The Hidden Implications Behind the Ideology of Passive Income

Passive income. Not to dream of labor. Retiring at 30. Drop-shipping. E-commerce. Digital products. You’ve probably already heard of these words, terms, life goals. They have been referred to quite a lot over the past years, marketed as one of the many fast and concrete strategies to generate money and expand your wealth. To me, they became noticeable when they started appearing on my Youtube, Instagram, and Medium feeds, just around the time when the pandemic struck. While a lot of us were quite severely attacked economically, others started to benefit from the digitalization of work and transactions. Perhaps you, too, have found yourself drawn to ads in which ‘making easy money’ is promised, with their strange and fascinating reality, educating you on the mechanism of this ‘new’ economy as well as its successful leaders. It can feel smooth and soft to be caught up in their discourses, listening to the voices of advertisers whispering about what seems to be the newest dream of our generation: passive income through digital products, and its promise of making money while doing (almost) nothing.

The Advertised Path of Selling Digital {roducts

Figure 1, Screenshot from google search: How to make money online

Look up, if you will, the following in your search engine: Making Money Online. It is probably not universal science, but you will quite likely find similar answers to the ones listed above: ‘start drop shipping’, ‘try print on demand’, or, lastly, ‘make money with affiliate marketing’. If your algorithm by now did not yet recommend videos of ‘experts’ explaining their ‘leadership methods’, and if you still don’t have a clue what this is all about, you can easily find resources by typing ‘e-book’, ‘print on demand’, ‘drop shipping’, and ‘affiliate marketing’. Here, you’ll find a bunch of people sharing their knowledge very willingly, as well as their experiences so you don’t have to make the same mistakes as they did. Existing within a digital society where goods can be immaterial, reproducible and transactions can be facilitated to the point where they become almost invisible, it has never been so easy to make money online – if we are to believe these digital guru’s words. 

Figure 2, Screenshot from Youtube ads Free Challenge with the 7-day Revenue

For me, there is a dissonance in my relationship with these practices. They fascinate me as much as they make me question my own convictions. Being a by-product of this economy myself, and experiencing both what it gives and takes away, I am forced to admit that I, too, would not refuse the pleasures of absolute financial freedom. Given the current circumstances and crisis of the past two years, we all seem to understand the precious costs of life — the importance of doing something useful with our lives. Therefore extra earnings, and if possible sustainable ones, would surely make everyone feel more at ease in their own positions: the desire for this life of comfort needs no deconstruction.

Should we then condemn these e-commerce and internet-driven businesses, for given us (false) hopes or a capitalist way of life? No, because, in fact, they are quite genius. They enabled a form of independence for many individuals trying to escape their precarious lifestyle. In the article: ‘It’s bullshit’: Inside the weird, get-rich-quick world of dropshipping’,  writer Sirin Kale underlines what it means for young people to start a business. Quite often it means being financially and mentally free from the burden of loans, or the future’s uncertainty. 

‘I didn’t want the 250k in debt that would have happened if I’d continued with dentistry. My parents were so stressed. I saw them get older, right before my eyes, with the stress. I felt like this guilt, all the trauma like I was to blame. My sister almost went to community college because we spent all the money on me.’

Figure 3, Meme from the webpage Sheek Freaks, Post #25: The Best Ways for You to Make Money While You Sleep

Still, these financial dynamics should always be apprehended in the context of their history. It is important to understand why such individuals would give these businesses a try, and why they dream of becoming, one day, successful e-commerce business owners themselves. For who knows — later on, they could even become a mentor to those starting out. A lot of people of both the Millennial generation and younger are exhausted. They feel rejected, abandoned by this society. They don’t dream of doing more work, specifically ‘labor work’. But to dream of no labor often means getting individual financial freedom through questionable aims. 

While some of us might hope to get rid of our day-to-day work, this dream implies that there’s someone else doing this labor for us. Whether it’s your newsletter, filling in the e-mail list, repairing your computer CPU, or cleaning your kitchen: the labor always still needs to be done by someone. Therefore, in dreaming of the absence of labor and hopes of getting financial freedom, it is important to ask certain questions regarding the ethics of this new ideology. To become a boss and lead a business might be the new fantasy of our neo-liberal society, and a perfect example of how individual needs are moving front and center. By trying to survive in our own way, and perhaps even thrive, we might all be tempted to generate passive income and the peculiar strategies behind it. Still, the implications behind this money-making scheme go far beyond the individual.

