How fair is fair-trade?

Ethical consumption is at an all time high. Never before in the history of the world have people been so unaware of how their goods reached them, but also curious to know, hence ethical consumption. In the past, we would know who had made our clothes and where the wool had come from. In the more recent past, we would not have known, but also we would not have cared. Now we want to know and we want to care.

Fair trade and other forms of ethical consumption are ever present in today's markets. Once the preserve of specialist shops, they are stocked by supermarkets alongside goods made in sweatshops without a hint of irony. The fact that even Nestle, that old boycotter’s favourite, now sticks the fair-trade label on some of its confectionary hints that fair-trade is part of the mainstream. It scratches an itch some people have about their spending habits. However, there are people who knowingly consume unethical goods or are aware of a dubious moral track record of certain brands but continue to purchase them anyway.

Why does this happen? There is a degree to which unethical consumption is a reaction to pressure to consume ethically. Some feel a knee jerk reaction to what is perceived as left-wing pressure, political correctness or interference in their daily lives. These individuals continue to consume unethically in order to resist social pressure to consume ethically. This attitude is selfish and a result of culture which emphasises individual gratification above collective good. There is a degree to which advocates of ethical consumption are their own enemies as applying pressure to change consumer habits can drive people in the opposite direction. We can see a similar phenomenon with advertising; many people avoid the Go Compare website simply because their adverts are so annoying.

Worse than callous disregard for the suffering that unethical consumption causes are those who believe that unethical consumption is good for the world’s poor. There are those who generally believe that sweatshops and exploitative labour improve the circumstances of people in poorer countries. For some this is simply a desire to justify their spending habits and a way of intellectualising rigid brand loyalty. For others it is somewhere between blind faith that capitalism will solve the world’s problems or genuine belief in the libertarian free market, a point of view which can only come from a position of privilege. Just as capitalism’s greatest defenders are those who have lucked out and currently sit on top of the heap, unethical consumption is defended by those who value cheap produce above all else and cannot see beyond the end of their garden. Only someone who has never stitched T-shirts continuously for twelve hours for only a few cents could ever suggest it was a route out of poverty.

Just because someone consumes ethically does not necessarily remove the impact of their consumption on others. It’s not that buying a Fairtrade T-shirt or jar of coffee isn’t preferable to a non-Fairtrade version. It’s just to say that these consumers aren’t just paying for a product alone. Ethical consumption is just another level of service. People who have more than their fair share feel guilty and want to know what effect their excess income has on the world. Purchasing Fairtrade products is a way of assuaging this guilt, whilst essentially maintaining the present system by those it benefits, albeit whilst also acknowledging its obvious flaws. If you are rich, you are hardly likely to seriously challenge the economic model that made you rich. It is however difficult to deny the problems caused by inequality on a global scale so a certain section of the wealthy have come up with ethical consumption as a means to relieve their guilt without having to threaten their position within the established economic system.

There are those who question the rights of ethical consumers to have a larger income than average and believe that this inequality is part and parcel of the system which lead to ethical consumption differentiating itself from unethical consumption. In short there will always be unethical products until we radically reconsider how the market place is constructed. Only substantial change to every aspect of our economy will remove unethical products.

Leaving this complex issue up to anything as simple as consumer choice will never resolve the problems caused by unethical consumption. Offering ethical alternatives from the same companies which created the problem in the first place alongside their unethical counterparts is not a solution and will never be. If you worried about unethical produce then ethnical consumption will not resolve the problem. Only radical change to the economy will suffice. However, in the absence of a strong movement for radical change, ethical consumption is preferable to ignoring the problems consumption creates, or choosing to believe that exploitation will rid capitalism of its contradictions.