Do you choose the ethical or sustainable alternative as often as you can? It feels good making a purchase that helps people or the planet. But do you choose things that aren’t? I mean, do you choose a product based on the fact that it isn’t ethical? Or do you choose it because you like it, it’s cheap etc?
i.e. You ignore the ethics or sustainability of the product?
Obviously, there are schemes out there such as Fairtrade (who do great work) that tell you if something is ethical. But these schemes are like a switch. You either are or you aren’t part of it. What if a business was trying to be ethical, but wasn’t quite there yet? Or what if they ignored ethics entirely?
If you were buying an appliance in the UK, would you choose the product that was the least energy efficient? No, of course not. It’s difficult to even buy an appliance that isn’t highly rated for energy efficiency because it’s what consumers want.
There are many stories about brands that say they have Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), but then we hear about them using child labour or factories that collapse on their workers, or used factories that forced pregnant workers to get abortions, or confiscating migrant workers’ passports, unsafe working conditions, sweatshops, etc. They apologise, say they ‘will do better next time’ and then it happens again. And again.
Often products are outsourced, then that company outsources, and the chain of custody is difficult to trace. That doesn’t let the corporations off the hook. The issue is that they squeeze the supply chain for all it’s worth, forcing them to cut costs.
But most of this goes unnoticed. You buy the new things in ignorance of how they’re made. It’s a bit like how much energy our appliances use. Unless we have access to the proper information, it’s difficult to make a choice. Imagine if we had no idea how much MPG our cars did and the only way of knowing was to work it out ourselves? Has food labelling changed your behaviour? Do you choose products because they have more salt in them or more calories?
The fact is that our cars are getting better mileage because we demand it, based on the information we have (OK, VW, you have a lot of answer for on this one).
The fact is that food labelling changes our behaviour in buying food. Clearly presented facts help people make informed decisions. Sales of organic and healthy foods are rising. Organic sales rose 4.9% in the UK in 2015. Non-organic sales dropped by 0.9%.
Imagine, for a moment, that food had no ingredients or nutrition labelling. Imagine you were buying a soup. Do you think that:
A. The maker would make it as healthy as possible, with low sugar and salt and no additives despite no-one knowing what was in it?
B. They would make it as tasty as possible using the cheapest ingredients and additives to maximise profits because no one knows what’s in it?
Aren’t we doing this with ethics? On nearly everything we buy, we get little, if any information. Was it made by children? Were people paid a proper wage to live on and have a life? Was it made in a factory where 150 workers threatened to commit mass suicide based on their working conditions? Was it made by forced labour or in a sweatshop?
Isn’t it time to make ethics visible?
What if we labelled what wasn’t ethical?
What if you bought jeans with a label stating ‘We can’t guarantee that child labour wasn’t used in making this product’.
Or a computer where the label states ‘We can’t guarantee the people making this weren’t paid enough to live on’.
Or food with a label with ‘we can’t guarantee that pesticides that kill bees weren’t used in making this product’ on it?
What if brands had to do something like this for example?:
A study suggested the policy of using graphic pictures of what smoking can do to your body in Canada cut smoking rates by between 12% and 20% from 2000 to 2009. They helped consumers see the consequences of their purchase.
Once we know the human cost of cheap goods or excessive profits, can consumers change the world?
How can we give consumers that power and should we?
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