Buy Now, Pay Later

It will take more than a shift in our shopping habits to save the day

| Utne Reader March / April 2007

When I was growing up, my parents drank 'Campaign Coffee.' Its name was always accompanied by a slight shudder because it was quite expensive and pretty foul. Heroically purchased by a committed clique of clergy, aid workers, and the 'loony left,' it was one of the first attempts at trading with developing countries in a way that was less exploitative.

Things have changed. 'Ethical' shopping is all the rage. Consuming with a conscience-once seen as the preserve of beardy-weirdy tree-hugging freaks and barely registering on the radar of corporate execs and politicians-has burst noisily into the mainstream. You can now buy a more socially or environmentally responsible version of just about anything.

Green shopping websites abound. Ethical consumer guides are dropping out of the most surprising magazines. Fair trade coffee tastes good these days, there's an abundance of brands to choose from, and you can drink it in Starbucks in 23 different countries.

In recent years, NestlŽ launched a fair trade coffee line, longtime animal tester L'Oreal (partly owned by Nestle) bought the Body Shop, and pile-'em-high, sell-'em-cheap pioneer Wal-Mart announced that it is switching much of its fruit and veggies to organic.

Even eBay is setting up a special 'artisans' site' for fair trade producers. Welcome to the moral mainstream!

The so-called 'ethical consumerism' phenomenon is nothing new, but we seem to have reached a tipping point. Although 'ethical' sales still account for only a tiny part of the global economy, analysts and companies firmly believe that the future of retail will be green and are rebranding and repositioning themselves accordingly.