by Julian Baggini (microphilosophy.net) author of The Virtues of the Table (Granta)
In the latest instalment of a series of thought pieces looking at how highly shoppers place ethical credentials on their list, writer Julian Baggini shares his view...
Ethical consumerism has become mainstream. According to a recent poll, 73% say they would boycott products that have not met high ethical standards. Saying, however, is easier than doing and in practice it seems people still shop as though ethics were some kind of optional extra, relevant only to a few premium purchases.
Consumers tend to operate according to a double-standard: they are outraged when companies do not ensure they source ethically but they do not often make much effort to source ethically themselves. Think of how the public has reacted to the likes of ITV's recent Exposure programme, which revealed dangerously unsafe and inhumane conditions in Bangladeshi factories supplying British shops; or The Guardian’s investigation into chicken production, which showed that birds were reared – quite legally – on a space less than the size of an A4 sheet of paper each; or the same newspaper's reporting of the plight of workers on cotton plantations in the developing world who are routinely exposed to dangerous levels of pesticides.
Most would dismiss as a cop-out any suggestion that basic ethical standards concerning labour rights, animal welfare and the environment are none of the companies' business and they ought only to think about getting the best price. But don't we often buy solely on price and quality and don't make it our business to try to find out if our bargain comes at others' expense?
It may be uncomfortable but we need to engage in much more of this kind of self-examination. From a moral point of view, those who profit from exploitation share the blame with those at the front line of exploitation. We as well as the companies we buy from are profiting every time we buy goods which are cheaper than they would otherwise have been had they been supplied ethically. Ignorance is no defence: we all know about the often appalling conditions in factories and on farms in the developing world, and in factory farms.
Of course, we cannot be expected to investigate the supply chain behind every product we buy. But we should do what we realistically can do to minimise the chances that our pleasure comes at the expense of the planet, or of human or animal misery. Few of us can honestly say we do this, and I do not count myself among their number.
The easiest thing we can do is become informed enough to equip ourselves with indicators and rules of thumb to help us to buy well. We should be suspicious of very cheap clothes, shoes and meat, for example. We can swiftly find out online which of the shops and brands we like have robust policies and which don't. And, of course, we can choose to buy products which are certified by bodies which insist on certain standards, like the Fairtrade Foundation.
None of this guarantees ethical impeccability. Even the best certification schemes are imperfect. But we should not use the occasional revelation of dark secrets behind a supposedly ethical product as an excuse not to give up trying to be ethical consumers. Moral purity is impossible; doing our best to make sure that we are not profiting from the exploitation of others is not. And to do that is simply to hold ourselves up to the same standard as we do the businesses we decry.