Ethical Consumption = Fair Trade?

Whenever ethical consumption is mentioned, the first thing that crosses many people’s minds is ‘fair trade’. But ethical consumption is about much more than fair trade products. It is about consciously evaluating the consumption choices you make – deciding whether or not to buy locally-produced products versus imported ones, whether to drive to work or use public transport, making an informed decision about where to invest your savings, and myriad of other issues and decisions.

“Fair trade also aims to empower producers by – among other things – encouraging them to form democratically run co-operatives. And it means making up-front payments and long-term trading arrangements, to save producers relying on potentially crippling loans and to enable them to plan ahead.”

Source: Rough Guide to Ethical Shopping, 2004

The term ‘fair trade’ can mean a number of things, but in essence it implies a business model which seeks to improve the livelihoods of poor workers – generally in the Third World. Often, this is done by paying them a fairer percentage of the profits than traditional business models do, but a ‘fair trade’ product often involves more than just this:

The Fair Trade movement seeks to:

  • Improve the livelihoods and well-being of local producers
  • Promote development opportunities for disadvantaged producers
  • Raise awareness among consumers of the negative effects of international trade on producers
  • Set an example of partnership in trade through dialogue, transparency and respect
  • Campaign for changes in the rules and practices of conventional international trade
  • Protect human rights by promoting social justice, sound environmental practices and economic security

Is Ethical Consumption possible?

Some commentators argue that ethical consumption, although good in theory, is impossible to achieve in practice. Proponents of this argument argue one of two points:

Argument 1

Current consumption levels in the developed world are so unsustainably high, that the ethical consumption solutions offered are hopelessly out of their depth.

When we examine the statistics, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the inequality between rich and poor – consumers (in the developed world) and producers (in the developing world). Some sceptics argue that there’s not much point in overhauling your lifestyle when no matter how radical the changes you make, the effects are likely to be miniscule – most carbon emissions they feel are caused by large industries and not your commute to work. While you may try to buy ethically manufactured products, there are a number of products whose production values you can’t trace and yet purchase anyway. The only truly ethical behaviour, such critics argue, would be to stop breathing altogether!

While such a line of reasoning may appear logical and even attractive at first glance, such fatalism is too simplistic a solution and the lazy option: ‘I can’t change the world, so I won’t change my behaviour’ is profoundly weak reasoning, as well as clearly untrue, as numerous examples of successful consumer protests have demonstrated – the Nestlé boycott in the 1980s, anti-Apartheid protests, etc.

Ethical consumption is not a zero-sum game – there are varying degrees to which you can practice it. Perhaps you may be forced to drive to work – but this shouldn’t stop you from boycotting sweatshop firms. Or maybe using renewable energy resources is impossible where you live, but you can choose to invest only in ethically-sound companies and buy organically produced products.

Also, ethical consumption is not only about our purchasing power. It is also about recognising and using our voices as consumers. By simply emailing your favourite brands and asking them for more information on their labour practices, or asking shop assistants/managers whether the brands they stock involve sweatshops, can make a difference. Just as we consume goods and resources in everything we do, there are ethical choices to be made in every facet of our lives.

Effecting change is in the collective power of many individuals around the world who share common values, communicate and act on these values and concerns in order to ensure a lasting impact. There are very many examples of public pressure that enact change through boycotts such as Shell Oil in Nigeria, Nestle in developing countries, South Africa during the Apartheid regime, etc., public awareness around environmental issues and the action of some governments in responding to these challenges, the Jubilee Justice Campaign in addressing Third World debt, Amnesty prisoner campaigns, the smoking ban, etc. Research by the Co-operative Bank in 2006 estimates that the value of boycotts increased by 22% in the food and drink sector and 21% in the clothing sector – food and drink boycotts cost the UK – £1,214 million; travel boycotts cost the industry £817million; and clothing boycotts £338m.

“Companies are sensitive to boycotts because they can have serious financial implications. Supermakets are particularly sensitive to this. Once boycotted few consumers return to a brand – so companies can lose a customer for life.”

Argument 2

Ethical consumption is contradictory, since one form of conservation comes at the expense of another.

Some critics believe that ethical consumption is a white elephant because of its contradictory nature. Picture the scene: you enter a supermarket and head straight towards the fruit and vegetable section. You notice two varieties of tomatoes – the first is produced locally, the second in a poor African country. Which is more ethical? If you buy local, you lessen carbon miles, but by doing so you are not contributing to a developing country’s economy.

A recent article in the Guardian newspaper considers this debate:

“Harriet Lamb, director of the Fairtrade Foundation, has a pretty brisk answer: “Don’t ask the person with a carbon footprint of 200kg a year to clean up the mess that you with your footprint of 9,000kg made… Exporting fresh fruit and vegetables is a huge bonus to the people of rural Africa, she says, with the trade to the UK alone putting £200m a year into rural economies. ‘And the carbon cost is minimal.’ Air-freighting of food from sub-Saharan Africa in fact represents about 0.1% of the UK’s total carbon emissions; our habit of driving to the supermarket is responsible for about twice as much.”

The ethical paradoxes don’t stop there; since ethical consumption permeates almost all aspects of our daily life, we may often find a number of values in conflict with each other:

Should we buy products which give a percentage of its profits to the poor (, or is it more ethical to reject big-name brands altogether, in the push for fairer trading rules (

And if you ignore the big brands’ ethical initiatives because they’re not far-reaching enough, does that send them the wrong message and give them a carte blanche to unfair labour practices?

There is no easy answer to these paradoxes, and you can find logical arguments for both sides of the debate. But as mentioned earlier, the occasional moral dilemmas that ethical consumption brings about do not detract from the intrinsic value of leading an ethical lifestyle. The dilemmas themselves allow you space to think, read about the issues, and make up your own mind about what choices to make – asking for a fair trade coffee in Starbucks is important, but coming to recognise your importance as an individual consumer is arguably even more important, since it involves a lifestyle shift which doesn’t end the moment you walk out of a coffee shop.