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Saturday, April 15, 2006

Ethical shopping

A contentious issue, I know, and one that many tend to pour scorn on via the argument that you can never shop completely ethically, so why bother? And then you have those that are now trying to argue that schemes such as FairTrade aren't actually fair after all, and that even these people are evil businessmen trying to squeeze as much money out of both producer and consumer.

I don't buy any of that. Just because we can't immediately transform our shopping lists into spotless examples of ethical consumerism does not mean we shouldn't make a start. And in response to the second point, there is obviously plenty of evidence that MORE ethical companies are a vast improvement on those which patently flout any kind of social concern - these critics seem to be taking cynicism to a new extreme.

So what to do? This is a debate that has raged for years now, especially in the advent of lightning-fast global communication that allows us to see even in real time the devastation caused by Western consumerism throughout the world. Events such as the WTO at Seattle in the 1990s which was shut down by thousands of anti-capitalist protesters have shown us that protest is possible and practical.

It's important to remember that by changing the odd item on our shopping lists we can not single-handedly wipe out unethical trade. For example, Tesco has at times displayed a monumental disregard for workers' rights. Yet 1 pound in every 8 spent in Britain is spent in Tesco. The key, according to organisations such as No Sweat, is to try and support workers' unions wherever possible. They work with unions in places such as Bangladesh in order to strengthen them and help them stand up to the corporate giants which love to crush them.

However, although it's important to remember that we need to do more than just buy Fairtrade coffee in order to assuage our ever-present guilt, we should not do less than this either. According to the 'Rough Guide to Ethical Shopping', a small book which I recommend, a vast number of high street names are extremely unethical, whether it comes to union-busting, not paying even the minimum wage, subjecting workers to horrific working conditions or testing products on animals.

The question is, just how much do we care? You're standing in a high street shop holding a top which is ridiculously cheap and looks great on you. Yet you know it was probably made by the bloodied fingers of 3-year-olds. What do you do? Could you actually put that top down? Or do you justify it to yourself by arguing that you can never be completely ethical so there's no point in trying?

I don't know all the answers. According to No Sweat, maybe it is okay to buy from such companies, as long as we do all we can to change things - preferably both by lobbying Western governments to impose greater regulations on MNCs and TNCs, and by supporting Trade Unions in these exploited countries.

My personal take on things is that we have no excuse to do less than we can. What that is, is to some extent a personal choice. I have made the decision that I'm going to try and buy as many clothes as possible (haven't quite decided what to do about underwear) from either charity shops or ethical clothing companies. So far it's going pretty well, and it saves you a packet. I know that for some, especially those with children, this may be unrealistic. But I urge you to think about what you can do. And spread the word. Too many people either don't know or don't care about these issues. It's up to us to change that.

As Christians, I know the subject of stewardship often comes up when discussing this topic. There is a certain tension there - often it costs more to shop ethically. But I would say to you that protecting the rights of your fellow human beings and refusing to be part of their unjust exploitation is FAR more important than the money in your wallet. Furthermore, if you're a Western Christian, you probably have more than enough money to buy ethically - not that shopping in charity shops costs more. Bite the bullet and face up to your responsibilities. The God of the Bible speaks out many times against injustice and maltreatment of the poor. Do you really think he would want you to carry on buying Nescafe merely because it's cheaper?

Finally, if your church refuses to buy Fairtrade tea and coffee, I would encourage you to try and change that - although so far both churches I'm from haven't taken the step. Loads of people argue that 'it tastes worse'. Well, I hope you realise that the taste of Nescafe carries with it the bitter taste of oppression, exploitation and injustice. My auntie told me a story of one lady who swapped the coffees over without telling anyone, and no one complained about the taste. Gotta love Middle England! Besides, Fairtrade DOES taste better - Nescafe is disgusting.

Anyway, that's the end of my rant for today. I know I often fail in this area, but I am making a concerted effort to be more of an activist than a slacktivist. Also, this is only the first draft of this, so it's probably really badly written. But I was in the mood for writing. So nerr. I'll try and compile a list of ethical companies/websites you can visit in order to be more informed at a later date. If you have any you know of, please post them in the comments!


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