Ethics. I never studied philosophy and so consequently I still think this word has practical meaning in the real world. It is not an abstract that can be divorced from how we behave, or what policy we choose to support. And whilst ethics or a sense of morality may not be universal it is neither just a toothless classroom term. Human beings are fundamentally affected by our notion of what is ethical. More importantly, people who you may never meet will live or die by the extent to which you choose to give a damn.
A somewhat cryptic opener, I admit. It is spurred on by two current concerns of mine which are enjoying a brief confluence at the ‘ethical crossroads’. Both relate very much to us at Warwick.
Firstly, it may have come to some of your attentions recently that our Students’ Union Council voted eighteen-to-eighteen (in a tie) on the issue of whether the SU has the prerogative to accept sponsorship from Oil companies. The proposal to withhold this right on grounds of such companies’ poor ethical record –in an environmental, and humanitarian sense- was put forward after it transpired that Shell has already sponsored the SU to the tune of £8,500. The Chairperson at Council’s meeting had the casting vote on the issue, and voted in favour of the motion proposing the ban on sponsorship and advertising.
A number of our Sabbatical Team spoke against the proposal, and it should be noted, only narrowly lost. It is true that financial concerns constitute a legitimate grievance –and therefore presumably explain the rationale behind the ‘No’ vote-, especially when the responsibility is on our Sabbs to provide the best experience for Warwick students that they can. Indeed, it would be in no one’s interest if societies started disaffiliating due to funding restrictions imposed upon them. Nonetheless, it serves to highlight a trend in Union politics that I find worrying.
It is no secret that our SU President believes strongly in prioritising Warwick issues, at the expense of ideological campaigns. Readers need only seek out a back copy of the Boar in order to find such words in quotation. Yet whilst last year students voted in favour of not banning speakers from campus, some of our Sabbs have already contradicted the democratic position adopted through the referendum by voting in favour of No Platform at the NUS level.
One democratic contradiction, as I see it, does little to reassure us that another will not follow suit. Posing ‘Ideology’ and ‘Warwick issues’ as diametrically opposed is also fatally misleading. A pledge to continued support for Fairtrade is largely ideological. As it was overwhelmingly supported by the largest democratic vehicle (i.e. the referendum) on campus mere months ago, it is also inherently a Warwick issue.
This leads me to my second point. The modicum of ‘populist, middle-class liberal’ within me has been greatly buoyed by the presence of Ubuntu Cola in the Arts Centre café and other outlets on campus. Ubuntu, translating into English as ‘humanity, fellow feeling or kindness’, is a Fairtrade drink, produced by sub-Saharan societies, with the agricultural production largely based in Malawi. The farmers are part of the Kasinthula Smallholder Cane Grower Scheme. This cooperative is democratically run, and the land is tilled by families and small holders. The Ubuntu company itself sends fifteen percent of all pre-tax profit to other African development schemes.
Here though, I would invoke a true diametric opposite. I have already outlined the fear I feel for our University’s last bastions of ethical conduct at the hands of an apparently unscrupulous SU regime –Fairtrade being an exemplum. As a result I am not surprised, though still eternally outraged, by the fact that in Costcutters, and a number of Union venues I am still able to pick up a Coke. Worse still, at most of these watering holes I cannot find my beloved Ubunto, Paragon of all things wholesome.
My problem with Coca-Cola lies not in the fact that it is the ubiquitous face of globalisation –though this is irksome in itself. No. I am more concerned with the fact that I can still walk around any number of campus watering holes and find the product of a company guilty of the use of Salvadorean child labour; guilty of the repression of South American trade unions; guilty of devastating already parched Indian communities by depriving their farmland of water necessary for crop irrigation. Its convenient subcontracting to regional bottling plants and factories allows it to wash its hands of the devastating social consequence of its very existence. Coca-Cola blithely allows paramilitary groups to murder activists in trade unions established to provide a basic living wage and job security.
There is no space here to provide a full account of the ethical desert inhabited by Coca-Cola, but suffice it to say that it would be in familiar company on a list with Big Oil and Big Tobacco. And as our Union Council struggles to cling to the ideological imperative of ethical sponsorship and advertising I have dwindling faith.
We must turn the market forces on the unethical giants. I implore you to have an Ubuntu and feel the Peace. Leave aside the Coca-Cola and its appropriately blood-red colouring. If it’s the case that we cannot rely on precedence and democracy then we must rely on our own refusal to allow ethical apathy to take more lives in San Salvador and Columbia. Give a damn.