The Promise of a Sustainable Dream

With this aim of making money online and the attempt to generate passive income, there is a desire to gain (absolute) freedom. To spend more time with our loved ones, to do the things that genuinely excite us, and to generate a narrative for our lives that resonates with us. It is an understandable feeling, specifically given the uncertainty of our times. But let’s not forget: we are in the middle of a crisis. An economic and social one, that has been enhanced by climate conditions and ecological catastrophes. A crisis which has been aggravated by our current economy, the overproduction of goods and their transportations through the world by non-sustainable transport. While many individuals claim that leading businesses and generating wealth online is eldorado, this thought leads us to wonder, should we then all become ‘digital entrepreneurs’? 

E-commerce and digital products seem to propose an alternative to our more old-fashioned practices, our ways to consume, and show us the potential of financial liberation. But what exactly are the implications and dynamics behind these practices? Currently, there are three main practices: print on demand, drop shipping, and affiliated marketing.

Print On Demand

‘Print on demand is a printing technology and business process in which copies are not printed until the company receives an order, allowing prints of single or small quantities’.– Wikipedia

While this definition, given by Wikipedia, seems to imply a more sustainable means of production, the concept of print on demand enables anyone to become a shop owner and create lines of clothes or objects to be shipped anywhere. By looking closely at the many different seller options, we see platforms that are smoothly designed in a way that makes website creation and clothing design seem effortless. Once the product is created, printed, and sold, the seller earns his money based on the margin profit. In order to sell, they’ll also have to advertise their products. 

In looking at this production scheme, we don’t even have to ask if we need more T-shirts. What we must ask ourselves is whether it might not be more sustainable to buy one at your local shop, thus supporting a small business instead of a big corporation The way we’re being advertised these ‘genius’ strategies and their minimalist design, however, makes us tempted to design one, buy one anyway, and to even give the whole idea a try. If the strategy doesn’t work, the state of things seems to remain the same, but if it does, how will we then stop ourselves from participating in this economy without any critical notion?


Figure 4, RedBubble Spontaneous T-Shirts examples

In the article ‘Is Your Greta Thunberg T-Shirt Contributing to Climate Change?’ journalist Jasmin Malik Chua explains quite clearly the ambiguous relationship between trying to support your ideological hero and the actual consequences of merchandising: 

‘But the problem with T-shirts, even those purporting to promote climate action, is they’re especially hard on the environment. Just growing the cotton that goes into one can take 2,700 liters of water — enough for a person to drink for two-and-a-half years — and, if it isn’t farmed organically, a third of a pound of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.’

While the initial ambition behind print-on-demand could help with the overproduction of products, it makes it possible for any individual to produce merch and advertise products that they’ve never seen or touched themselves. When platforms like RedBubble or TeeSpring emerged, intending to produce fewer goods, they may have had an inverted effect: if every individual starts their own brand, production will be limitless. If we believe in reducing fashion output, maybe we don’t need another cat t-shirt in our closet.

Yet who’s to blame? The platform, the digital gurus telling us to all get on board, or us, the consumers? Whether starting these businesses is ethical or not does not seem for the user/seller to decide. Still, behind the non-demanding aspect of these projects hours of labor are hidden. Labor that goes into producing the goods, but also labor that’s behind the effort and publicity to sell the product. The luckiest ones will surely sell their t-shirt, and their fantasy of ‘becoming rich fast’ will become reality. Many of these wanna-be entrepreneurs however will remain unsuccessful, desperately trying to find a new niche, trying to sell the customer something they never knew they needed. 


