Opinion: Do People Care About Fair Trade, Ethical Consumption?

April 3, 2015

The Fairtrade Foundation recently reported that sales of its products are falling in the U.K. as shoppers turn to discount retailers that stock fewer of the pricier Fairtrade goods. In response, the charity is loosening some of its certification standards, according to a SciDev.net report in AllAfrica.

Fair trade is a social movement to help producers in developing countries get better trading conditions and promote sustainability. Members advocate paying higher prices to exporters and demand higher social and environmental standards.

The movement focuses on traditional exports from developing countries to developed countries and on products consumed in domestic markets. The movement seeks to promote greater equity in international trading through dialogue, transparency, and respect. It promotes sustainable development by securing the rights of marginalized producers and workers in developing countries, according to the World Fair Trade Organization.

Fairtrade Africa is a membership-based organisation that represents African producers who export traditional and untraditional commodities such as coffee, cocoa, tea, cotton, bananas, mangos, wine, shea butter and rooibos tea. The organisation represents more than 860,000 producers in 32 African countries.

Fairtrade Africa has four regional networks: Eastern Africa Network based in Nairobi, Kenya; West Africa Network based in Accra, Ghana and Southern Africa Network based in Cape Town, South Africa. A new network in North Africa is soon to be established. The Fairtrade Africa headquarters are in Nairobi.

Fairtrade Africa members include more than 410 Fairtrade certified producer organisations.

Fairtrade’s mission is to help farmers and laborers get a better deal, especially when it comes to wages. Fairtrade lobbies governments and policy makers such as the E.U. to regulate fairer trade practices and stimulates demand by organizing consumer campaigns to encourage buying Fairtrade certified products.

Maha Rafi Atal is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge, where she is researching the political effects of multinational firms acting as public service providers in the developing world.

Marketing psychologist Julie Irwin at the University of Texas in Austin, U.S., and her coauthors have shown that the thought processes that lead consumers to make ethical choices are too rare to turn ethical consumption into a mainstream movement.

In a series of experiments offering Americans choices between “standard” and ethically produced products, Irwin found that most won’t opt for the ethical option unless they have extensive background information about it. She also found that consumers will actively avoid learning about ethical issues to give themselves “permission” to purchase the standard, less ethical item, which is usually cheaper.

Irwin suggests that the greatest potential for ethics as a marketing tool lies with companies. When firms proactively implement ethical production and make education about their processes part of their branding, some consumers will respond positively.

These studies are part of a wider body of research raising questions about the efficacy of ethical consumption. All this suggests the “ethical consumption” movement is misguided.

Although well meaning, schemes based on individual consumer choices cannot curtail global emissions or end labor exploitation if their size relative to the market at large remains as small as research suggests it will.

Ethical consumption emerged in the 20th century because businesses advocated for it to transfer their own responsibility onto consumers. Let’s now transfer that responsibility back to firms.

Governments can encourage more firms to become “public benefit corporations” with ethical obligations in their legal structure, as some U.S. states have done. They can mandate minimum wages, restrict zero-hour contracts and integrate labor standards into international trade agreements. Finally, they can require energy companies to green their supply to be licensed to trade.

Source: AFK Insider

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