To buy or not to buy ?

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From 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.

Consumer movements

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.

Fair trade

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. 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”.

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.).

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