What Can Possibly Be Wrong with Ethical Consumption?

Francisco Toro at the Campaign for Boring Development takes issue with the Guardian’s Valentine’s Day Ethics: How Green is your Red Rose? which advocates for ethical consumption of cut flowers and chocolate based on murky working conditions and environmental standards in producing countries. Toro writes:

The notion that you can somehow improve the lives of the world’s poorest people by cutting off the few, tenuous economic links normal people in the west have with them is – how to put this politely? – totally insane.

Somehow “being ethical” has become a luxury good. Because let’s face it, normal people on normal salaries cannot afford to pay 50 pounds (fifty quid!!) for a dozen roses. What we’re left with is a mindset where “social responsibility” just another item to be conspicuously consumed…

I think it’s important to recognise that free trade has not always (or even mostly) had positive development outcomes for the poor – mostly because so-called “free” trade is heavily distorted by rich world subsidies for domestic agricultural goods. Nevertheless, I agree with Toro’s rejection of consumer activism and ethical consumption as the best response to labour market and environmental issues in the Global South. As I argue in my paper, from Gift to Right, the rhetoric of corporate social responsibility is inherently flawed. The idea that consumers and shareholders in the Global North can and should be the parties holding transnational capital accountable for business activities and development outcomes in the South does nothing to challenge existing power structures or to establish ongoing accountability relationships between big business and local communities.

Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t reflect upon the way our lifestyles impact upon the poor in other countries, but rather that we should step away from this idea that switching to fair trade chocolate means we’ve discharged our responsibilities to the world. Because it doesn’t.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s