I often find myself at a loss as to how to make ethical purchases. In a city where everything is available at any time one would think making informed and conscious purchases would be easy. Not to be dramatic about it, but let me tell you, it is not. We can avoid big box stores or huge conglomerates with the expectations that the small store we purchase from will have more ethical products. Often, again with the drama, this is not the case. It takes great research and awareness to ensure we are purchasing the most ethical item, in terms of fair labour, environmental standards and ensuring both human and animal rights are respected. It seems like at times that everything we purchase is somehow, blatantly or inadvertently contributing to a world order that keeps the rich richer and the poor poorer. While I frequently feel as though I am traveling up stream without a paddle attempting to create change, I am comforted by the amount of individuals and initiatives that exist in a pursuit to combat corporate greed. These following paragraphs are simply my rant on what I believe needs to be changed.
It is no secret that major corporations exploit natural resources and labour around the world. The recent BP oil spill killing animals and plants and all but wiping out the fishing industry in the Gulf of Mexico is a prime example of a corporate conglomerate not taking responsibility for their actions and their consequences. Yet this is not unique to BP. For decades now we have heard the horrific stories of exploitation from around the world. For example communities in Bolivia being pushed off the land and denied their rights as companies like Shell search for oil. People living in the Niger Delta are some of the poorest in the world, yet they inhabit a land rich with oil in which others profit from the fruits of their land. We are aware that young children in Bangladesh are currently working under horrific conditions for hours on end for a meager wage so that they can contribute in a small way to their families earnings,and provide us with cheap clothing we can purchase from H&M. In our province of Ontario, probably as you are reading this, male migrant workers from Mexico are working long hours for less than minimum wage with no benefits. They are living in cramped quarters for months with other migrant workers so that they can return to Mexico, once the tomato crops have been harvested, to their families with their meager savings-no chance for immigration for these men.
In correlation with this exploitation of land and labour, the expansion of corporations have led to a stagnation in artisan communities. According to the United nations, over the past thirty five years the number of artisans in India have decreased by thirty percent. In our Toronto community one cannot help but notice the growing number of chains and their expansion throughout the city and the suburbs. These multiplications result in the closure of smaller, localized shops. There continues to be sectors of the community which resist this change, but it is becoming increasingly more difficult to search out ethical alternatives.
If these stories of injustice are all so common and well known why do these human and environmental atrocities continue to happen? We can scream Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) all we like, and I am right there with you. Large companies have the greatest power to create large scale, significant change, to adopt fair and holistic practices so that producer, consumer and shareholder all benefit mutually from the relationship. Corporations need to change. This change needs to be sincere and transparent. As a consumer we should not be duped into thinking we are buying a product that is ‘green’ or ‘fairly’ made only to discover later that the product was not as green or fair as the company alluded. Simply put, the average consumer does not have the time to thoroughly research each purchase, especially if there are constant attempts made to sway the truth. It is the duty and the responsibility of the corporation to adequately and honestly represent their brand.
Unfortunately as it stands right now CSR is all based on a voluntary basis. That is not to say that some companies are not adopting real, ethical practices, because they are. However, there are not adequate monitoring bodies to aid the everyday citizen, to ensure that they are purchasing from an ethically run company. Green washing by Clorox is a perfect example. Clorox has created a line called ‘Green Works’. They do not specify exactly what is in their product, but rather that it is a ‘green’ product. IF you are a busy, working individual and you enter your local grocery store and see a product labeled green, chances are you are going to believe this. And why shouldn’t you? In a day and age where information is always at a click of button why is it that CSR has not become mandatory, and in fact a legal aspect to creating a corporation?
As a side note, Clorox has bought out Burt’s Bees. This blew my mind. An organic, natural company owned by a bleach company? Seems a little contradicting don’t you think?
Corporations are essentially thought of as people under the law, so should they not then have to abide by the same rules? To be responsible for their actions? To treat others as they would like to be treated? And if their actions create consequences should they not be held accountable to clean up the mess? I believe so.
As stated before, multiple measures have been generated, and new initiative are constantly afoot. The fair trade movement was created to help address the issues of diminishing artisan communities and iniquitous labour standards. Yet it can be argued that fair trade acts simply as piecemeal as it does not create a sustainable long term solution. A business has to pay to be certified fair trade, and the monitoring bodies are not always up to par, allowing companies to ‘fair trade wash’ if you like. There are many companies that are indeed fair trade through and through and they should not be ignored. However, like CSR when the Fair Trade movement is not adequately audited it allows for a few bad seeds to get through the cracks.
I’ve exhausted myself here. Obviously CSR should be mandatory, but it’s not. How can we change this? I believe the power lays with us, the citizen, not the corporation. While corporations may be viewed as individuals under the law, they are not human. They function for profit. But this does not mean that we, actual human beings, cannot begin to change the way that we interact with corporations. I stated that CSR is important, but that aside, we as the consumer must also claim Personal Social Responsibility for our own actions and decisions. It may be hard to ensure we are buying ethical products, but until we make it an important aspect of our lives, I do not believe corporations will begin to change. Until we are ready to do some work and to change our buying habits, how can we really expect these large conglomerates to change their standards?
I truly believe that as a citizen and therefore either the consumer or producer of goods, we need to give ourselves more credit. We have the power to demand change, to demand responsibility. We can demand this through our purchasing decisions. By choosing to purchase local, to buy Fair Trade, and to buy Green products (with a little research before hand to ensure these products are what they claim to be) we are voting. We are commercially voting, telling companies that we want the products we purchase to be ethical, to respect the rights of others, the earth and our communities.
Of course I couldn’t leave this on a negative note. Here are some links to online guides and websites that keep track of ‘ethical companies’. Take a look, hopefully they will provide you with some insight on how to make informed ethical purchases.
The Ethical Company Organization
For Ethical Investment: Ethical Funds
Check out this online magazine Corporate Knights ‘The Magazine for Clean Capitalism’ http://www.corporateknights.ca/special-reports/63-best-50-corporate-citizens.html
YES! Magazine: Powerful Ideas, Practical Actions
New American Dream