Fairtrade and consumerism

Wealth, how we come by it and use it is both a simple and a complicated issue.

Simple because at the most basic level if you haven’t got it then choice is limited. 

Complicated because of how you got that wealth in the first place and where does it go after you’re done with it. 

This goes for both money and other material goods. 

Wealth is generated by exploitation. Whether it be things in our environment or each other, wealth cannot be generated without exploitation. The question is what level of exploitation is acceptable both to the individual and to the environment. It is not, as some will have you believe, a simple case of supply and demand. Being selfish and greedy beings our need for material goods is insatiable and we continuously produce new things with our limited resources, some of which add nothing to our existence. It is also possible to create a false demand where in fact there is none. 

It is by now well noted that our current levels of consumption cannot be sustained much longer, yet, in the west at least, we continue to create and buy new things, using up finite resources for the good of the few at the expense of others who try and get by on $1 a day. 

But because of the global nature of the economy and our inter-dependence on each other, things aren’t always as easy as at first they may seem. 

As much as I support Fairtrade, Sustainable Forests Certification, and other such worthwhile initiatives, and am heartened by their continued growth, the unfortunate truth is that they are a sop to bleeding heart liberals like myself. Not only are they in fact playing into the hands of the markets, but it could be argued that they help strengthen the rampant capitalism that has enveloped us over the last generation. The problem is that we have put our faith in consumerism and the power of consumers, believing that consumers will in the end (a) determine the success or failure of any given product and (b) resolve ethical issues through supply and demand. We are led to believe that if the consumer (you and I) wants to support a better deal for farmers in the developing world then we will buy Fairtrade; if we don’t want children to work in sweatshops then we won’t by goods produced in those sweatshops. All well and good in theory, except that it doesn’t work. 

The truth is that while we have a system which allows a few people to control the circulation of wealth, keeping most of the capital in the hands of the few, then that ‘choice’ for people to support or not support certain goods is taken away from us. There is a ‘market’ for Fairtrade and such like products, of course, but that’s the problem, it’s a specific market that’s developed parallel to other already existing markets, allowing bleeding heart liberals like me who can afford to pay a little bit extra to sleep quietly at night, while human exploitation and excessive exploitation of our natural environment continues unabashed. Secondly while modern technology has helped immensely in the spreading of information, if that knowledge is being denied (through collaboration, ignorance) how is the consumer supposed to make an informed decision on an ethical purchase? 

I’m sure that most people in Wales would like to see farmers in the developing world being paid a decent price for their coffee, but Nescafe is cheaper; they would probably like to eat sustainable fish, but tinned tuna is cheaper; they would probably like to see children in Uzbekistan getting a decent education without having to labour in the cotton fields, but George clothes at Asda are cheaper. The hard truth is that when you force an individual to choose between his or her own family and the environment/circumstances they live in, or an unknown faceless person in a distant country, then they will support their own needs first. That’s not a criticism, that’s life, and economic necessity under the current capitalist regime dictates it. Supply and Demand? We might ‘demand’ Fairtrade across the board, but simple economics doesn’t allow many to back it up with action. There will, however, always be a demand for cheaper, less ethically produced goods while we continue to deny members of our society the economic ability to support initiatives such as Fairtrade. 

So what to do? Unfortunately under the current capitalist system we only have two options. One is to exercise our power as consumers the best we can, and the other is through political means. Therefore we need to use our collective consumer muscle, when possible, to purchase Fairtrade and other worthwhile initiatives. The second is political. I contend that the broadly laissez-faire attitude towards markets and trade that prevails in western Governments is harmful to the individual consumer and to competition, after all the market, if left to its own devices, will always gravitate towards the large and the powerful.  It will not stagnate or reach some sort of equilibrium as the larger corporations and conglomerates will expand and diversify into other fields like some kind of economic ‘black-hole’ mopping up everything within its gravitational pull. The most obvious example of this for the ordinary consumer of course is Tesco, but it is just as true for companies such as Mitsubishi, G&E; Unilever and others. Governments must intervene to ensure parity in the market, giving greater chance not just for genuine competition, but also for smaller more fragile societies to blossom. 

While this would make capitalism a little more equal, it is not ultimately how I would like to see society working. It is my belief that we need a wholesale (peaceful) revolution in how we think and exercise economics. Competition, rather than being the great equaliser of the market, instead supports the very worst kind of exploitation driving businesses to cut corners and costs in order to under cut their rivals, and promoting the consumption of even more of our limited resources on producing valueless goods in the search for profits. Having a monopoly on, say, water is obviously a bad thing. But water is an essential commodity of life, and society should decide how best to use water. The same rule should apply to every other essential commodity that supports our modern lifestyles. But, alas, that is a different article for another time.