Ethical gifts for Christmas? No thanks.
Will you be buying so-called ‘ethical’ gifts for loved ones this Christmas? The range of goods competing for the shoppers’ conscience has never been greater. Take the charity Oxfam, for example. For a tenner you can buy ‘hygiene hints’ for people in developing countries. For £13, you can buy a ‘rubbish job’, teaching slum dwellers how to make money from recycling rubbish. And for £25 there’s the ‘best seller’ – the Goat (and, for ‘a limited time only’, a Sheep too).
From Fairtrade logos on Dairy Milk bars, to Rainforest Alliance symbols on Kenco coffee pots, having a stamp that declares a product is ‘ethical’ has become a regular part of high street and online branding. By making the ‘right’ moral choices about what you put in your shopping trolley, it is suggested that you will not only have a guilt-free shopping experience, but you will also be helping millions escape poverty and to save the planet. We are told that such ethical products allow us, as shoppers, to both express our political opinions and make a change in the world for the better every time we choose to put them in our trolleys.
This is simply nonsense. The whole emphasis on consumption is based on a fallacy that through the very act of consuming, we can all make an impact. Recently I was part of a film team who conducted a wide range of interviews with shoppers in East London, a relatively impoverished area of the country, for a WORLDbytes’ report entitled ‘The View On The Streets: ethical shopping and fair trade’. On the whole, people we spoke to told us they base their purchasing decisions on budget and need and didn’t have the luxury of buying ethical gifts, even if they wanted to.
This reveals an uncomfortable truth: even as consumers, we are not equal. We actually have very little in common as the amount of money we have to spend on products differs wildly. As citizens, on the other hand, we are much more equal. We can all vote – and take to the streets – regardless of the size of our wallet. In this sense, there is a strong anti-democratic element to ethical shopping. Some shoppers can afford to be more ‘ethical’ than others. I’d go so far as to say that the blame for global poverty is implicitly being placed on low income and supposedly ignorant shoppers who don’t make morally correct purchases.
It’s striking that the more our purchasing choices are politicised and emphasised as an effective way of changing the world, the less emphasis there is on using our voices to actively campaign for real political change. Suggesting that we should put ‘ethical’ goods on our shopping lists actually treats the British public with contempt. Such an approach is demanding and expecting very little from people: no broader solidarity, no political action or grappling with the bigger questions of how to have a better world. It is simply saying, if you spend a few pennies more on Fairtrade coffee, you can make a small difference, and that is enough. Talk about low horizons.
These ‘ethical’ trading initiatives do not campaign for more companies to productively invest in poor countries, nor do they measure success on how many jobs are created. As the charity I work for, WORLDwrite, has argued in the documentary The Bitter Aftertaste, enshrined in all aspects of ethical consumption are anti-development ideas and protocols which ensure famers and producers in the developing world will never glimpse even a small percentage of the conveniences and better lives that we enjoy in the West.
Ethical shopping is about making the Western consumer feel content that they have done their bit to alleviate world poverty. Unfortunately, the ethical shopper has unknowingly instead donated their money to ensure poor families in the developing world remain locked up in a relationship of dependency. Our ‘ethical’ shopping habits are helping to keep them in poverty.
Fortunately for most African countries, there is on average of seven per cent growth per annum at the present time. A Ghanaian teacher, Deroy Kwesi Andrew, watched the WORLDbytes report and gave us the following feedback:
‘Africa will be having the last laugh in the not too distant future, as it grows economically and chucks outside ‘help’ out. That will be a day to celebrate! Sorry to be blunt, but I have really had enough of this kind of stuff. Oxfam even has a Xmas gift this year of a hygiene kit for people in the developing world. A hygiene kit! Coz we just can’t wash without them… it will be a day to celebrate when we wash our hands of them.’
These ‘ethical’ gifts won’t change the world and may well be breeding resentment from recipients instead. Far from making us feel good about ourselves, such patronising gimmicks should make us angry instead.
The Independent Online is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Saleha Ali is an assistant producer at WORLDbytes, run by education charity WORLDwrite, and co-presenter of the documentary film, Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is Possible (2011). The report ‘The View On The Streets’ is now available to watch online.Tagged in: christmas, ethical gifts
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter