activist notes

Ethical Trade: Neither the “Anti-Globalization Movement” nor the “Anti-Corporate Movement” by activistnotes

By Ian Hussey


I’ve always been interested in words. I don’t know why.


Ethical trade historically has been a term that refers to labour rights, women’s rights, the No Sweat movement, and stuff like that. The term gets thrown around a lot nowadays, a lot more than it used to be. It is now used in a wider variety of ways than it used to be, too. But I’m not really writing about that here. So if you want to read about that this isn’t the place. So I won’t be offended if you don’t keep reading (I’m only joking. I will be EXTREMELY offended if you don’t keep reading). No, what I’m aiming to do is debunk a couple common fallacies about ethical trade, in its various forms. This could blow up in my face. And that would be funny, and educational. But mostly funny. For you. Me, I swore off laughing when Arrested Development stopped making new episodes. Oh, Arrested Development. Say, they sure arrested the development of Arrested Development, hoho. *cough*


So, ethical trade:


Such struggles for democracy and social rights are activities of what Greg Buckman in Globalization Tame It or Scrap It? Mapping the Alternative of the Anti-Globalization Movement (2004 – a book which I absolutely abhor), Joel Bakan in The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (2004 – a book Gary Teeple, a critical social theorist, absolutely tore apart in an article I read a while back), Alex Callinicos in “Socialism: Political Vision” (2006 –, and many others call the “anti-globalization movement.”


Naomi Klein in No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (2000 – I don’t always agree with her, but how can you agree with everything someone says all the time? And, besides, I’m not a very agreeable person), Jamie Brownlee in Ruling Canada: Corporate Cohesion and Democracy (2005 – I’ve got some problems with this book, too, but it’s worth reading, once), and others label these struggles the “anti-corporate movement.”


I know what you’re thinking. Either: nice bibliography, geek, but so what? Or: get to the point already. Ok, maybe I don’t know what you’re thinking. But let me think I know what you’re thinking just for a little while. It’ll make me feel good. And is that so wrong? Don’t answer that. It’s a rhetorical question. Don’t you know you’re not supposed to answer rhetorical questions? Don’t answer that either. Sheesh. Some people.


The concepts “anti-globalization movement” and “anti-corporate movement” are used by a whole lot of people – activists, academics, members of the general public (whatever that means), and so on. Well, I’m here to tell you: YOU’RE ALL WRONG. See, aren’t you glad you kept reading?


The conceptualizations of “ethical trade” and ethical trade movements (I’m not even going to get into defining that. What do you think this is, academia or something?) do not capture or enable an explication of the actual workings of ethical trade, and therefore, thus, hence, and ergo lead us away from discussing the material realities of these movements. You know, if we wanted to do that, at some point.


Buckman (2004) analyzes a broad complex of interrelated movements which he refers to as the “anti-globalization” movement by dividing it into two schools: the Fair Trade/Back to Bretton Woods School and the Localization School. While dividing the multifaceted ethical trade movement (if we want to slap a lot of stuff under that common rubric) into two schools might facilitate analysis, it is highly reductionist (that’s kinda academic sounding, I know, sorry; ok, no I’m not) and does not capture the size and diversity of this “family” of movements. (That family crack is gonna get me in trouble; but wait, movements in-fight all the time, so we are like family. Yay, group hug?)


Klein (2000) and Brownlee (2005: 143) prefer the term “anti-corporate movement” to “anti-globalization movement”. I agree that use of the latter should be scrutinized. The issues and problems addressed by movements working for ethical trade in general and Fair Trade in particular arise largely in the context of and are driven by globalizing economies. Only localization, one of the two “schools” Buckman (2004) tries to analyze using the concept “anti-globalization movement”, is anti-globalization. But, “anti-corporate movement”, Klein’s (2000) and Brownlee’s (2005) preferred term, is also inaccurate.


Ethical trade movements are not anti-corporate. They are, however, consistently opposed to corporations whose practices and policies are exploitative (or, so they say, and sometimes they actually are). Other types of corporations exist – non-profit corporations, for instance. The term “anti-corporate” is too simplistic. It is an ontological blob (ok, that’s really academic sounding, but let’s just say…). It does not capture the actual workings of ethical trade.


The ethical trade movement is a complex of interconnected movements – that is, if you want to chuck No Sweat, Fair Trade, domestic fair trade, local trade, sustainable trade, the social economy and the solidarity economy, and whatever other fancy term you can think up in a tent for a party. Movements for ethical trade are intersected by other global justice movements pertaining to issues of gender, race, and class. Most movements for ethical trade are not anti-globalization. They would be better described as advocating for an alternative globalization or a globalization from below.


Some ethical trade advocates call for “trade not aid.” They endeavour to level the international “playing field” by participating in the empowerment of the disenfranchised. Foreign aid, however administered, goes to governments or specific agencies. Ethical trade movements, on the other hand, aim directly at changing the situations of workers by participating in the development of different ways of organizing production and trade. This is not to say that ethical trade is the solution to all of the world’s problems, far from it. But various forms of ethical trade do improve the immediate dire circumstances of millions of lives. And that ain’t so bad, though some people like whacked out international socialists might say it is, or some of them I’ve met have. These movements also raise awareness of the exploitative nature of capitalism in particular ways. Which might be useful, or it could just serve to maintain the status quo. People fear change. Many don’t seem to like it much either.


Ethical trade movements are not anti-corporate, however. Several ethical trade movements – Fair Trade, No Sweat, organics, “green,” for instance – have multinational corporations who participate in them to varying degrees (don’t get all up in arms, I said “to varying degrees”). Movements engage other multinationals, scrutinizing them for not doing business ethically; and pressure them to adopt ethical purchasing policies and procedures (some people engage in corporate social responsibility work and campaigns, which is mostly a load of crap and, according to some, an oxymoron).


Multinationals’ participation in ethical trade is a highly controversial topic amongst members of these movements (whatever a member of such movements is isn’t gonna be defined here either; again, I’m not sorry). Some maintain that multinationals’ participation will increase the material effect and visibility of the movements. Others argue that multinationals should not be allowed to participate in ethical trade, that they are tainting the image of ethical trade, and are attempting to co-opt the movements and use them for positive public relations reports. And yet others declare that ethical trade should not and cannot be exclusionary in its “membership”, and that having multinationals participating in ethical trade shows the success of the movements. People have nuanced opinions on such a complex matter, of course, which would include a melange of these reasons and perhaps others.


I love the word “melange”.


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