“Ethical consumer”?

At Room to Read Chapter events, we encourage volunteers to wear a branded t-shirt – it makes them easily identifiable and if they choose to buy it and take it home, is helping spread the brand through their neighbourhood. The small supply of tees we have were produced a while back by a volunteer down south. They sourced some nice cheap black tees and had them screenprinted with Room to Read logos. They are available to volunteers to purchase at a small cost so no costs are borne by the organisation.

I wore mine for many months before even noticing that they were not fair trade. It’s not like they come with a big label saying “made with exploitation” – in fact, they just came with a discrete tag inside and it was only through checking out the manufacturer’s website that I can merely make the assumption they are not fair trade – it seems to be a bit trendy to declare your fair trade credentials, so on the assumption this website used radio-silence as a tactic, I’m going to assume they’re not, or certainly can’t assure me that they are.

As soon as I raised this, all the involved volunteers agreed that our tees needed to be fair trade. Though Room to Read is focused on education for children, it seemed obvious to us all that our words needed to match our actions. Yes, as volunteers we want to avoid excessive costs so that we can maximise fundraising – but when it comes to a relatively cheap item like a tshirt, we decided it was worth a few dollars more (some quick internet research shows you can get ethical tees, custom printed, coming in at under $15 each easy).

It’s not surprising this ‘slipped through the cracks’. In a consumerist society, it feels like each and every action we take has global repercussions, and so we are constantly pulled between making the ‘right and ethical’ choice, and making the quick, cheap, convenient, easier choice.

Not to mention what type of ‘ethical’ choice we make. I found one tshirt manufacturer that is Fairtrade certified, another WRAP certified, and of course many profess to utilise organic materials. Do I want a tshirt made from organic cotton, manufactured in a small eco-friendly set-up in Byron? Or from a co-op of industrious women in Bangladesh working in good conditions?

The classic “good consumer” battle I face every week is eggs. Have you seen the amount of choice available when you go to buy eggs? Do I want free range, or cage-free but ethically treated and grain fed? What about organic eggs? Or perhaps the “environmental egg” (the egg that is good for the planet….), or eggs enriched with Omega-3 from hens fed organically-grown flaxseed? Do I give up the weekly battle and have my own chooks in the backyard?? (well, if I had a backyard…). This is obviously becoming trendy, as you can even rent your own chickens – a sort of ‘try before you buy’ experience!

I feel a little chuffed every time I remember to take my gorgeous Keep Cup (one of the best gifts ever!) to the coffee shop, doing my bit to minimise waste. But then I realise I don’t know anything about the coffee – where it comes from, what labour has gone into producing it, and how much the producers are paid. A fellow student raised a good question in a recent lecture – would we be prepared to pay $20 for a coffee, if that’s what it cost to produce ethically? (the coffee, the milk – oh goodness don’t get me started on the milk….).

For tea drinkers (yup, that’s me), the questions are still there. Recently I visited Darjeeling in India, renowned throughout the world for its tea. There I learned that the women who pluck the tea leaves, almost exclusively contract workers (i.e. no holidays/sick leave/job security) are required to pick 24kg of tea leaves per day to earn their $1.50.

Do you have any idea where your tea comes from? And how it was produced? Until recently, I’d never given it much thought. But after having visited communities that depend on this industry, I’ve become acutely aware of the exploitation that occurs.

As an aside, you want to make sure you boil your tea for a good long while…. wandering through a tea factory on an impromptu tour, I realised the health and safety standards a wee bit lax. I walked through quite a lot of tea that was sitting in piles on the floor ready to be packaged up and sold ๐Ÿ™‚

How much of our consumption depends on production practices that are less than satisfactory? What is satisfactory? By what standards? How do we make choices on competing ethical grounds?

I frequently buy clothes and all sorts of food and other products and have no idea about the chain of production. Sometimes, it feels more convenient not to know – it’s easier to pop down to Coles and just buy whatever I need, than trooping around to various markets, butchers, bakers and so forth to get all the required bits and pieces (everything from food to washing powders). I forget my green bags and just opt for plastic, to avoid buying any more reusable bags. I buy whatever coffee is available (if it tastes good), I drive when I ‘need’ to, and I have definitely been guilty of excessively long showers on a ‘cold’ Queensland winter morning.

I recently came across this phrase, “small x many = big” from Paul Bennett. The idea being that lots of small changes can amount to big changes across the world. It is this mindset that motivates consumers to buy fair trade and to seek out ethical alternatives. But is it enough? Is it enough to pay a bit extra for “green electricity”, rather than critically examining our culture of energy consumption? To “carbon offset” our flights, rather than looking at the rapid-fire pace of our lifestyles?

I don’t have the answers but it’s a subject that many have explored in different ways. I’d love to know how others wade through the ethical minefield that is the modern-day existence in a globalised world.

And another aside – Fairtrade Fortnight starts on 7 May 2011. Not a bad time to get amongst it ๐Ÿ™‚

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