Ethical consumerism. Well?

Ethical consumerism. Well?

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.


Rob Ray
Oct 10 2010 23:32

NB// This isn't to say boycotts can't work as tactics in the wider struggle btw, it's more aimed at the general "buy nice" approach.

Oct 11 2010 04:27

thanks a good little read.

Oct 11 2010 08:51

Yeah, I was thinking of writing something like this.

I think it's also important to realise a couple of other things:
- all "ethical" or "fair trade" companies rely entirely on infrastructure and materials provided by unethical, massively exploitative and destructive companies (all of their goods will be produced and distributed using energy mostly from fossil fuels, using materials ultimately mostly from mines and factories in the Third World).
- while working conditions in electronics factories in China and textile factories in Bangladesh for example are terrible, people choose to work in them because they need the income. They are not asking people to boycott their employers, because they don't want their employers to go bust and lay them off.
- while the economy can sustain a small number of high end, "ethical" stores, and by their very nature and this couldn't be generalised across the whole economy, because the products would be unaffordable to most people. Even now "ethical" products are only affordable for some people because all the way down the rest of the production chain (the roads and railway lines the goods are carried on and materials they are made off, the glue that holds the packages together, the electronically components in the computers and phones of the "ethical" company...) everything is provided by more exploitative and environmentally destructive companies.

If anything, if you wanted to not feel guilty, you would be much better off buying the cheapest of every item you could get, and donating the difference between that and the "fair trade" item price to workers' organisations in the relevant industries.