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Tipping the Balance - How Consumer Action Creates Conditions for Governments to Change

05/10/2015 13:15 BST | Updated 02/10/2016 10:12 BST

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Fairtrade campaigners in London © Matt Alexander

I had just read Michael Hobbes article on the futility of ethical consumerism to end sweatshops. His criticism of those who take small steps every day to support fair conditions for workers made me think of the film Pride, which takes place three decades and half a world away.

Have you seen that film? Based on a true story, it depicts a group of lesbian and gay activists who raised money to help families affected by the British miners' strike in 1984. The miners' union refused the activists' support as they didn't want to be openly associated with a gay group. So the activists took their donations directly to a small mining village in Wales, and the film charts their relations.

Watching it, it struck me just how dramatically the world has changed in the thirty short years since the setting of the film. Then, it was still widely accepted to be openly offensive to gay people, while today gay couples can marry in the UK, the USA and in eighteen other countries. While there is still so far to go globally - and even in countries at the forefront of change - it is clear that the gay rights campaign has swept to amazing victories in a relatively short time.

'Pride' tells, in a microcosm, the story of the rise of individual rights - which have never been stronger - and the demise of collective rights, such as trade union rights, which are under constant attack and in retreat. It also highlights the key question of what makes society change: what drives the unacceptable to become the norm - or the norm to become unacceptable? What helps society reach a tipping point?

Prof John Rust believes: 'The tide turns as opinions and beliefs gather pace...We do tend to be unwilling as individuals to go against mass opinion'. So, he argues, as more and more people came out and we saw that gay people included our colleague or our neighbour, society's attitudes began to shift. Gay people became a familiar, normal part of life.

This sort of attitude change is part of what Fairtrade seeks to do. Of course, we aim to create immediate change, to open positive opportunities for organised farmers and workers to earn a fair price so they can create change in their communities. But we also try to shift society's attitudes, to have people question how companies can possibly make a T-shirt for as little as £3.00 (the answer is that it is simply not sustainable), and to think about the workers who sewed their clothes and the farmers who grew their cotton - and coffee, bananas and peanuts.

Consumer movements like Fairtrade are one means to make a tiny difference today, while also creating the conditions for the bigger change that only government-enforced legislation can achieve. Unfortunately Hobbes does not see it this way. He argues: "In 1750, the Quakers concluded that slavery was an unjust institution and spent the next century advocating to abolish it. Imagine if, instead, they came up with a certification, a commitment that they wouldn't buy clothes made from slave-picked cotton."

In fact Quakers and other anti-slavery activists did both. Quaker Elias Hicks is said to have refused a cotton blanket on his death bed. In Britain, a sugar boycott launched in 1791 had 400,000 families taking part; some grocers' sugar sales fell by a third. This helped convince the UK Parliament to finally pass the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. Thanks to current pressure from consumers and citizens, the Modern Day Slavery Act has just come into effect in Britain to help crack down on modern-day slavery in the UK and in supply chains abroad.

Thus consumer action has always been one essential element in laying the foundation for broader social change. That is the brilliance of the Fairtrade Towns movement which turns on the empowering idea of small, local actions to create global change. Everyone can ask their local coffee shop, corner store or supermarket to stock Fairtrade, and persuade their local council, churches, schools and major workplaces to serve Fairtrade tea, chocolate or bananas. The idea has spread like wildfire and helped make Fairtrade familiar and trusted in 1,700 Fairtrade Towns across 27 countries - not just loony lefties or rich do-gooders, but everyday people doing everyday shopping.

And as Fairtrade becomes more and more the norm, it opens new possibilities for change. Most recently, Sweden's Minister of Consumer Affairs, Per Bolund announced his determination to make Sweden a Fair Trade Nation, no less! Inspired by Wales and Scotland, this will be the first time that a sovereign nation will aim for this designation - thus impacting a country's international trade policy.

Fairtrade has already influenced other government policies elsewhere. The government of Fiji launched an awareness-raising campaign in 2012/12 after suspected cases of child labour were found in a Fairtrade audit. The Sugar Industry Tribunal published a statement reminding growers of existing child labour legislation and possible sanctions they could face. The Minister for Labour issued a legal order defining the "hazardous occupations prohibited to children under 18 years of age" including 50 specific occupations and activities. And in Malawi, the whole of the tea sector adopted Fairtrade's requirements on maternity leave. New mothers now get eight weeks paid leave, better than even the USA.

It is this understanding of political economy that is missing from Hobbes' otherwise brilliantly researched analysis. He sees ethical shopping as counterproductive, a distraction from making real change: "Functioning courts, independent unions, empowered civil society, free media - this is the stuff that solves sweatshops, not companies with better CSR policies, not improving the performance of just a few factories."

But he's missing the key point: What will make governments and institutions change? Huge vested interests have billions of dollars of profit embedded in the current race to the bottom, and they lobby hard for free trade laws and for voluntary codes instead of legislation. For governments to take action on this issue, they need a strong mandate from the public - they need the pressure to act, and to stand up to vested business interests.

This change needs to come from all sides. It needs organized workers and organized farmers able to stand up against the hidden abuses that occur when no one else is watching (and here ethical certifications like Fairtrade can be a help, not a distraction). It needs the support of businesses and the private sector, of NGOs and civil society, of cooperatives and trade unions. And above all it needs regular people, through their shopping, voting and campaigning, who underpin everything else.

Because ordinary citizens willing to take a stand have been central to every major societal change process - from the abolition of slavery to gay marriage to tackling modern-day labour rights abuses. It will still certainly be a long, slow process before we reach that tipping point, when paying sustainable prices and ensuring fair working conditions for all workers becomes the norm. But to get there takes government, the private sector, civil society, unions - and, yes, citizens shopping, voting and campaigning for fairer working conditions.