24 February 2014

Humanist Debate: Ethical Consumerism

I had to make a mad dash back from working in Birmingham for this discussion and it was worth it. The three trains ran on time and I arrived just before the 8pm start with a pint in one hand and a dish of peanuts in the other.

Instead of the usual speaker, the discussion was sparked by a film of a conference where strong views for and against the fair trade model of ethical consumerism were presented.

Please note that when I say "fair trade" I mean all schemes that aim to improve the deal for the local farmers of which FAIRTRADE is but one example.

After watching the film from the side I was able to join a table in the main room for the discussion that followed. I started the evening thinking that fair trade was a no brainer but the discussion showed that it was a complex problem with many aspects to it.

As always I juggled participating in the debate with taking notes and tweeting some of them so what I managed to capture is just my partisan view of part of what we covered.

Fair trading requires intelligent and rational consumers. Which we're not.

Is our new found desire for fair trading White Guilt at how we exploited these countries in the past, and does it matter if it is?

Most of the arguments against fair trade are the much the same as those used to justify attacks on the benefits system here, e.g. taking a grotty low paid job is better than nothing, the money children earn helps their families, etc.

Fair trade is not us doing things to them (the farmers and their communities), not doing fair trade is us doing things to them. Not buying fair traded goods is as much a statement as buying them and if we must but something, e.g. coffee, then we must make a decision between fair traded or not.

Can we export our poverty and close our eyes? We stopped bad working conditions in this country, including child workers and health and safety, because we want better for ourselves and I think it is wrong to expect other countries to adopt a standard that we rejected just to provide us with cheap goods.

Can technology help people more than we can? Or is that just our excuse for dong nothing? This argument is also put for doing nothing about Climate Change, i.e. the scientists will sort it all out somehow before it becomes a real problem so there is no need for us to do anything about it. This may be true (we won't know until we get there) but there is a risk that it does not work and is it fair for us to take that risk when it is other people who will suffer more?

Government's have more power but that does not mean that we should not do what we can. Buying fair trade coffee is one small thing and while it is only a small imperfect step it is better than doing nothing. Do we need more, such as insisting that our pension funds are only invested in ethical companies, and are we prepared to pay the price for this in lower pensions? Sacrificing a few pence on a jar of coffee may be one thing that many people would be prepared to do but how many would sacrifice a few thousand pounds?

Economics is the real problem, again. By that I mean that money incentivises children to work and farmers in Kenya to grow flowers for us rather than food for themselves, etc. We are also encouraged to spend money on things that we do not need (and to borrow to do so) because that boosts the economy.

The root cause is that we have the capital. The local farmers need this capital to invest in their farms and their communities (schools etc.) so they need to sell things to us. And one of the reasons that we have so much capital is that we stole wealth from their countries.

I found the debate fascinating because starting from the simple concept of buying fair trade coffee we quickly got in to some much larger and more difficult subjects.

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