profit organizations first hand is more likely to persuade others to do the same than a “be kind” shirt they see in passing.