Ethical consumerism may simply mean shopping less

Ethical consumerism may simply mean shopping less

How many slaves work for you? This is the implicit question behind awareness campaigns that link consumer behaviour to modern slavery, urging citizens to use their consumer power to demand an end to labour exploitation.

But the push for more ethical consumerism does not necessarily mean salvation for modern-day slaves.

Ethical consumerism, meaning the decision by consumers to patronise certain brands or products for political reasons, has a long history.

During the 1790s, British consumers boycotted sugar produced using slave labour.

In the 1820s anti-slavery activists in the US established "free produce stores" that would only stock goods produced by "free labour".

In more recent times, consumer choice has become one of the most common ways for citizens to engage in political activism on a wide range of issues including environmental sustainability, animal welfare, and workers' rights.

From boycott to buycott

Recent efforts to harness consumer power in the fight against modern slavery typically encourage either a boycott or a "buycott". Boycotts punish corporate behaviour seen as unethical through a refusal to patronise a brand or product, while buycotts reward good behaviour through the intentional selection of a brand or product.

Anti-slavery organisations increasingly promote ethical consumerism as a way to combat modern slavery, with several groups creating specific campaigns on the issue.

The SlaveryFootprint.Org website, established in 2011, asks visitors to "measure" their slavery footprint, mirroring the popular concept of the carbon footprint. In answering survey questions about the goods they consume, visitors to the site are told about the use of forced labour in the supply chains for those products, and encouraged to #buybetter.

Non-government organisation Stop the Traffik runs campaigns across several countries to promote traffic-free fashion, chocolate, tea, and travel.

World Vision Australia also raises awareness of the exploitation used in the creation of a large number of consumer goods including clothes, electronics, and foods. They encourage people to engage in "ethical shopping" by searching for products that carry some form of slavery-free certification.

These campaigns represent an important shift towards demanding higher standards from businesses. They also demonstrate the potential reputational and financial risk for companies that fail to eradicate exploitative labour practices in their supply chains. However, ethical consumerism alone cannot stop modern slavery, and we must be wary of unintended negative consequences of the boycott/buycott approach.

An obvious problem with the #buybetter approach is that an ethical free pass can be expensive. Products marketed as "slavery free" often cost a premium, making them an option only for those who can afford to allow political values to trump financial realities.

How 'buy local' hurts the needy

Some consumers may opt to "buy local" in the hope that this will prevent their consumer dollars from fuelling demand for slave labour overseas. However, this assumes that local industries in Australia are exploitation free, which is certainly not the case.

The "buy local" approach can also undercut developing industries overseas, making it harder, not easier, for workers to secure decent wages. The solution is not to simply withdraw demand, but to push businesses to engage at the supply end to ensure a better deal for workers.

A more systemic problem with the ethical consumerism approach is that it suggests that the sins of capitalism can be redeemed through more consumption.

Shopping as activism is pervasive, with all manner of products now promising to donate profits back into saving the environment, or building communities. Charity consumerism is exemplified through sites such as Shopnate.com.au where consumers can donate to chosen charities by shopping online.

In this approach, #buybetter morphs into #buymore, saving the world through shopping.

Buying more things, as long as they have a slavery-free sticker on them, is not necessarily the answer. A broader interpretation of ethical consumerism might include questioning the relentless consumption of clothes that are cheaply produced, barely worn, and quickly discarded.

Or a truly ethical consumer might demand a mobile phone that is not only produced from slavery-free components, but will also last longer than the two years before planned obsolescence kicks in.

'Slavery-free' is not freeing slaves

Ethical consumerism is increasingly embraced as a marketing strategy, with several products and brands advertising themselves as "slavery free". This is certainly a step in the right direction, but we must avoid falling into the trap of obsessing over slavery-free products, and forgetting about freeing slaves.

Consumer demand is not the only thing that causes modern slavery, and we must also address the factors that make people vulnerable to labour exploitation. A workers' migration status, and the failure of governments to enable people to migrate safely and legally for work, is a major cause of labour exploitation.

Global systems of structural inequality also entrench people in exploitative labour markets. Ethical consumerism is an important part of the fight against modern slavery, but this problem cannot be solved simply by people speaking with their wallets.

Dr Erin O'Brien is a senior lecturer in the Queensland University of Technology's School of Justice.

 

SOURCE: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-06-17/eithical-consumerism-modern-slaver...