Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Living ethically - how easy is it?

I would like to believe that I am a conscientious consumer. I am fundamentally opposed to slavery, child labour, corruption within large corporations - all things that I'm pretty sure if you asked people on the street for their views, the vast majority would say they would rather not support it.

But just how easy is it to be a typical modern British consumer and not perpetuate the less desirable actions of some of the larger multinational corporations? Let's look at a couple of reasonably well known examples:

Coca Cola - it's not that far from common knowledge that the Coca Cola corporation have a murky reputation where human rights and business practices are concerned. The Killer Coke campaign is a worldwide movement that has been running for some years. Amongst its catalogue of crimes, are the alleged murders of union leaders Adolfo de Jesus Munera Lopez and Isidro Segundo Gil in Columbia, further allegations of torture and violence against the families of trade unionists in Guatemala, usage of prison labour and diabolical working conditions at factories in China, child labour in El Salvador, draining out groundwater from farms in India - and so on, so forth. 

It's grim reading to say the least. In fact, Coca Cola score a pitiful 6/20 on the Ethiscore business profile.

Nestlé - a company I've personally boycotted for the last 6 or so years. The international Nestlé boycott, run by Baby Milk Action has been running since the late 1970s in protest against a list of unethical practices as long as your arm. The best known aspect of the boycott relates specifically to Nestlé's aggressive marketing of infant formula in developing countries and the resulting mortality and morbidity rates. It is claimed that Nestlé's actions contribute directly to the deaths of 1.5million babies every year, not to mention plunging the families of infants fed on their product into even deeper poverty as they use up an entire week's wages to pay for it. The intricacies of their practices in this area are too much to explain here, but please do explore the Baby Milk Action link and read up on just what Nestlé get up to. 

To put it into perspective, Nestlé's Ethiscore rating is an abominable 2.5/20, thanks to a myriad of further unethical behaviours such as animal testing, suspicious deaths of union workers in Columbia, operating in 11 tax havens and others alongside the aforementioned issues of infant formula marketing.

How depressed are you so far? That's just two companies! Annoyingly boycotting them isn't as easy as you might think either. It's fairly straightforward not to buy a KitKat or a can of Coke with your lunch - but what about the subsidiary brands you DON'T realise are owned by these organisations? 

Maybelline make-up - owned by Nestlé
Purina Petcare - owned by Nestlé
Ambre Solaire - owned by Nestlé
Giorgio Armani, Haagen Daaz, Ralph Lauren, Vittel bottled water, Perrier - all brands either owned or closely linked with Nestlé. Surprised? So was I. 

Drinks you may not realise are owned or part-owned by Coca Cola: Schweppes brand, Malvern bottles water, Minute Maid, Relentless - INNOCENT SMOOTHIES for heavens sake! 

Avoiding them seems harder now, eh. 

This week I added a new company to the list that give me headaches - The Baby Show. For those who aren't parents, the Baby Show is an annual event held in London and run by a company called Clarion Events. It consists of exhibitors selling and advertising their wares, so-called 'baby experts' (another rant for later in there) hosting talks, and is generally viewed by expectant parents as quite the event in preparing for a new addition. 

How could I possibly have a problem with this? Let me tell you.

Clarion Events, the owner of the Baby Show, also own a number of arms trade fairs. Is this illegal? No. The shows are licensed within the UK, perfectly legal and above board. So why does it matter? Because legal and ethical aren't the same thing - a crucial point elaborated on in this brilliant blog:

Given the well publicised controversy over Britain's trade history of weapons with countries of questionable moral standing, it's not surprising that a significant number of parents feel irked by links between this and an exhibition of baby paraphernalia. Once again, this isn't a new discovery - but the people who want to tell you about it don't have the same means at their disposal as the hugely powerful events company. When organisations like Bounty and UNICEF distance themselves from something like Clarion's Baby Show, as they did in 2008 (
you know there's good reason to feel dubious about the company behind it.

So those are the problems we know about, the issues that - should you choose to - you could make a point by endeavouring not to give your custom to the companies behind them. You could take it a step further and get involved with the campaigns by signing petitions and donating to the causes behind the campaigns. The more noise we make, the more likely we are to be heard - although it's very difficult to shout louder than a multi-billion dollar corporation with an arsenal of advertising and PR at its disposal. 