In the case of dropshipping, where digital entrepreneurs sell a cheaply imported product from a manufacturer overseas for a higher price, not only the quality of the products but also the conditions of the workers are important factors to take into consideration. Dropshipping providers and suppliers, quite often located in  America and Asia (such as Amazon, Alibaba, Ali Express, and many others), make their employees work terrible working hours in inhuman conditions. It is because the production costs are so cheap that the Western individual can profit from it. When analyzed, the power offered by drop shipping services and the potential individual financial freedom gained from these businesses has one big main cost: the living conditions of others down the production chain. Alibaba and Ali Express surely do not have a bright reputation, Amazon either. We all are aware of the awful settings of big manufacturers. For those who weren’t in the article, Green America noted in the article ‘Amazon: Labor Issues At Home And Abroad, ‘​​Workers report long hours, timed bathroom breaks, surveillance of work productivity/speed, intense isolation from others, physically demanding quotas, and other difficult conditions to work under. These working conditions take a physical and mental toll on the workers, who are often treated more as a data set or a robot than as humans.’

Figure 5, Website Design UK For Internet Startup Business Ideas Drop shipping Startup Website For Sale – Website Design UK

Dropshipping platforms are so easily and minimally designed so that anyone with an internet connection can become a shop owner and promote products in a matter of minutes. Numerous YouTube videos will teach you how to find the key product, the nice object, the valuable good which will surely sell. If everything goes smoothly, the drop shipper will hardly see any transactions happening. If the clients happen to be discontent about the products, they will then have to proceed to administrative follow-up with the providers, which sometimes happens to be difficult because of the provider’s location distance. So the next time our expensive water bottle from a chic website takes five weeks to arrive in the mail, we can guess where it was from. Once again, the question of the locality and transportations of the products arises. The crisis we are in demonstrated how every transaction and transportation is globalized and how limited we are when the world stops. But then, the sky got clearer, oceans were brighter. If we get back to how it was before and start to all partake in these digital economic transactions, what would have we learned from our previous lessons? 

Affiliate Marketing

Figure 6, Screenshot from the webpage Affiliate Marketing in 2021: How to Find High-Paying Programs and Start Your Affiliate Business

When it comes to affiliate marketing, it is, to say the least, non-laborious. Affiliate marketing is the process of earning money (commissions) every time you promote a company’s products or services and drive a sale. One click can generate profit. On the other hand, its sustainability very much depends on the products shared with the audience and the platform they are initially shipped from. Affiliate marketing links can be a great way to support certain industries by also being rewarded for it. Through each link and product bought, the seller can make interesting margins by, quite simply, sharing an URL. Sadly, it is quite often websites such as Amazon or other massive suppliers which offer these possibilities, as they remain the main owners of stocks. To partake in partnership with these companies would not be as problematic if these suppliers would somehow act and change their policy and treatment in terms of human conditions, climate change, and perhaps even commit to their promises. But they don’t. 

ʻDespite Amazon’s public commitment to renewable energy, the world’s largest cloud computing company is hoping no one will notice that it’s still powering its corner of the internet with dirty energy,” said Greenpeace USA Senior Corporate Campaigner Elizabeth Jardim. “Unless Amazon and other cloud giants in Virginia change course, our growing use of the internet could lead to more pipelines, more pollution, and more problems for our climate.

Greenpeace Finds Amazon Breaking Commitment to Power Cloud with 100% Renewable Energy 

While many argue that e-commerce has suppressed a lot of unnecessary costs of in-store shopping, perhaps even lowering the consumption of clients, let’s not forget that buying online will remain the new normal and that these actions have many other problematic implications. The report ‘E-Commerce and Its Environmental Impact, 2020’  emphasized the status of these businesses and how they infiltrated our everyday lives. Although the premises of e-commerce promised a more conscious behavior towards consumerism, the research notes:

‘Nevertheless, the determination of the environmental impact of E-Commerce is complicated by a range of considerations, including local transportation practices, and the type of delivery vehicles used by merchants, among others.’

Studies have demonstrated that even after the pandemic, people will quite likely continue to shop online. E-commerce and digital products will expand and remain, which makes this a great moment to reflect on the businesses partnerships we want to partake in.

