Shopping for a Better World

18 July 2005
Pauline Tiffen

Shopping for a Better World
Pauline Tiffen
Red Pepper, June 1999

Once upon a time progressive activists knew how to campaign on inequality and injustice in a global marketplace. There were clear stances to be taken; there was boycott, resistance and stand off; there were clear hopes for a different international economic order, opposed to one dominated by 'the' market. Campaigns were often aligned with national liberation struggles and bubbled with the ideals and potential of new states.

Now there is only the apparent inevitability of a direct engagement in the market and with the few, powerful market-makers. Governments have an ambiguous position: on the one hand we pressure them to regulate transnational companies (TNCs) for the wellbeing of the people; on the other hand they frequently support business in undermining such regulations.

The effect of this shift has been a proliferation of policy initiatives for the governance of companies, the financial sector, of overseas development and the environment. Simple commercial and legal mechanisms such as labels have become tools for social and political agendas. Many new private-sector, NGO and trade union think tanks and 'talking spaces' such as the UK Ethical Trading Initiative have been launched. Many companies have signed up for working groups on monitoring and verification processes. Specialist ethical company associations, notably the enormous Businesses for Social Responsibility in the USA (which includes companies responsible for 20 per cent of the world's total turnover, including Monsanto and Coca Cola) have been formed.

There is also a new, still-evolving discipline in ethical and responsible business management. There are already graduate courses and degrees, dedicated institutes and academies, and (forthcoming) a government-backed new learning centre all derived from the need to 'deliver' ethics and responsible supply chain management. There is also a growing number of direct agreements between Northern and Southern non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and TNCs. The big accountancy firms and SGS (Surveillance General de Securite) now offer to audit companies' values and labour standards alongside other more conventional measures of profits and stocks.

As the Maquila Solidarity Network, based in Toronto, recently stated: Five years ago many of us dismissed codes of conduct as nothing more than company attempts to protect their brand image and/or avoid government regulation... In just a few years we have moved from company codes of conduct with no provision for monitoring or verification towards codes with elaborate systems of internal and external monitoring, factory and company certification and mechanisms for NGO and labour participation in monitoring and third party complaints procedures.

Intuition and bitter experience are turning more and more people into activists. This has risen from action and argument against the market and its assumption of unassailable rights and an unaccountable sway over people's lives and the planet's resources.

This new wave does bring to the fore some contradictions. For instance we now find trade unions 'understanding' why 'good' companies like Levi's must lay off thousands of workers; we have NGOs like Oxfam encouraging 'buycotts' (lending their ethical 'brand' of approval to specific products or stores like Sainsbury's), we have localists anxious to preserve and reinvent their community without heed to notions and benefits of interdependence; and there is a tier of the world's population who are not currently engaged in the global economy and thus miss out on gains achieved through any negotiations via the formal economy. Further, we have popular alliances which aim to influence the behaviour of powerful companies but are financially and morally entwined with those very companies.

There are three different kinds of company - the alternative, the altruistic and the renegades. The first group - radically alternative companies - support fair trade, sustainable production methods, co-operation with workers, south-south linkages, consumer networks, people-to-people exchanges, mixed stakeholder and participatory ownership, profit which is not private profit and a basic philosophy which is not profit-orientated. The second, altruistic, group are conventional companies that are trying to look good. They adopt codes of conduct or advertise themselves through a connection with a international non-profit organisation and may donate a small amount of profits to help fund the charity work. Finally there are the renegades, who refuse to acknowledge the social and environmental costs of their activities and argue for the neutrality and fairness of the free market mechanism.

The interaction and relative commercial success of these different types of company are at the heart of the battle for the future market. The altruistic company is likely to adopt the language and imagery of the alternative company and confuse consumers. The renegade will likely aim to tackle both the altruistic and the alternative by using punitive and competitive pricing and sustained PR strategies. Monsanto, for instance, tried the latter and is accused of using the law to scare off campaigners.

The crucial difference between an alternative and an altruistic company is that an alternative company seeks to change the unequal relationships between primary producers and the consumers, using the brand as the means not the end. Its whole purpose is to reorganise the production chain on a fair and egalitarian basis.

The altruistic company by contrast leaves the inequalities of the production chain virtually untouched. Trade unions, NGOs, fair traders and campaigning organisations have all needed to work in varying proportions both in and against the market. To change the terms of trade in the market place is a big challenge because there are no single entities to take on or to work through.

