The Impossibility of Shopping Ethically

Topshop_Oxford_Street_London_2009

I like to think of myself as a decent person, completely opposed to sweatshops. Yet I sit here almost fully dressed in Topshop, thinking of the Primark and H & M labels that litter my closet. The last time I went to Oxford St, however, I realised that to shop otherwise would be nearly impossible. Almost every shop you pass has been in the news at some point, and every label is ‘Made in Taiwan/China/Madagascar.’

I turn to Google for answers, but it yields nothing. Ethical Consumer’s list of 5 ethical high street brands simply highlights the desperation of the situation rather than offering answers. It’s 5 high street shops are: Lush, The Co-Operative, M & S, Monsoon, and John Lewis. Lush isn’t much help when buying clothes, though it is (as far as I am aware) a laudable company. The co-operative, again impressive, cannot serve me if I need to buy a pair of jeans. So let us consider the other three.

John Lewis is well-known for its progressive bonus scheme for its employees, and is certainly ethical within the UK. But what of the products within the store? It would be impossible to go through every single brand stocked by John Lewis, but brands such as Mango, Oasis and countless others are certainly not ‘ethical.’

The problem is essentially that the entire industry is so wrought with problems that we have normalised bad practice. Marks and Spencer are launded for paying workers a ‘living wage’ but have not actually said what they consider a living wage. And from what Google can tell me, Marks and Spencer is the best of the lot.

The problem is not difficult to find. As Tony Judt puts it, these countries are not just ‘low-wage’ economies, they are also ‘low-rights’ economies. And companies will simply move to them if they can. And we consumers will still continue to buy their products because it is almost impossible to avoid.

Consumer choice! Boycott! You have the free will to consume ethically if you will, and therefore drive the importance of ethics in the marketplace!

Do we, dear liberal? Do we really? As far as I am concerned, Topshop is expensive. Marks and Spencer and John Lewis are positively luxurious by my standards. And I’d say I’m fairly well-off. The reality is that our choice is often to buy or to abstain – not to buy one thing as opposed to another. Beyond the near financial impossibility of consuming ethically, there is the fact that it is almost impossible to know whether you actually are buying ethically – as one person put it “you need a degree in ethical sourcing to make informed decisions.” (Guardian)

Personally, I would welcome ‘government interference in the market’ if it meant I could make better decisions, and know that I wasn’t dressed in clothes made by people who work in conditions we would consider intolerable in our country. The problem is that we read of so much suffering across the planet, particularly in the developing world that we almost accept that people in these countries are doomed to suffer and we might as well get on with our day. People had similar views about the slave trade, which was abolished only when the realities of it became widely repudiated – when people started seeing slaves as humans and actually realised the realities. Let’s do that now. Let us realise that the conditions of workers around the world is not acceptable and we shouldn’t accept it. And that the only solution to pushing ethics on a market which is simply impossible to navigate for an ethical consumer is government regulation.

But this will make clothes more expensive, say critics. This will mean that those workers in those far off countries will lose their jobs, and they are so happy to have those jobs. Again, I would like to point to history. Similar arguments were made during the Industrial Revolution to justify horrific working conditions (including child labour and 16 hour working days) and are depressingly comparable to those practised in the countries we import our clothes from.

I will be honest, yes in a world where working conditions are respectable everywhere on the planet, the price of these goods will probably go up. That is because they are currently deceptively low, paid for by exploitation. So we have a choice, a world of cheap clothes and consumption, or one where we know that at least most people can earn a decent living and live without fear of a building collapsing on them. I prefer the latter, and I think less shopping is a small price to pay for that.

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