On the Relevance and Power of Digital Goods

If you’ve read this text this far, you’ve probably been tempted to cross the line into e-commerce yourself. Perhaps you’ve contemplated selling illustrations on a silk-screened tee-shirt. Looked up cameras and gears on Amazon Affiliates. Maybe, just maybe, it’s even already too late. It is hard to resist the appeal of working with these companies and platforms because they make their transactions so effortless and because they are the main providers of products. As many gurus have stated: ‘It has never been so easy. Due to the hypocrisy behind these practices, it is also complex to be critical and reject the possibilities when these transactions are made to run so smoothly. It can be difficult to refuse these alluring financial gains when you’re living a precarious life. Sitting there, behind our screen, you’re being sold the idea that this is the only road towards independence, towards individual freedom, and therefore that this is a fair outcome. Perhaps it’s true that all of us can become e-commerce business owners, but what would happen if every individual actually started producing their own merch? Advertised products every single day? Drop shipped products from third world countries for rich people to buy? What would be the landscape of such a society look like? We will be almost 10 billion people in 2050; surely we’ll need more pencils, more online classes, more silly t-shirts. But more than that, we’ll need more care. As we will be both numerous and digitally literate, we also have to keep an eye on the many different ways in which these goods are produced and under which (harmful) conditions.

Existing in the same market, however, are sustainable digital products and e-commerce businesses. It is now possible to sell classes and courses offering a myriad of tools and knowledge which we can learn from, all made possible without having to travel, without the need for public transport, psychical aids, nothing more than our couch at home and our screen. The e-book, only printed selectively, has quite a sustainable effect on our paper consumption. Affiliate marketing can be an interesting way to mention valuable and ethical products. Interesting platforms such as Patreon and OnlyFans also exist, supporting different aims and businesses, offering more independence to their workers (although OnlyFans, of course, recently displayed a troubling attitude towards the sex workers using their platform). Selling online classes on Udemy, Skillshare or any other platform has made education more accessible and cheaper for people all around the world. The digital economy we now live in has enabled us to experiment and create new possibilities for ourselves, demonstrating the capabilities and potential of positive change existing within society.

As a result of this current climate, being an entrepreneur and owning a business is the new ‘do it yourself, sustainably’ lifestyle. It is, indeed, one of the ways in which an individual nowadays can follow their own path and become independent. While our economy is shifting towards a more freelance/gig-based economy, our economic status becomes more and more precarious. So then launching your own business and generating passive income seems like, the ideal opportunity to achieve true independence. The time is now to consider our own role in this digital creative economy. What if we turn it into something that is sustainable, shareable? It is tempting to take an individual, glorified path without questioning it. Perhaps to be critical is a privilege. Nevertheless, it is necessary and urgent to ask ourselves: how are our actions going to help the current situation we’re in?

Not everyone has to come up with an ingenious plan. It’s not just the responsibility of the individual: both the companies and their transactions need to be fully transparent about the conditions of labor behind it, and the implications on humankind and on the planet. In this ‘survival mode’ where one desperately needs to succeed in life, let’s think about the outcomes of such attitudes. Let’s think of ways to use the (economic) digital space to create fairness and equity. It is a question of survival for both our intellect and our bodies, but also mainly for our world. Asking ourselves: how do we build wealth, and at what cost?


Cassady Craighill, ‘Greenpeace Finds Amazon Breaking Commitment to Power Cloud with 100% Renewable Energy’, Green Peace,  13 ​​February 2019,

Green America, ‘Amazon: Labor Issues At Home And Abroad’, Green America

Jasmin Malik Chua, ‘Is your Greta Thunberg T-shirt contributing to climate change?’, Fashionista, 24 October 2019,

Sirin Kale, ‘‘It’s bullshit’: Inside the weird, get-rich-quick world of dropshipping’, Wired, 1st June 2020,


“The Environmental Impact of E-Commerce 2020”, DUBLIN, Jan. 23, 2020 /PRNewswire/ ——amazon-alibaba–zalando-making-efforts-to-curb-their-impact-through-logistics-efficiencies-electric-vehicle-deliveries-recycled-packaging-materials-300992270.html



Only Fans,


Red Bubble,





Morgane Billuart is a visual artist and writer who investigates the ways technological and digital advancements can help us create tools and experiences that serve us best and permit some sort of emancipation rather than alienation. She believes this can only happen through self-organization and the alliance of disciplines as well as diverse forms of expertise.