What about the issues we DON'T realise are there? It was only through studying human rights as part of my degree that I stumbled across a documentary called Slavery: A Global Investigation, an 80 minute film by Kate Blewitt and Brian Woods examining the prevalence of slavery in today's world. I urge you to watch the film, but be prepared to feel very angry and upset by the end. From this film, I learned that 80% of cocoa produced in the Ivory Coast uses slave labour at some stage of its production - and this goes into making roughly 50% of the chocolate consumed the world over. How do you know whether that lovely chocolate bar you've just nibbled was made using slaves at some stage? You don't. It's impossible to find out, I've tried. You can be fairly certain if it's a Nestlé product that it is highly likely to be a product of slavery to some degree, because they have a known record of being slow to act in stopping the use of child labour in areas of their company. But otherwise... nope, you just don't know. Isn't that scary? Without realising it, we are accomplices to the ongoing use of slave labour. 
How about rugs?? Do you always check that the nice new rug you've bought carries the RugMark logo, certifying that its production was free from child labour? I didn't even know such a thing existed before watching that film. 

And the really scary one - domestic slavery. This isn't something confined to the developing world, but rather prevalent in Europe. I've heard it estimated that there are currently around 3000 domestic slaves in Paris, mostly young girls who have been trafficked into the country under the illusion that they would be offered paid, respectable work. Some horrifying accounts can be found here:

It's all quite horrifying, isn't it. And it's all driven by money, the desire to maximise profits and minimise expenditure. This is just a teeny tiny glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes; I haven't even touched on sweat shops used to make the clothes we buy on the high street, sex trafficking, the problems with the Fair Trade brand - I'd have to write a book, and I'm not even vaguely qualified to do that.

All I can urge you to do is read for yourself. Don't sit back and take at face value what the adverts tell you. Just because the newspapers don't report this stuff daily doesn't mean it's not going on. Be a little cynical and read between the lines. If, like me, you find yourself so enraged by the things you uncover, then jump in and give your support to the groups of people who want to change the way things are done. We may not have our voices heard any time soon, but unless we start stamping our feet and demanding that the products we use are delivered to us without exploiting other human beings around the world, nothing will change and people will continue to suffer so that we can enjoy our disposable lifestyles at minimum cost.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Human rights and human wrongs.

Something astonishing seems to come over the general population when issues of human rights and Bad People are being discussed. A common point of view seems to be that murderers, terrorists, child molesters etc don't deserve to have their human rights respected, because they clearly weren't considering the human rights of their victims when they carried out whatever atrocious act. 

I can't get my head around that... Really, genuinely can't. 

Human rights are just that, rights. Not privileges. You don't have to earn them, you can't lose them - no matter what reprehensible act you commit or how truly abhorrent a person you might be. Human rights are absolute and universal. It's the only way you and I, the ordinary, law-abiding folk on the street can be truly protected from oppression and abuse. For what is justice if not based on the premise that everybody receives a fair trial for their wrongdoing, that no person shall ever be tortured or arbitrarily held under arrest?

It's not always a very comfortable way to see the world. I cannot say that if I was locked in a room with the man who abused me when I was a small child that I wouldn't want to inflict some terrible harm on him as retribution for the things he did to me. I can't promise that I don't feel he deserves some manner of pain inflicting on him in return for being a really vile person. However, it is of immense comfort to me to know that the law exists to protect me from my own impulses, to prevent me from sinking to the low levels of a person who would willingly inflict harm on any other human being. 

Perhaps I put too much stock in the comments I see on social networking sites, or in the 'readers comments' sections of online papers like the Daily Fail or the Torygraph, but the pitchfork-wielding, mob mentality of many people really saddens me. I spent a short time at university studying human rights as an academic subject, and the accounts of torture (amongst other human rights infringements) that I read were utterly harrowing - and the scariest part was that this isn't a rare occurrence. Neither is slavery, mass murder, censorship, or execution. It happens the world over, and comparatively little is being done in the public eye to stop it. Of course there are wonderful organisations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Liberty, Survival International to name but a few - but unless you're actively involved with these groups or deliberately pursue news on what they're doing to protect vulnerable people it's actually not easy to find out just how widespread human rights abuses really, truly are. 

