Consumed by ethics

16.03.2011
Shopping Center

Possibly the only commodity Britons can’t enjoy with clear conscience is their government’s foreign policy. Everything else you can buy. In 2008 ethical consumerism in the UK was worth £36 billion, compared to £13.5 billion in 1999. The ethical market now tops total sales of cigarettes and alcohol. And British people aren’t developing an aversion to beer.

Becoming mainstream

The once marginal concerns of 1980s third world debt campaigners and environmentalists have flooded the mainstream. Sales of Fairtrade food are expected to break the £1bn barrier in 2010. The ethically attuned consumer can now purchase a house with a green mortgage, go to work in an environmentally-friendly car, wear humane make-up, score a goal with a Fair Trade football, and invest on the stock market in a way that won’t contribute to human rights abuses. Anyone contemplating a murder can enjoy the peace of mind that comes with buying a lead-free bullet guaranteed not to damage the environment.

No eco-warrior

One man who has both chronicled andinfluenced the astonishing growth of the ethical living movement in the UK is Leo Hickman. A journalist with left liberal daily newspaper the Guardian, he attempted to live ethically for a year, shunning supermarkets for locally produced organic food, switching his bank account to an ethical alternative, buying washable nappies and making his own household cleaning products. He recorded his experiences in a weekly diary. Such was the interest that he now writes a weekly column helping to resolve the ethical dilemmas of readers such as choosing between bottled or canned beer and whether playing golf can ever be justified. Hickman says that, like many of the new converts to ethical consumption, he had no previous deep ideological commitment to environmental or human rights issues. “I’m certainly no eco-warrior, or someone who’s been passionately campaigning on these issues for years and years. I was a regular Mr. Average working in London, trying to pay a mortgage, had young kids,” he says. “And a lot of the interest is coming from people where the penny has dropped and they have moments of self-realisation – ‘look at my lifestyle and how linked it is to climate change, how am I directly feeding this highly globalised system or market that we now live  in. Am I completely content with that? Is there  anything I can do? Am I completely locked into this system and completely passive and helpless or do I wield a lot of power?’”

“Effects of our lifestyle”

So why this sudden spate of national introspection? Something has clearly happened in the UK, Hickman says, to produce feelings of fear and doubt that have prompted people to reassess their personal consumption habits. The Iraq war, the South Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and rising oil prices, he believes, all combined to pierce the bubble of western inviolability from the world’s problems. Moreover, floods and other forms of extreme weather in the UK have brought home, in stark fashion, the fact that global warming is no longer just a scientific theory. “In the west, we’ve got it pretty lucky, but we’re also irresponsible,” he says. “We’re now beginning to see the effects of what our lifestyle is directly connected to.” Neal Lawson, chair of the centre left think tank Compass and author of the anti-consumerist manifesto All Consuming believes the recession has only strengthened the desire for an alternative to the creditfuelled shopping mania behind a doubling
of consumption in Britain between 1996 and 2006. “Taking care about what you buy, and valuing it, tends to lead us to consume less and therefore spend less. So the downturn is not a moment to turn out backs on ethical consumption but to deepen our resolve to practice it more effectively,” he writes.

Corporate takeover

And while the UK public has been asking itself some difficult questions, UK Plcs has been asking itself has it can adapt to the new mood. Overcoming a previous resistance, all the main supermarkets stock their own branded Fairtrade products, while the zeitgeist in advertising is to hammer home the natural origin of all products. Upmarket retailer Marks & Spencer, castigated in the mid-90s for selling products made by child labour, has recovered from the worst sales slump in its history with the aid of an advertising campaign that leads on the ethical nature of its products, from sustainably caught fish to clothes made with Fairtrade cotton. Even the name of the advertising campaign – Look behind the Label – echoes NGO campaigns against sweatshops. According to the store’s own survey of its customers, 97 per cent have “high expectations” of the company on social responsibility. Hickman, like many in the ethical consumption movement, sceptically welcomes corporate moves to accommodate themselves to changing consumer demands. “I don’t think you should shun all these companies and say that they are evil,” he says. “If you can get into these companies and work with them and cajole them, that is arguably a more successful route. Otherwise you’ve got no chance of policing them.”

Vindication and reserve

For the originators of the Fairtrade movement, the recent mainstreaming of ethical consumption combines a sense of vindication and reservation, like the mixed feelings of seeing a reassuringly alternative pop group reach top of the charts after years of defiantly going against the grain. Kate Sebag from Herne Hill in London founded a Fairtrade company, Tropical Wholefoods, in 1990 to import dried fruit from Uganda. The company has experienced massive growth since the Millennium. It now has a turnover of £2 million, imports more than 200 tonnes of dried fruit a year and employs 35 workers in the UK. A former NGO worker, she recalls how the nature of the Fairtrade movement has changed. “When I was first involved in campaigning on third world debt you would always paint the big corporations as the evil guys,” she says. “But when Fairtrade movement and the mark took off in the ‘90s, they very much positioned themselves that they wanted to work with the supermarkets – to get Fairtrade products onto the shelves. They were a reformist movement rather than an oppositional one. That’s a big change in tone. It’s resulted in Fairtrade coffee from Nestle. In 1990, that would  have been inconceivable.”

