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.
But though sustainable shopping is becoming big business, we shouldn't pop the organic champagne corks just yet.
For a start, we should be wary of the claims being made. Irish rocker Bono recently pontificated: 'Shopping is politics. You vote every time you spend money.' The view that you can spend your way to a sustainable world is echoed in much of the ethical shopping sector's marketing. New Consumer, which purports to be the 'ultimate ethical lifestyle magazine,' enthuses that 'creating a world that works for everyone has never been easier. It lies in your simple shopping decisions and lifestyle habits!' It would be great if this were true, but it isn't.
The problem with the concept of 'ethical consumerism' is that it's something of an oxymoron. The definition of consume is 'to destroy by or like fire or disease: to cause to vanish.' A consumer is 'a person who squanders, destroys, or uses up.' And consumerism is indeed destroying the planet.
We need to change the entire structure of our exploitative, wasteful, resource-intensive economy, and that includes buying much less stuff. Of course, purchasing more sustainable versions of the things we actually need has to form part of the solution. No one's arguing against low-energy lightbulbs.
But so much of the ethical consumption boom focuses on luxury goods: fair trade roses grown in huge hothouses next to Kenya's Lake Naivasha, sucking up precious water resources and then being air-freighted to British supermarkets; pointless gadgets such as solar-powered cappuccino whisks; silver cuff links handmade in Mexico, screaming 'gilt without the guilt.' Their main impact is to make shoppers feel good-I'm doing something for the planet!-without having to change their lifestyle one bit.
If we get seduced by the idea that the market will respond to our ethical and environmental concerns, adapt accordingly, and the woes of the world will be solved, then we are making a huge mistake. This ignores the central role governments must play in ending unsustainable patterns of consumption. Surely an important tool in curbing corporate abuse is to regulate against it. Governments can use taxes and other economic instruments to reshape economies and control markets, and can introduce and enforce ethical and environmental standards. Trade will not be made fair, paradoxically, by buying fair trade. Governments must engage with changing the international rules that regulate it. None of these things are easily done, and we won't achieve them by going shopping.
Perhaps an even bigger mistake is not to face up to the scale of change that's required. Surviving the multiple impending catastrophes that our throwaway lifestyle has triggered will involve a seismic shift in the way we live. We must move away from limitless consumer-driven growth and toward a sustainable, low-carbon model. Sometimes our most ethical shopping choice will be to buy nothing.
We should not be obsessed by whether we as individuals are consuming as ethically as possible. It's important and rewarding to do what we can, but moral purity is an impossible dream in such an imperfect world. As Andrew Simms from the New Economics Foundation puts it: 'Ethical consumerism is mood music, rather than a reengineering of the economy in a meaningful way.'
Ethical consumerism offers attractively simple answers when these do not exist. Buying a different brand of detergent is easy. Effecting social change is hard.
This rise in ethical concerns is a huge opportunity, showing that more and more people are willing to act on the most pressing issues facing the planet. The challenge now is to find a way to harness and channel all this energy into something more ambitious than getting fair trade kumquats onto the world's supermarket shelves.
Excerpted from New Internationalist (Nov. 2006). Subscriptions: $44/yr. (11 issues) from Box 819, Markham, ON L3P 8A2, Canada; www.newint.org.