21 October, 2014

Labels need to change but how much and in what way

Fairtrade shopping basket
by Lucy Siegle, Observer ethical living columnist and BBC One Show presenter

It can often seem as if the whole of the Earth and its attendant resources are trained on us (consumers), geared toward second guessing what we might like at any given moment. It is small wonder then that we have become super demanding. Woe betide retailers if the moon-on-a-stick shop is closed or our diamond shoes are too tight.

We have evolved into rapacious yet savvy sub species of human kind. And of course I write this in the spirit of self loathing. Of course I identify myself as a consumer and would far rather be here than on the side of the fence subsisting on less than a dollar a day. 

But consumerism is still not the nuanced art it could be. Price and volume (especially in fashion, an area I'm particularly well versed in) are key. We are still not grabbing every opportunity to consume as ethically as possible. When it comes to labelling we have to ask ourselves if we're missing opportunities to make these more enticing. 

In a way of course ethical consumers are the most demanding of the lot. They want their FMCGs (fast moving consumer goods) but they want them to be respectful of every person and planet involved in the supply chain, they often want access to market for marginalised suppliers in order to subvert the unfairness of the pervading Free Trade economic model and great eco credentials to boot. They are likely to get all the more upset when they feel short change which is why the recent SOAS report into the shortcomings of Fairtrade and the Fairtrade Foundation's rebuttal are important. 

When it comes to designing labels denoting superior ethics why then you might as well task yourself with something easier: nuclear fusion perhaps. Because against all of this we must also concede that everything is subject to change: the consumer, the products, the farmers and producers. In common with consumer law which is subject to flux and evolves (see Consumer Landscape Reforms) labels need to change but how much and in what way? 

Researchers are pretty much in agreement when it comes to tracking the arc of Fairtrade sales from small scale 'goodwill selling' (or 'biscuits to vicars' as it has been described elsewhere) to where the ideological shifts to a commercial focus and then becomes mass market when brands such as Cadburys and Starbucks famously buy in. What is less documented or known about is what the grassroots Fairtrade groups make of this behind the scenes and what influence, if any, they have on the labelling of Fairtrade goods. 

If we take another definition of Fairtrade as realistic, that it is 'a mature social movement that questions and, at the same time, renews traditional economic spheres' it is probably necessary to accept that there needs to be change in labels, and even sometimes a shift in what they represent. Funnily enough it's not the actual label or logo that normally changes much: having spent years trying to get a label into the public's consciousness (in Fairtrade's case pretty successfully) it would be foolish to tamper too much with the 'look'. Rather, what is easier to tamper with is the underlying criteria and assumptions. 

Here we're in dangerous territory. The grassroots activists and pioneer brands who've invested years - often financially and emotionally - are likely to want to stay with a more traditional, and arguably purist idea of what labels such as Fairtrade stands for. Those who see the future in terms of commercial hook ups with multinationals will see things very differently and be more open to ideas such as 'mass balance'.

This much we know: that the point of purchase is a bad place to attempt to instill complex ideas such as poverty alleviation or alternative economic models. Think about shopping with small children when your parking is about to run out, do you really want a lecture on how an indigenous community hand distills rosewater? No. Thought not. Therefore labels have to work unbelievably hard to communicate values and carry a thousand different messages. 

As with all supremely helpful opinion blogs, I offer no complete solution! Except to reinforce that consumer behaviour (my own included) is fickle as you like, and often trend driven and cyclical. When it comes down to it, the systems (and I mean ethical labelling as a type of system) that prevail are the ones that guarantee longstanding truths and values. Because another thing we - demanding consumers - demand is a guarantee of what we stand for. 


Add your comment


Fairtrade Blog