the Disillusioned kid: Fair's Fair
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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Fair's Fair

[This is an article I've knocked together for the next edition of Ceasefire, the irregular Nottingham Student Peace Movement newsletter. It's possible it'll undergo a few changes before publication, but I include it here for your delectation.]

Taking things which hitherto have been viewed as ethically dubious and producing more salutary alternatives is in vogue nowadays, especially within large sections of the activist community. Hence ethical consumerism, ethical careers, ethical investment, fair trade and all the rest. In recent years, the popularity of these has blossomed. In 2005, 40% of UK households bought fair trade products, which can be purchased in more than 55,000 supermarkets across Europe. Fair trade brands now account for 20% of the roast and ground coffee market, while 2005 saw the sale of more than a billion litres of fair trade wine. (All facts from New Internationalist 395, p. 19) This all sounds good and in its own way it is a positive step, but I want to problematise the importance that many activists afford to living “ethically.”

I am not questioning the motives of those who purchase fair trade or pursue ethical careers, both are things I have done and intend to continue doing. In a sense, the unmediated nature of such actions is compelling. You don't have to wait for anybody else. You just get on and do it yourself. My argument is that we should be wary of overstating the important we attach to individual ethical choices. Bedecking ourselves in ethically produced, sweat-free t-shirts made of organic cotton while sipping fair-trade tea from recycled cardboard cups may well leave us with a warm feeling inside, but what has it done to actually improve the world? Sure, one or two people may have been paid slightly more than they otherwise would have been, but global capitalism continues undaunted.

It might be retorted that I am arguing against a straw man. That no-one actually holds such a nuance-free position. It would be nice to think that were true, but New Consumer, ethical shopping's trade magazine proclaims, without a trace of hyperbole that “creating a world that works for everyone has never been easier. It lies in your simple shopping decisions and lifestyle habits!” (Quoted in New Internationalist 385, p. 3) Even if such views are unusual within activist circles (activists after all are, by definition, involved in activism) we should be wary of disseminating messages which reinforce such disconnected perspectives on social change.

It seems to me that one of the key problems with this whole “ethical” business is the fact that it focuses on individual choices rather than collective action, perpetuating the atomising effects of capitalism. Unless you are in an unusual position of influence, your individual choices are likely to have a fairly limited impact. If you want to make the world a better place, you're likely to find rather more success if you combine your efforts with other people. One and a half million atomised individuals moaning about the invasion of Iraq wouldn't have had a fraction of the influence of the same number coming together on February 15. As that example demonstrates, large numbers alone aren't a guarantee of success, the problems we face are huge after all, but there is a long history of movements which have transformed the world. The civil rights movement in the States defeated segregation; the resistance in Vietnam defeated US imperialism; and the suffragettes achieved votes for women.

It might be averred that the anti-apartheid struggle demonstrated the success of ethical consumerism, at least insofar as the boycott of South African goods helped to weaken the regime. It is important to bear in mind, however, that in South Africa the African National Congress (ANC) were well organised and supported by groups around the world. People's choice about whether to buy red or white grapes took place within the context of a wider, larger struggle.

A further problem it seems to me is that the insertion of the “ethical” prefix presupposes that there are also unethical alternatives and implies that these remain in existence. In fact, I would argue that the entire exercise is predicated, albeit usually implicitly, on the continuation of the decidedly unethical status quo. The basic notion is that while exploitation, environmental destruction and the assorted evils of capitalism carry on as they have always done, we can console ourselves that it isn't our responsibility. We've done our bit by choosing fair trade chocolate over a Mars bar; by deciding to work for a wind turbine company rather than BAE Systems.

Ethical consumerism may not just fail to challenge capitalism, but actually reinforce it. Nestlé, long criticised for policies in the third world, now sells fair trade coffee; L'Oréal purchased the Body Shop in May last year, despite a long-history of animal testing; and fair trade coffee is now available in Starbucks and even some McDonald's outlets (the former sells it in 23 countries, the latter only in New England). (All facts from New Internationalist 395, p. 2) Perhaps the most egregious example is BAE Systems decision to begin production of an 'ethical' bullet, which is lead-free. (New Internationalist 395, p. 1) BAE note without a hint of irony, “Lead used in ammunition can harm the environment and pose a risk to people.” (http://www.baesystems.com) Perhaps naively, I'd always assumed that posing a risk to people was ammunition's raison d'etre. If you're an Iraqi civilian getting shot with these things, I doubt it hurts any less. The words may have changed, but the song remains the same.

Capitalism is not a problem we're going to buy our way out of. Our personal choices have only a limited role to play in the struggle for a new, better world. At best they allow us to minimise our culpability in the current system. They won't defeat that system, nor stop its devastation of the environment. Those are things we're going to have to fight for. That might not be as easy as popping out for a fair trade cappuccino, but maybe it's worth the effort.

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