The Ethics of YouTube Merch 

By Anna Harberger and Sareen Bekerian

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Once upon a time, YouTube was a platform that attracted lonely teenagers making comedy sketches and makeup tutorials. Thirteen years later, YouTube has grown into a larger, hungrier beast of a website.

Over time, individuals have become financially and artistically subject to “creatives” who brand themselves for the masses to purchase, co-opt, and live vicariously through.

With the advent of Adsense (video monetization), brand sponsorships, and unrelenting promotions of merchandise, YouTube and it's content creators use expensive ring-lights and Facetune-d Instagram brand deals to manipulate unassuming viewers through constructed intimacy. While I enjoy my fair share of Taco Bell mukbangs, I’m making a feeble attempt to hold onto a certain level of skepticism, especially when more and more creators promote their merchandise.

Once companies realized they could profit off of this new form of media through buying ad space in YouTube videos, creators stopped worrying about the artistry of their content. Instead, making content became based on algorithmically figuring out the best way to maximize how many people they will reach and how much money they will make.

Some of the first viral YouTube videos probably would not get the same attention if they were to be posted today, as video creating has become more competitive. With YouTubers paying for professional film equipment and even full film crews, low budget videos like “Charlie Bit My Finger” or “Chocolate Rain” wouldn't reach the same views as they did when they were posted on YouTube in 2008.

From backpacks and sweatpants to youth sports bras and marijuana paraphernalia, YouTuber merchandise, more affectionately called “merch,” usually comes in two or three on-trend colors (see Millennial Pink or Gen Z Yellow.) Demarcated by some defining slogan, logo, or design, merch triggers an automatic associative response of “Jake Paul!” in brains of local young people. While mundane on its surface, its popularization begs some questions in the age of “ethical consumerism.”

According to TubeFilter, e-commerce companies like Teespring says it saw the highest-ever number of YouTuber signups for its service in 2017, citing a 400% increase in daily signups by YouTubers since March of 2016. In 2016 alone, Teespring paid out $2.9 million to content creators  — who sold a total of $6.7 million worth of merchandise in profit, according to the company.

As profit becomes the center of the YouTube experience, the authenticity of once altruistic intentions of a creative platform dwindles. With the help of e-commerce apps like Sellfy creators even have tools that can estimate a YouTuber’s potential increase in earnings based on their monthly view counts if they sold merch.  

When mass profit is being generated from sales of merchandise, you have to ask who is stuffing the wallets of YouTube content creators: kids under the age of 18 without a disposable income. Because of age and lack of financial independence, young people are more susceptible to commercial manipulation.

The subtle mixing of art and consumerism is hardly a new phenomenon. Consider the strategy and mere existence of the modern advertising industry. Manipulating our desire for connection and lust for aesthetic beauty is weaved into what appears to spread information, humor, and even joy in order for the end result of making money. What makes the growth of YouTuber merch increasingly less ethical a practice is how intimate the false connection between buyer and seller becomes.

When the merchant is “friends” with their millions of subscribers or customers, they should at least be expected to make their products accessible for all different demographics of people. But this, too, is not the case. YouTuber Emma Chamberlain sent shockwaves throughout social media when she released her line of merchandise.

Fans complained about Chamberlain’s items being overpriced, available only in one size (without a size chart), and intentionally ambiguous, blurred image descriptions. All the while, Chamberlain sold the items for final sale and did not outline shipping costs.

The detrimental environmental effects of merchandise production, like with any store or company, depends on how much creators want to make, the manufacturing companies they choose, and the amount of product they make. Industrial production in the fast fashion industry is a major cause of pollution and waste, often at the cost of exploitative sweatshop labor conditions.

In terms of information on ethics and systems of YouTube-specific merchandise production, there is not a lot of information out there. As a consumer, I want to know whether the products are made ethically. How is material sourced? Is it made in the United States or abroad? Are workers being paid fair and livable wages.

If I couldn't find clear answers to these questions after two hours of scavenging the internet, other shoppers are going to have similar experiences.

So, where do we go from here? For advice, I’ve turned to William Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much With US.” Here, Wordsworth comments that “getting and spending, we lay our powers waste.” While he might’ve been commenting on the growing industrialization of England in the early 19th century, his ideas could not be more relevant in today’s late-stage capitalist culture and economy.

Increasingly, it is words like these that force individuals to look in the mirror and inform our actions in the 21st century. The dehumanizing factory work and brutal child labor conditions of the 19th century have grown into sweatshop labor and environmental decay of fast fashion.  Like the time of Wordsworth, avarice, materialism, and selfishness are normalized by the ethos of capitalism. Now and then, the spirit of the individual has grown increasingly disconnected from what once cultivated humanity: creativity, empathy, and admiration for all that is natural.

The final question: To buy or not to buy the Shane Dawson Illuminati Popsocket? To that, I say “maybe.” Proceed with thoughtfulness. Question how meaningful owning this object would be. Do your best, and know where it (and anything else you buy) is made. Stay curious and skeptical.