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Some elements of ethical consumption – such as flying in Fairtrade items from overseas – seem paradoxical. Is it worth doing, and will it help?

Piers Fawkes, PSFK
  • 2 may 2011

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This article titled “How helpful is Fairtrade for the ethical consumer?” was written by Lucy Siegle, for The Observer on Saturday 30th April 2011 23.05 UTC

I love saying I don’t own a car because it seems to afford me loads of hypothetical green points. But is my lack of car attributable to my desire to de-link humankind from oil, or to the fact that I don’t need one, as I live near a station? I shall never tell.

What I can say is that there is now a whole load of research on the fickleness and self-interest of “eco” private-sphere behaviours. This is coupled with a trend within the green movement for denouncing “green” personal activities and choices as pernicious. The thinking is that because you buy a pair of hemp pyjamas you will feel so virtuous that you’ll wear them on a long-haul flight to the Maldives – global warming be damned. But this is to credit the population at large with the collective brain of a gnu.

Yes, there are paradoxes. Many consider “ethical consumerism” to be one. But this doesn’t mean that benefits cannot be achieved by spending your (privileged) consumer pound more wisely. The often-quoted paradox around Fairtrade is that it forces the consumer to choose between a local piece of fruit and a developing-nation one with all its attendant food miles and carbon footprint. This, again, misses the point. Fairtrade certifies commodities that we do not commonly grow or mine here – cotton, gold, bananas, nuts, cocoa – and which have particular global problems attached to them: for instance, African cotton farmers have been left on the brink of starvation thanks to subsidies paid to US farmers. By choosing any of these commodities, you are already taking yourself out of the local sphere. Why not, as a starting point, pay the producer a fair price where the premium goes back to the producer community?

Ethical consumerism also advocates buying products that are not just designed for landfill or single use, and that are made with fewer resources and different materials with a lower environmental impact. Ordinary consumers can back up this intelligent buying with smarter strategies for living. For example, running dishwashers and washing machines overnight when there’s an energy surplus, as opposed to during peak hours, can cut the carbon emissions caused by those machines by 40%. True, neither strategy definitively saves the planet, but it begins to take the heat out of an average lifestyle.

Removing even greater heat is the collaborative consumption movement – collaborativeconsumption.com (there is also a book, What’s Mine Is Yours by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers, £12.99, HarperCollins) – where swapping, sharing, bartering, trading and renting replace private ownership, spreading the environmental load and creating a new economic model. OK, still not a linear solution to climate change or global poverty – but to borrow a sentiment from the behemoth retailer that recently announced daily profits of £10m, every little helps.

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