17/07/2008 2:22 pmFrom moral boycotts to green brands, “ethical consumerism” takes many forms in our world of globalisation. The movement has existed for over two centuries, but today it particularly targets the practices of large corporations. However, although organic and ethical businesses are starting to take near-industrial proportions, their impact is still marginal.
To consume – or not to consume – can be a political act, and a relatively old one at that, although early examples mainly took the form of boycotts. The boycott of English tea played a crucial role at the beginning of the American War of Independence. In India, Gandhi led a boycott of English textiles and the Salt March, two pivotal moments in his country’s movement towards independence. In the United States, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 sparked the movement to abolish racial segregation, after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. Although some predominantly political boycotts still exist (on products from South Africa or Israel, for example), the movement has changed. It now focuses on the practices of large corporations, and takes several different forms, in particular, that of fair trade.
Household appliances in the headlines
The European Union has implemented a system of energy labels that indicate the energy efficiency of some household appliances, light bulbs, and most recently, vehicles. Energy efficiency is assigned a letter, ranging from A (very good) to G (very poor). A+ and A++ are now also possible.
The energy labels have been compulsory since 1994 for white goods, and have had a far-reaching effect on the industry. In a few years, the most heavily polluting categories have been eliminated and almost all goods are now labelled A or B.
This therefore constitutes a major example of the power of consumer awareness to change both consumer practices and industry. However, it is more doubtful whether energy labels could have the same impact on real estate or vehicles, since other factors come into play (cost, appearance, comfort, etc.).
Consumer movements can be traced back to as early as the 19th century. However, they gained ground after the Second World War. In France, the Union fédérale des consommateurs (UFC, first known as the Union fédérale de la consommation), was founded in 1951. In the 1960s, attitudes changed towards consumption: less could be consumed, and we could consume differently, without changing our standard of living, and perhaps even improving it (see De-growth). In the United States, Public Citizen and its lawyer Ralph Nader fight class action lawsuits against corporations.
First appearing after the Second World War, fair trade is grounded in commercial practices ensuring higher, and thus fairer, compensation for producers. In exchange for this compensation, producers agree to abide by certain principles: no child or forced labour; proper work health and safety; no discrimination based on gender, religion, or race; monitoring work hours; freedom to form unions, etc. [Debate]
Fair trade is not exclusive to North-South trade. It can also be found among North countries, with the development of alternative trade channels such as local purchasing (directly from producer to consumer, without resorting to large-scale retail). In France, the AMAP is an example of such community-supported agriculture associations. Another example is fair trade initiatives in favour of underprivileged populations.
Originally, fair trade consisted of small associations in charge of importing and directly marketing to consumers, over and above classic distribution channels. However over the past decade a growing number of fair trade players are being distributed in supermarkets.[Debate]
As a result, sales have considerably increased: worldwide, they reached over €1.6 billion in 2006, which represents an increase of more than 42% over 2005. This growth brings fair trade into the realm of industrialisation. Some question this development and query whether it is compatible with the initial goals of fair trade.
Access to information
Consumers can only make responsible choices if they have access to information on the social and environmental conditions under which goods are produced. For this reason, various fair trade and ethical consumerism movements insist on the need for transparency regarding companies and their products’ traceability. A large part of the work of these movements consists of raising public awareness.
To facilitate the decisions of consumers, various labels have been created as guidelines. However, the sheer number of these labels often muddies the issue. To complicate matters further, they often differ from country to country. At worst, some labels which producers grant themselves amount to nothing more than marketing tools. [Debate]
It is best to put more stock in labels approved by a third, independent party that can vouch for a company’s compliance with its commitments. In France, the ‘AB’ label (Agriculture biologique) is granted the Ministry of Agriculture. The FSC label (Forest Stewardship Council) for sustainable forestry practices was implemented by leading ecological organisations. [See the article on standards and labels ]
Forerunners of the European Eco-label system, implemented in 1992, included the German Blue Angel (1977) and the Nordic Swan (1989) ecolabels.
Fair trade or organic?
Ethical consumers are occasionally faced with a difficult choice: to buy organic [Debate] or to support fair trade. After all, products of fair trade often are shipped from the other side of the planet; the energy consumed while they are transported to their final point of consumption results in considerable greenhouse gas emissions. Which is better: to buy organic beans produced locally (local purchasing) or beans produced in a fair trade cooperative in Kenya? There is no simple answer to this question. It depends on the precise nature of the product in question, the exact conditions of production, and the sensibilities of the consumer.
Fair trade begs the questions of how effective it really is. Although it is enjoying rapid growth, it still accounts for only an extremely small fraction of trade, under 10 percent maximum on a few key products such as coffee. In spite of increased use of certified wood, the tide of deforestation has not been stemmed. Hundreds of thousands of individuals still benefit from this industry. Moreover, if public authorities included organic or fair trade criteria in their tenders, they could profoundly change trade channels. For example, organic cafeterias or ecolabel wood used in public buildings could give rise to considerable new markets. However, even if demand enjoyed a spectacular increase, the fair trade sector would still have great difficulty increasing production, especially if it wanted to stay true to its initial commitments. [Debate]
GoodPlanet has launched a non-profit Internet site dedicated to ethical consumerism . The site provides information on products, books, articles, and practical tips to “consume better and less”.
« Produire ou ne pas produire ? Est-il justifié de croire en la souveraineté du consommateur? », Tim Cooper, dans L'Economie politique n°39, juillet 2008.
La consommation citoyenne, alternatives économiques HSn°26.
Confession of an eco-sinner, Fred Pearce