Today we wrap up this three-part series with a discussion on how economic institutions are like political candidates. We know that polling informs a politician’s platform. In the same vein, consumer spending influences decisions made in the corporate board room. “Institutions” of all kinds are sensitive to the preferences of their constituents; yet, as consumers, we often lose sight of this fact. What message does shopping fair trade send? And what kind of world might we build if the votes cast in favor of fair trade won?
A few years ago, I was driving along with my then 8 year-old daughter. We passed by a McDonald’s billboard advertising its Healthy Choices Campaign. My daughter opined, “I bet someone at McDonald’s heard that people like to eat healthy.” This observation may seem obvious, but it’s something I think most of us tend to forget: the market is responsive and will bend to the interests of consumers. Companies spend billions of dollars on marketing campaigns aimed at creating consumer demand, but ultimately, companies must listen to the demands of their customers.
Nowhere is this truth more obvious to me than walking down the aisles at the grocery store. Products scream out: Gluten Free! Organic! Low Fat! Cage-Free! Grass Fed! No Antibiotics! No GMOs! Observing these feverish attempts to appeal to and capture customers is a reminder that consumers are in the driver’s seat, especially when we make our preferences clearly known. For example, a recent story on NPR noted that the movement toward cage-free eggs had been driven by market forces, not laws. Although cage-free eggs cost more, once egg producers realized that consumers were willing to pay more, they acquiesced to consumer demands and began purchasing cage-free housing for chickens. I am 100% in favor of food labelling and I fully support the campaign to treat animals more humanely. But I must admit that I have left the grocery store on more than one occasion and thought to myself, “If only we could care as much about the origin of non-food products, as well, and whether the people involved in making those products were treated humanely.” We are finally beginning to see a movement towards labelling a range of consumer products, but for the most part, due to the nature of our global economy, it is still very challenging (if not impossible) to figure out where and how a product and all of its component parts were made.
Here’s how I became familiar with just how difficult it is to figure out background information on products: A few years ago, I went to a big box craft store with my daughter. The store was filled with cute Christmas ornaments, and my daughter and I couldn’t believe how cheap they were. Always on the look-out for a bargain, I bought several items. I was happy with our purchases, but I couldn’t quite shake this nagging feeling about just how cheap everything was. A couple of days later I learned about a raid on a sweatshop in India that freed 14 children who were being held in “slave-like conditions.” It was reported that children, ages 8 to 14, were forced to work up to 15 hour days making Christmas decorations that would later be shipped to America and Europe. I was appalled; so much so that I returned the ornaments to the store. As New Year’s Day approached, I resolved that I would do my best to avoid purchasing products that I couldn’t be sure were not made using child labor. If I really, actually needed the product and there was not an alternative, I bought it. If it was just something I wanted, but could do without, I either found a fair trade alternative or skipped it. It was an eye-opening experience. I ended up saving a ton of money, mostly because I discovered how few products are certified fair trade, and how difficult (if not impossible) it is to be sure how a product is made without that kind of certification. The more I learned, the more I realized how many opportunities there are down the supply chain to exploit workers and the planet and the extent to which our global economy has made this exploitation possible. Moreover, I learned that because so many parties are involved with the production of even a seemingly simple product, like a t-shirt, parent companies claim ignorance when attempts are made to hold them accountable for unfairly made goods.
Comedian and journalist John Oliver once quipped, “What is Fair Trade, when you boil it down, other than basic human politeness? It seems sad that we are rewarding fundamental decency with its own label.” It does seem absurd that we need a fair trade label to certify that a product has been made in such a way as to not harm the planet and its people. Shouldn’t that just be the norm? It certainly should be, but it’s not. But if enough of us buy fair trade, I believe mainstream companies are bound to take notice and they will begin to ask themselves how they can better appeal to, in an effort to regain, consumers who demand that the goods they purchase are fairly made. And in this way, we can begin to demand better wages and working conditions for workers, environmental stewardship, corporate accountability, and transparency on each of these issues up and down the supply chain.
Maggi Carfield is a lawyer, social worker, and teacher. She is passionate about social, economic, and racial justice issues. She lives in St. Louis, MO