Being an ethical consumer is the ‘in’ thing the world over, irrespective of whether one really has or knows enough of what it takes to fit the bill. Talk about ethical shopping and you can drive people around you into an eco-caring frenzy, complete with dramatic skyward motions of their eyes and spiels on new-age virtuousness. Ethical consumerism is currently a thriving industry where products and services can’t stop shouting out loud about their ecological merits and inclinations.
Acquiring and flaunting labels of ethics in all that one does has become an imperative of political correctness. However, ethical lives will not emanate from touting ethics as fashionable labels, but from consuming with care, discretion and informed decision-making. It’s time to get real: ethical consumerism isn’t about renunciation and regression, but about regulation and rationalisation.
It is essential therefore, to promote the message in a manner that will not just allow consumers to dismiss ethical consumerism as a passing phenomenon because they feel companies are resorting to cheap, tugging-at-the-heart-strings campaigning and strategies to boost sales. Rather, consumers need to be made acutely aware that whatever we do, buy, use or dispose of can leave a mark on the world, be it the pollution caused by manufacture, execution or disposal, the health fallouts of using products made with and containing toxic chemicals, the cruelty meted out to animals, or tacit encouragement to sweatshop labour exploited for producing cheaper goods in bulk. Notably, Fair Trade products are labelled with the Fair Trade logo, which gives consumers a brand, which they can recognise, along with the slogan to ‘guarantee a better deal for third world producers.’ This promotes the underlying effect of purchasing power, which in turn allows consumers to make an informed decision when purchasing Fair Trade products.
An informed choice is a way of announcing clear consciences to the world. And it should not just stop at being that. Ethical consumerism is a long-term relationship between buyer and producer and hence consumers must feel like applying the same in their daily purchasing power. Politically aware consumers can make ethical purchases but also resist unfair trade practices through citizen campaigns and pressuring governments and companies to improve the social and environmental performance of trade. Non Government Organisations, collaborating with groups of aware consumers can do more to place pressure on transnational companies to participate directly in institutions promoting ethical consumerism like Fair Trade.
In reality however, it is questionable whether these institutions of ethical consumerism deliver. Markedly there are many limitations to Fair Trade, and it cannot be seen as an answer to root causes of poverty and inequality. It only guarantees protection against unequal and competitive international markets to a minority of small-scale producers in Fair Trade partnerships. However, it is arguable that Fair Trade is part of a growing social movement and a positive element of globalisation and, if growth continues, Fair Trade will penetrate the mainstream market.
A key challenge for Fair Trade and most other ethical consumerism movements remains the education of consumers. For this reason our Human Rights in Practice Group decided to take upon ourselves the task of ‘raising consumer awareness of human rights violations of producers in the cocoa bean industry’ amongst students from the University of Warwick and Coventry. We quickly found that although there is a mountain of literature available on the low wages, long working hours, child labour, trafficking and slavery involved in the cocoa bean production, this is not an issue widely debated in a learning environment. This was supported by a survey we conducted amongst four-hundred students at both the Universities, which demonstrated that close to eighty percent of both student bodies were unaware of these human rights abuses. Moreover, close to sixty-five percent responded in the affirmative that there is a need for more active campaigning. This clearly demonstrates that although the vast majority of students are aware of the Fair Trade label, they are not actively practicing ethical consumerism when purchasing Fair Trade chocolate.
As university students we are in a prime position to make that move toward informed ethical consumerism. So take that extra minute to read the message on the wrappers of Fair Trade chocolate, attend our workshops and lend an ear to the campaigning; after all the best way to inspire others is to take the first step yourself – so let’s make a difference.
With contibutions from Bhavna Gokals, Sarah Hishan and Tahira Manji. Email for details about Human Rights in Practice Group workshops in January.