I will come back to this topic again and elaborate on more specific cases which have grabbed my attention. For now I just wanted to write down and organise my feelings on the general matter.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Just for the sake of balance and to ensure that not ALL my posts are parental rantings about breastfeeding... here's a picture of some puppies (not THOSE sort of puppies):

Newspapers make me grumpy.

Not just newspapers, all forms of news reporting make me really, very cross. I used to be terribly impressionable as a youngster and believed everything on the news programmes and in the papers entirely, because they couldn't print/say something if it wasn't true - right?

I can't remember when exactly I started to understand how biased the media is; how easy it is to skew a particular event through language and cleverly chosen snippets of quotes taken out of context. Then there's the practice of just not reporting some things at all! I have a friend who lives in Palestine and is extremely passionate about trying to get information out about the goings on over there - stuff that just doesn't make it to the papers and news programmes we see in the UK, because it doesn't fit the convenient political agenda. Some of the things she's seen are horrific but if you want to read about it for yourself, you have to go to extraordinary - and in her case, often dangerous - lengths to unearth it. 

So, imagine my dismay at flicking on BBC Breakfast news today, as I do every morning (I have a real soft spot for Bill & Sian) to see the reports on the Vitamin D supplement furore. Suitable references to medical studies on the effects and prevalence of Vit. D deficiency, quotes from doctors about how much money the NHS would save in the long run if everybody protected themselves against Vit. D deficiency, and so on, so forth. And all I kept thinking is "why aren't any of you this eager to report stories in support of breastfeeding, or stories that highlight just how poor the standard of aftercare for breastfeeding women is?". Considering that much of the Vit. D coverage highlighted how poorly understood the guidelines on it are by the general public and medical institutions alike, it baffles me to think the same principle doesn't apply to the doctors, health visitors and general public who are really terrifically misinformed about the true nature of breastfeeding.

Where is the story covering the experiences of the mothers who go through pregnancy and birth determined to breastfeed, only to find that the midwives on the postnatal wards are too overstretched to dedicate any serious time to helping them establish breastfeeding? Or worse! The hospital staff whose response is to suggest giving the baby a bottle! This isn't in reference to the mums who have no interest in breastfeeding, but there are so many - TOO many - who want to breastfeed, are encouraged towards it by leaflets and booklets given in pregnancy - and then find that there's nobody around to help them, or people around actively discouraging them. Isn't that weird? In fact, isn't that downright disgraceful?

What's more, the people who volunteer to help such women out - often mums themselves who've undergone training and devote their time, unpaid, to visiting women in hospital and at home to help, or midwives and health visitors who've taken the time to really educate themselves about breastfeeding support - are given pejorative names like "the breastapo" or "breastfeeding Nazi" (see HERE for a really excellent discussion on this). 

Why don't the media report things like this? Where is the OUTRAGE that GPs often have no idea what the accurate advice to give to a mum with mastitis is? My own GP told me that I must stop breastfeeding when I got mastitis, because the milk would be infected and make my baby ill. Had I followed his advice and not researched it myself, instead following the recommendations of an IBCLC Lactation Consultant, I could have ended up with a very nasty breast abscess. Sadly I am nowhere near a minority in experiencing truly dreadful and inaccurate advice about breastfeeding from healthcare professionals. But WHERE is the media coverage of this? WHERE is the story about how many women feel they had to give up breastfeeding purely because they were denied the correct information and support to overcome hurdles in their feeding journey?

Is there ANY other area of healthcare where a medical professional could get away with being so poorly informed? There really, really isn't. Yet in spite of ever increasing research showing the long term health impact of not breastfeeding, the general perception of the importance of breastfeeding isn't changing and mothers from all around the UK who want to breastfeed their child are still frequently facing poor support. 

In case there are any breastfeeding mums who are reading this, I would like to take the opportunity to direct you to the really fantastic support organisations:

It's a shame that the kind of encouragement and accurate information managed by the organisations I've pointed out above isn't widely available as standard from all health care providers responsible for caring for new mothers and babies. It's even more of a shame that the media would rather publish negative and detrimental stories about breastfeeding than devote any time and effort to trying to improve the support services offered to every single mother.