Dividing the movement

The decision to work with the system, rather than against it has divided the movement. There were bitter arguments among UK NGOs when the Fairtrade Foundation decided to give a Nestle branded coffee the fairtrade mark. One campaigning group, Baby Milk Action, urged a consumer boycott. And supermarkets have also been permitted, to the consternation of many, to make as much profit as they like from their own fairtrade products. On balance Sebag sees the virtue of reformism. “If you’d continued to work in an oppositional niche, you wouldn’t be able to improve many, many people’s lives,” she says. “You’d be a company like us, and while we are doing really good stuff, we are just a drop in the ocean. If you bring companies like Nestle in, you are going to be benefiting loads of farmers in countries like Ethiopia. It’s a drag that they get some nice window dressing for their corporate image. But it’s never simple.” Yet there is compelling evidence that while the corporate world may claim to have taken on board ethial practices, the very process of concentration and acquisition endemic to capitalism, is destroying the qualities that made “ethical” firms distintive.

Many of the pioneers of ethical business – such as Ben & Jerry’s and The Body Shop – have moved from private to corporate ownership. A 2007 study by the UK magazine Ethical Consumer found that in all cases their record on the environment, human rights, animal welfare and political engagement drastically worsened as a result. For example, The Body Shop, given an “ethiscore” of 11 out of 20 when owned by Anita Roddick, was judged to have dropped to 4.5 after the takeover by L’Oréal. Seeds of Change slumped from 15 to 3.5 in the magazine’s ratings after being acquired by Mars. The success of Fairtrade has also exposed contradictions within the ethical consumption movement, between its environmental and human rights wings. Many consumers choose to buy organic produce from local farmers, while Fairtrade, by its very nature, involves the chalking up of thousands of food miles, as developing country farmers reach First World consumers. The two wings of the movement clashed in 2003 when the Soil Association, which awards the Organic food kitemark, gave some home-produced organic food the Fairtrade mark in an attempt to pressurise notoriously exploitative supermarkets into treating small UK farmers better. But the Fairtrade movement forced the Soil Association to withdraw the label, stubbornly insisting that the concept of “fair trade” could only be applied to the relationship between first world buyers and developing country producers


Correct, but unambitous

Sebag sees ethical consumption as a morally correct but unambitious response to world poverty. “It really sticks in my throat when you read bits of publicity material, like ‘shop the world out of poverty’”, she says. “It’s very apolitical. People think they can go and spend money and that will in some way change the world. There is no structural approach to why people are in poverty. Ironically, in a way, our company is very much part of that. It is good that people buy our products but it’s terribly limited.” Neal Lawson agrees that ethical consumption only scratches the surface of the problems it is meant to confront. “What if people buy more ethically but consumer more so the net effect is that the seductive grip of consumption is tightened, and in the process we avoid the big issues of creating a different type of society, and the means to achieve it?” he asks in All Consuming. Of course, many ethical consumers do not just buy products. They have also taken part in campaigns such as Make Poverty History, an NGO-organised year-long series of events to pressure the UK government to radically change its policies towards the developing world. But the collective expressions of the ethical generation also bear the characteristics of consumerism – fleeting, based on gestures (such as the wearing of a white wrist-band) and conceived around the notion that social change can be achieved without conflict through the reconciliation of diametrically opposed interests.

Political passitivity

Indeed, the whole ethical consumption movement has grown in tandem with the malaise of political passivity in the UK. Political participation is at an all-time low, both at a local and national level. The head of the UK’s electoral commission, the body charged with increasing public involvement in the parliamentary system, has warned of a fatal disengagement from politics. One ethical consumer, Vandana Sharma from Bristol, expresses the mood of withdrawal:“I don’t really like to get involved in politicsbecause it’s too messy. There is so much going on that you can never really know what the truth is. There’s so much propaganda around, everything is manipulated,” she says. Andrew Simms, policy director of the New Economics Foundation, compares trying influence the political process in the UK with “grappling with smoke.” “Ethical consumption is an expression of the anodyne mush of our very centralised political debate,” he says. “If you compare the level of political debate in this country now with Victorian ties, if you look at the vigour and rigour and range of political positions available in general public political debate, it was a lot more dynamic.” Denied any power politically and harnessed to an economic system that demands ever greater flexibility and marketability, Britons are turning to the only arena left where they can exercise a kind of sovereignty. To the personal, anonymous, conflict-free choice between products, an act that is undertaken alone and without repercussions. “It is a way of voicing our dissent without anyone hearing,” says Hickman. “What it does show is that people want to do the right thing, they want to engage with the wider world, express differences and make a comment about the world they want to live in,” says Simms. “But if shopping is the only way there is of doing it then we’ve got a problem.”

Editorial Comment

Published in Communalism #2 (May 2010)