Ethical Shopping

Ethical shopping doesn't only apply to coffee and bananas. Problems exist, in human and environmental treatment terms, across the whole range of products including computers.

A recent (Jan 14, 2006) report in UK's The Independent highlighted that a large proportion of goods available from large chain stores was produced under conditions of extreme deprivation. In China, these might take the form of migrant rural workers crammed fifteen to a room, which they admittedly wouldn't see much of as they would be working for fourteen or so hours for every day but one of the month. The food they are given is terrible and the pay almost non-existent. It is, in fact, slave labour in all but name. Death through overwork is so common that the Chinese have a special word for it.

How to help prevent this sort of thing? Ethical shopping, where companies and brands are scrutinised for their behaviour, has been going on for quite a while and is well-established in the UK and Europe. This, in turn has led to sharp practise in labelling and in the practise of profiteering where goods are said to be fairly traded, and where most of the premium price actually goes to the supermarket or shop.

These and other problems are nicely illustrated in a Washington Post story from which this comes ...

'A Wall Street Journal story last year, about misleading labeling by some companies here, said that Cafe Borders adjusted its pricing after it was suggested that the company might be taking advantage of consumers' charitable instincts.

If this modern, mainstream incarnation of fair trade is under attack from the right by those who believe that free trade is the fairest trade of all, it also risks a hammering from those on the left who feel that all big business is bad business. As Julian Baggini, who edits the British-based Philosophers' Magazine, put it, ethical consumerism "is characterised by three almost religious convictions: that multinationals are inherently bad; that the 'natural' and organic are inherently superior; and that science and technology are not to be trusted." So anti-globalization activists criticize huge companies such as Levi Strauss and Starbucks, even though Levi Strauss was among the first multinationals to establish a code of conduct for its manufacturing contractors and Starbucks is one of North America's largest roasters and retailers of fair trade coffee. And both can probably afford to be more altruistic than many smaller companies.'

All of this can lead to some confusion on the part of the buyer. If we go to the gooshing site and look up Apple computers we find they get four out of five stars on the ethical scale. That seems pretty good. But maybe we're thinking of a Thinkpad instead. They have listed the IBM Thinkpad which also gets four out of five. But IBM no longer make Thinkpads or anything else in the PC line. That business was sold to the Chinese company Lenovo ... and there's no mention of Lenovo at all... which presumably means they shouldn't be bought.

In other words some of the decision making is going to be fuzzy while some clearly won't be. But why should we care anyway?

If we accept the rational precept that both the environment and human dignity matter, then it is rational that we should each do what we can by applying some sort of rational filter to our purchasing decisions. Perhaps an added incentive, in relation to the opening report on some Chinese factories, is the thought that people in your own community might have lost jobs as a result of these practices: an evil compounding of misery.

But what about factories where everything is done to ensure reasonable standards of welfare and where shopping boycotts might lead to just the thing we're trying to avoid? Information is the key. The web might help or it might not. We can only act on the information we have.

Some related links: attaches ethical ratings to brand name products based on various reports to do with everything from animal testing to boycott calls. a fair trade case documented by The Independent and published by a survey by Oxfam of ethical shopping in the UK published in Dec 05 a Canadian look at sweatshops and how to prevent their support. a trip around a UK supermarket. a San Francisco organisation which tackles injustice around the world the DC based Fair Trade Federation seeks "to create a just and sustainable economic system through fair trade" is more for business and "... successful strategies for promoting ethical conduct in organizations"

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