Thursday, 15 July 2010

The Corporate Face Of Fairtrade

Are veggies and vegans more environmentally aware and socially responsible? I could sum the answer up in one word: yes, but that would be both biased and untrue. Those on a greener path may set an example and have a keener awareness of the issues that really matter – a more moral code of conduct if you will, but it does not necessarily follow that vegetarians and vegans are the instigators. Many people, regardless of their individual beliefs or motivations, are conscious of how their actions impact the rest of humanity. There is no escaping it nowadays. All of us are hounded every day wherever we go with ethical dilemmas and besieged by guilt when we fail to make the right choice. But what is the right choice? Nobody seems able to definitively answer this question and I'm not about to put myself forward for the task either!

Food shopping is a prime example of the daily ethical nightmare. Where to shop? What and what not to buy? Surrounded by a sea of aisles and conflicting choices – air miles vs local produce, seasonal vs organic, fairtrade vs exploitation, it reminds me of the classic Cadbury crème egg phrase, “How do you eat yours?” With a spoon was usually my reply. I would relish scooping out the sticky sweet goo before devouring the outer chocolate shell. If only the choice to lead an ethical lifestyle was as pleasurable. Instead, it's a heart vs head battle of who do you wish to benefit more – the workers or the planet, and can you afford to pay the premium. I've lost count of the number of approved logos I'm expected to recognize. Retailers are aware of our plight, but they all want a piece of the fairtrade pie. All the big name players are cashing in. Cadbury's, Starbucks, Tesco, and Asda etc each have their own fairtrade approved products, and many commercial businesses make ethical claims. As a consumer I don't whether whether to applaud or cry. Couldn't this just be another gimmick to get us to buy? A win-win situation for all? The consumer experiences the feel-good factor, while the manufacturers increase their profit margins and brand loyalty. Why then do I feel like a pawn in this game of chess?

The reason is simple - fairtrade and ethical living has become more than just a movement, it's a fashionable trend. Acquiring smaller, ethically run companies as part of your global portfolio adds kudos, as well as bumps up your market share. Coco-Cola has a 58% stake in Innocent Smoothies, Green & Blacks is owned by Cadbury Plc (now Kraft Foods), and the Body Shop continues to be run by leading cosmetic giant L'Oreal. As an independent business, is it better to sell-out to the competition rather than struggle on the outside? Affirmative, as science fiction fans would say. The deal is done not in the best interests of the consumers or labourers producing the goods, but is an acquisition of more – a game of monopoly on a global scale. At this point, you might be thinking I'm overly cynical in my views, but how many of us look at a company's credentials beyond the glossy marketing strategies? Nowadays it pays to be a savvy shopper, even if it's for your own peace of mind.

The reputation of fairtrade hangs in the balance. It's fate depends not on the corporate role of money and men in suits, but on a collective face of conscience and integrity.