activist notes

Ethical Purchasing is a Means to an End not an End in itself by pandemonium
March 12, 2008, 10:24 pm
Filed under: Ethical Purchasing Policies

By Amanda Wilson

Just some thoughts I’ve been having for a while now..thought I would share:

It can be very easy for student activists to become immersed in the task at hand to achieve our immediate goals and win the campaign. But this may cause us to forget our underlying reasons for engaging in ethical purchasing campaigns.  The end goal is not the ability to drink a cup of fair trade coffee on campus or to purchase a university sweatshirt without guilt.  The end goal is to support workers and their struggles, and to engage in international solidarity.  Ethical Purchasing Policies are an opportunity for us to leverage our power by creating spaces where workers and farmers can earn a decent living, under decent conditions and enjoy the rights that they demand and deserve.

            I think we are beginning to forget these roots, and in doing so we risk losing focus and tumbling into a protectionist or paternalistic discourse, a charity-based approach.  It’s not about the chocolate bars and it’s not about the tee shirts.  They are only means to a more important end.  Fair Trade is a way for privileged, largely white and middle class consumers to support the efforts of farmers and producers in the developing world to make a decent living and enjoy their rights.  No Sweat is a way for privileged, largely white middle class consumers to support the organizing efforts of garment workers to improve their worker conditions and enjoyment of their rights.

            In our work, we must remember the end goal and realize what the implications are.  If our end goal is labour solidarity, then ethical purchasing campaigns are only one way to achieve it.  We must also enter the political realm: we must be political subjects and engage in political acts.   This means supporting both local and international struggles, and getting away from meetings, conferences and educational films to engage in a diversity of tactics and alliances with a diversity of groups. Just as protests, rallies, sit-ins are not ends in themselves but strategies to further other ends, ethical purchasing policies must be seen in a similar light.  They are strategies that have both pros and cons.  To be effective, like any other strategy, they need to be situated within a broader politics that drives and informs the campaign. Ethical purchasing is not a substitute for questioning corporate control, power imbalances, neoliberalism or capitalism itself. 

            This is not to say that ethical purchasing is not a worthwhile endeavor. It is. Ethical purchasing has an important role to play in supporting workers and producers around the world. However, securing an ethical purchasing policy is not the end of the struggle; in fact, it only signals the beginning.   



7 Comments so far
Leave a comment

favorited this one, man

Comment by Florencegi

Long time reader; first time poster.

Great post, Amanda, though I’m inclined to disagree with much of it.

While we should certainly keep in mind the farmers and workers when pushing for ethical purchasing policies and the like, I think it’s more about sorting ourselves out.

I’ve yet to meet someone who thinks a farmer should end up poorer at the end of the day than at the beginning, and most people I’ve met believe workers are entitled to a livable wage…. The details of what that actually means and how to get there are usually what trip us up.

Supply (or at least potential supply) usually seems to outstrip demand for Fair Trade products, and ethical purchasing policies are a good way to shore up the demand side (particularly because they can have ripple effects in the marketplace).

Fair Trade should not be, “a way for privileged, largely white and middle class consumers to support the efforts of farmers and producers… to make a decent living and enjoy their rights” (which strikes me as paternalistic).

On the contrary, Fair Trade is an opportunity for us to address our own shortcomings – to realign our actions with our values.

Farmers have the coffee, bananas, etc., and are taking care of business. They just want us to buy them and pay appropriately.

In this respect, I’d say it’s more about “us” than “them”.

I agree with your point that ethical purchasing isn’t the “be all and end all” of political action, but I’m not sure who thinks it is.

Comment by Michael Zelmer

We’re all in this together. Like, I love my coffee. We can’t grow it in Canada, so I buy fairly traded organic beans and that’s good for the farmer, the earth and me too. Here’s the new wrinkle: climate change and the need to reduce one’s carbon footprint. I’m hearing more and more people talking about “local living economies”. I like this concept and support it as much as I can. Of course, coffee and bananas aren’t grown in my part of the globes, so I will continue to buy these fairly traded items and support those economies in the global south. But all those other items- the trinkets and treasures sold at fair trade craft markets, etc- those are now going to be off my list of ethical purchases. What are the implications of this new concern of mine on the global fair trade market? I want to support the farmers in the majority world to develop their own local living economies. How can fair trade help with this transition? Any ideas?