Potentially the most successful strategy is a pincer movement between consumer campaigns and companies that illustrate alternatives. There have been some successes, albeit partial. The campaign over genetically modified food is the most dramatic. Its impact is reinforced by a growing sector of alternative, organic agricultural companies. Shell seems to have decided it could not win the argument and maybe felt that nobody bright and conscientious would want to work for it in the future. The judges who heard McDonald's appeal against the critical judgement of the McLibel judge reconfirmed the original verdict in favour of Steel and Morris on the central issues of low pay, low nutrition and misleading appeals to children. Other companies which resist the social and economic justice agenda have started to see what's coming from the campaigns and the extent to which consumers are prepared to stand up and be counted.

Certainly, a rethinking of the market is under way but how far do these campaigns and initiatives break out of the totalitarianism by which we are told there is simply one kind of market? What is a rethought market? Have the new campaigns and companies achieved anything?

The successful campaigns and actions have key features in common. They work at a level of deeper knowledge - for example a suspicion that genetic modification is intrinsically dangerous or an understanding that the market mechanism has an inbuilt limitation and cannot respect the universal need for a living wage. They aim to achieve a widespread understanding of an issue through education and argument. They counterbalance their critique with specific, 'do-able' actions. They nurture solidarity and resist the zero-sum game mentality of the global market which argues that jobs in Asia equals job losses in the UK.

The emerging economic alternatives take some of these values to their logical conclusion, by creating alternative TNCs which bring together on an equal basis different groups in the production chain, illustrating in a modest way that there is a feasible alternative to the controlling and surplus - extracting relationships orchestrated by the main brands. Small companies like Cafe Direct and the Day Chocolate Company combine three essential elements which offer significant potential:

  1. They have production processes which embody complex social, human and environmental purposes, including financial return.
  2. Their company structures foster co-operative relationships, not just of ownership, but the connectedness and management of common interest of otherwise unequal parties.
  3. Their promotional activities eschew use of culture and information solely to create 'needs' for goods or fashionable uniformity but stress tolerance, diversity and the political relevance of knowing the issues and lifestyle choices.

These elements make sense to people. The intent and purpose of these alternative multinationals resonate with all who feel doubtful about the benefits that the market will bring. It is hard to trust the fidelity of the altruistic companies to their claimed social purpose. The genuinely alternative companies engage people's conscience, rely on the interplay between themselves and campaigns and relish education and action. They depend on and celebrate the empowerment of individuals and organised groups. They also deliver goods and services which people want and need, effectively excluding TNCs from their own marketplace.

These alternatives and consumer-based campaigns, hopefully linking up with workplace-based campaigns that connect the needs of producers and consumers, illustrate that there is more than one kind of market place. But the goals of those who are most clearly working for a fair market are up against the most powerful economic interests in the world. Their success depends on relationships with other bargaining groups engaged with the market. The emergence of new fairer economic relationships depends on:

  • how much governments agree to increase their political credibility by raising standards through public regulation
  • how much corporations continue to hold many governments to ransom for support, sweeteners, deregulation or lowering of labour and other ethical standards
  • whether the best companies gain customers and endorsers, thus ensuring their commercial survival against the competitors who resist the new normative frameworks but offer cheaper goods and services
  • how much civil action goads the voluntary initiatives of all companies
  • how much trade unions, NGOs and other community-based organisations who 'opt in' to bargaining with TNCs become divided from those that do not the way in which civil society and communities of producers and consumers can retain their independence and their values-based thinking, activities and language.

The advantages of democratic, consumer-oriented campaigns are their responsiveness, natural intelligence, empathy and internationalism, the ad hoc nature of their birth and death, their simplicity of purpose, audacity and vision. On the other hand they lack strategic sense or a notion of destination.

So, closer co-operation between the labour movement and the consumer-based campaigns now taking on multinational capital would be of great mutual value and a step forward in reshaping the forces at play. The capacity for strategic debate and sense of vision to be found in labour movement traditions could help to overcome a weakness of the fair trade and NGO movement. On the other hand the focus of this consumer movement on the content of market relations is vital to rethinking socialism in an age of multinational domination where common ownership does not provide the most feasible immediate solution to economic injustice.

In the long term, consumer, trade union and government efforts to socialise the market will lead to new forms of companies, with forms of ownership which equalise relations between producers and consumers. But action can be taken directly, collectively and immediately in the market before changes in ownership become a remote possibility.

Copyright 1999 Red Pepper