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.


  1. One of the easiest ways to start to make a difference in this minefield of ethics v's convenience is to buy British, buy local, buy seasonal. Buy independent, organic brands and read labels.

    But all of that is idealistic - and expensive. But small changes make big differences and it's about changing our culture of wanting cheap convenience at the expense of anything else.

    1. Yes, I agree entirely. There's a whole other issue of supporting local commerce over imported convenience foods. The aspect of that which makes me grumble is how much more difficult it's made for consumers to buy ethically - it IS cheaper to get the frozen bargain packs of meat and train yourself to forget its origins. It's a lot easier to buy the product you've seen advertised the most rather than seek out the more ethically sound alternatives which often aren't readily available on the high street.

      I wonder if looking more at ethics as a academic subject in schools might be a good start. Get the younger generations caring more about where their latest shiny thing comes from, rather than just competing to have the latest commodities for the lowest price.