Another Christmas, another ‘ethical gift’

Charities urge us to shop till Third World poverty drops, but ‘ethical consumption’ only makes Westerners feel good.

In the run-up to Christmas, many charities are encouraging shoppers to treat their nearest and dearest to an ‘ethical gift’ certificate. From giving a goat to a poor family to donating ‘hygiene kits’ to developing-world communities, ethical shopping has become a staple feature of the holiday season. And it’s not just charities that are promoting it: it’s become part of high-street branding. By making moral choices about what you put in your shopping trolley, these campaigns suggest, you will not only have a guilt-free shopping experience, you will also help millions to escape poverty.

A number of ethical-consumption initiatives compete for shoppers’ attention today. There are goods labelled as Fairtrade, cruelty-free, organic, recycled, having low ‘air miles’ or ‘food miles’, and so on. They are pushed particularly intensely during the festive period. The idea is that these products allow us, as consumers, to express our political opinions and social concerns - about everything from the environment to poverty reduction - through the stuff we buy and at the same time we can make a positive change in the world. But is it that straightforward?

Take Fairtrade for example. Under the auspices of the Fairtrade Foundation, this multi-billion pound industry guarantees a minimum ‘fair’ price to farmers and producers in the developing world, provided they meet specific labour and production standards. Who could object to that? Unfortunately, the reality of Fairtrade is not as easy on the conscience as we are led to believe. To begin with, it has been suggested that only a small percentage, sometimes as low as 11 per cent, of the price premium paid for Fairtrade products reaches the producers. What’s more, already-poor farmers have to pay for the privilege of joining the Fairtrade scheme and they have to ensure that their business adheres to Fairtrade requirements, whether or not this is in their own long-term interests. Producers have to adopt what the Fairtrade Foundation deems to be ‘environmentally sound agricultural practices’. To qualify as small producers –  one of the conditions of the Fairtrade certification –  farmers have to ‘rely mainly on their own or their family’s labour’. So intensive farming or highly productive mechanised agriculture is out of the question.

The irony is galling: while Fairtrade advocates suggest they are freeing producers from exploitative global-market relations, Fairtrade actually ties them to backward forms of toil and creates even more unequal relations between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The message to the Fairtrade farmers seems to be: you scrape around in the dirt and live in a mud hut whilst we sip our Fairtrade coffees in trendy cafés with a clear conscience.

In effect, Fairtrade schemes treat the developing world as little more than a farm, just as the missionaries and colonialists once did. As pointed out by a Ghanaian cocoa manager in the film The Bitter Aftertaste (produced by the company I work for), no country ever made it by sticking to subsistence farming. Meanwhile, our wealth here in the West allow us to buy Fairtrade products, wear ethnic clothes, decorate our homes with pesticide-free flowers and have plenty of free time left over to feel really sorry for impoverished Africans.

The whole notion of ethical consumption is based on the fallacy that as consumers we can all make an impact in an equal way. While we can all exercise the same political power as voters, as consumers we are in fact unequal: the sizes of wallets differ between individuals and communities. In a short report I made for the online citizen TV channel WORLDbytes, shoppers in a less well-to do part of London told us that they base their purchasing decisions on budget and need. And who can blame them?

In this sense, ethical shopping is not only patronising towards our peers in the developing world, but it is also anti-democratic and insulting to the public over here. Rather than using our political voice to campaign for change, we are encouraged to scrutinise our shopping lists and we are told that we have great ethical responsibilities as shoppers. Those with low incomes and those who prioritise their own needs over ‘ethical shopping’ are regarded with contempt, as irresponsible and non-conscientious. 

As a political act, ethical shopping actually demands very little from people except spending some money: there’s no expectation of political action: acts of solidarity or engagement with what it takes to make a better, more equal world. It is simply saying that if you spend a few pennies more on Fairtrade coffee rather than buying regular coffee, you can make a marginal difference, and that is enough. 

So-called ethical-trading initiatives do not campaign for more companies productively to invest in poor countries, nor do they measure success on how many jobs are created. Instead, enshrined in all aspects of ethical consumption are anti-development ideas and protocols which ensure farmers and producers in the developing world will never catch a glimpse of even a small portion of the conveniences and higher living standards that we enjoy in the West.

Ethical shopping is about making the Western consumer feel good, guilt-free and content that they have done their bit in alleviating world poverty. Unfortunately, ethical shoppers have instead donated their money to schemes ensuring that poor families remain locked up in a relationship of dependency. Our trendy shopping habits help keep them in poverty.

Fortunately for Africa, it is now one of the world’s fastest-growing regions - and with no thanks to Fairtrade. As Deroy Kwesi Andrew, a teacher in the Ghanaian city of Accra, told WORLDbytes: ‘Africa will be having the last laugh in the not too distant future, as it grows economically and chucks outside “help” out. That will be a day to celebrate… I have really had enough of this kind of stuff. Oxfam even has a Christmas gift this year of a hygiene kit for people in the developing world. A hygiene kit! Because we just can’t wash without them… It will be a day to celebrate when we wash our hands of them.’

Saleha Ali is an assistant producer at WORLDbytes and co-presenter of the documentary film, Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is Possible (2011).

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