A few thoughts and a little game to see whether we really can buy our way to a better world...
A little while ago the question of boycott politics came up on the libcom forums, where one of the arguments for them is that they allow us to be ethical consumers and move firms towards better behaviour, or at least not help them to act poorly. A small but worthy effort.
Rightly I think, this argument was attacked on the grounds that every company exploits, this being the nature of any economic relationship within capitalism. Profit has to be made for the company to survive and the more profitable the company, the more insulated the boss becomes from financial hardship through the direct exploitation of their employees. If you buy fair trade all you're doing is exploiting yourself to pay the producer more, which is just a fancy way of charitable giving which really doesn't bother the likes of Nestle or their profit margins (they happily provide "fair trade kitkats" for example).
But to drive this point home that an "ethical" consumer lifestyle is not really possible I thought I'd do a little experiment. First, I'll pick a number, say 327. No particular reason for that other than it's somewhere between 1 and 500. Next, I'll pick that out of the list of Fortune 500 companies, for which we get Commercial Metals.
As it happens, the company is a perfect example of the interrelated nature of production worldwide. It's a major player in recycling, structural engineering, global metal trading and heat treating (key to certain types of production line). It directly makes a massive list of products out of steel, aluminium, bronze, copper and more, working up beams, columns, pilings, pipework, all the metal-based infrastructure in fact that you might need to make a city work or build new places for people to live in, to provide clean running water and adequate sewer systems.
Given its size and reach, in order to boycott this company's products you would have to live in a shack, never use a car or a bridge, refuse to allow water to be piped to your home and decline to pay taxes.
But there could be every reason for such a boycott. It proudly states in its advertising blurb for example that its products are key components of US military vehicles, arctic service applications and oil drilling equipment (so watch out Afganistan, Iraq and Alaska). It is currently being dragged through the courts over alleged cartel practices and in its 2009 report (p55) it mentions a high probability of serious "liabilities" over alleged environmental damage from its activities.
I found all this from under an hour of googling and it comes from a company which is probably among the cleaner faces on the global corporate block, a high-skills firm with a relatively small workforce running at up to 50% trade union density which doesn't seem to strike often and specialises in taking away your metal trash to turn it into something useful.
The point is though, I could almost certainly find worse on any Fortune 500 firm you'd care to name, probably in around the same amount of time (it's a fun game, feel free to play and post your results below). And because these companies are transnational, all-pervasive entities in our economy, it is impossible to escape feeding, either directly or indirectly, their belligerent behaviours unless you fancy living in the woods, making your own shoes out of leaves and wiping your arse with er... more leaves.
2% of the world's population owns half of its wealth, they are getting one pound in every two you spend regardless of your best intent when shopping down the local market. Which makes ethical consumerism a phantasm - somewhere along the line, your money will end up in the pockets of people who are not very nice at all unless you get to the root of the matter and work to directly expropriate the means of production.