Comment by Grace

I am a manager of a fair trade boutique within the network of Ten Thousand Villages. I’ve enjoyed reading all the perspectives that have been posted so far, but my comment is directed to Grace. I understand and applaud your awareness and actions in regards to shrinking your global footprint and I understand your concern regarding the climate implications of the shipping of ‘trinkets and treasures’. The reality however, is that if we only purchase our commodities like coffee and sugar etc. in a fair trade manner, then millions of artisan producers in the south will lose the small market opportunity that fair trade provides them. European Fair Traders have decreased their purchasing of artisan products and increased their purchasing of commodities in the past few years. This shift alone has significantly effected many artisan’s livelihoods. Fair Trade is about giving the disadvantaged and under-employed of the south access to markets in order to earn a living in dignity and not through charity. Please don’t abandon them. Your purchasing dollars are making a difference in raising awareness to the many complicated issues of global trade disadvantages. We still have a long way to go!

Comment by Janice

Janice, thank you for the work that Ten Thousand Villages does to raise awareness and bring dignity to so many. I do support these efforts but this model may need to change as we move into a very different reality due to climate change and peak oil. I don’t want to abandon the artisans that make these goods, but is that kind of “work”- making decorative products for the developed world- the best way to build a sustainable community in the Majority world? I’m not recommending that we abandon art, but what is usually sold in Ten Thousand Village stores is not the work of artists. Would it not be better for all of us to be more involved in the growing of our own food, making our own clothes, etc.? We can’t do it all, of course, but we can do so much more and there are opportunities in that return to the basics. I think of Gandhi’s weaving loom and his struggle to keep Indians weaving their own cotton and wearing their traditional clothes. It wasn’t just about defying the Brits. It was about preserving local traditions, and keeping control of their own local economies. When the price of fuel goes sky-high, which it will, what will happen to all these artisans depending on us to buy their products? Food is a necessity, but a carved soap dish from Indonesia is not. What do we need to put in place now, to help these artisans make the transition to their own local living economy? I want every human being on this planet to be treated with dignity and respect, but if the way we do that is harmful to the earth, we have to find another way.

Comment by Grace

I hear you Grace, when you speak about the long term effects of global trade, but I think we are still a long way from stopping the transmission of products around the world. As for your references about Ghandi and keeping local traditions alive, that is in fact what we are helping to do by offering a market for artisan products (which refers to craft products not necessarily equivilent to ‘art’). For example, some of the artisans who carve soapstone in India can trace thier heritage back to the stone carvers who worked on the Taj Mahal. They have told us that because we offer them a market for thier carving, that they are able to keep their heritage alive by passing it along to their children, who if there was no market would not need to learn the skill. As we help the artisans develop sustainable business now, through access to North American markets, we are helping them develop skills, aside from the handicrafts, that they may be able to translate to other areas of business as well. I don’t disagree with you, but I do believe that what we are doing now is making a difference for the future. Most of the artisans that we work with now, tell us that one of their main goals is to use their earnings to educate their children so that they have a better future. What we are doing now, makes a difference today and for the future,so your purchases today are important and make a difference. Unfortunately, we are a fair distance away from the reality of closing world markets because of fuel concerns and perhaps we will find alternatives. I just can’t imagine that global commerce will not find another way, even when oil crisis is full blown! Can you?

Comment by Janice

Your point is well-taken about this trade enabling families to educate their children and that in the future, this may result in an improved standard of living for everyone. That is a good thing from a certain point of view. But I go back to the problem of using the market place as a way to determine value and worth. The effects of peak oil on the developing world could be devastating, especially if the products being traded are not viewed as essential. I can well envision a world where countries that are producing energy and essential food products are given priority for shipping and all other products forced to pay a huge transportation/luxury tax. This won’t end global commerce, but it will change it.
But I’m not an economist…just a dreamer who wants the world to re-invent itself and move beyond consumption as a measure of happiness. The current economic model which trade of any kind embraces is one that says growth is good and that success is determined by your ability to purchase consumer goods.
In my opinion, paradise is a village where everything you really need is a 10 minute walk away from your home. Let’s start building these kind of local living economies here, there and everywhere!

Comment by Grace

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: