consumer responsibility

It’s not easy being an ethical consumer. Stay away from chocolate or smart phones or Thai shrimp that are the product of child or slave labour. Take care that the eggs you scramble come from organic or free range poultry. Don’t buy stuff that mentions palm oil in the list of ingredients – or which is produced by a Nestlé or Unilever company or is imported from Kenya. Are you sure that the cotton of your shirt/skirt ‘made in Portugal’ isn’t the cause of gigantic pollution in Cambodia? Do you really think that by riding an e-scooter you’re acting eco-friendly? Are you aware that by carefully separating your plastic waste for recycling you may actually be enriching some of the most despicable free riders and profiteers?

In several posts on this blog I have pointed to everyone’s responsibility as a consumer to contribute to a better world. But yes, it’s exactly the same game the industry plays: to lay all responsibility for ethical or sustainable behaviour on the individual consumer. It’s up to you as customer to choose between plastic packed or bulk fruit, between local turnips from the farmers market or tomatoes that have been plucked in Italy by exploited African undocumented workers,  between eating fat and salty fast food or cooking vegetables yourself, between cheap or fair-trade chocolate, between tax evaders or … “Every visit to the supermarket, every click in the online shop means a decision for or against exploitation, for or against environmental protection”, Isolde Ruhdorfer writes on Krautreporter – but “It’s not up to us to prevent slave labour through buying the right chocolate bar”; slave labour is a crime and it’s up to the chocolate manufacturer and to politics to prevent it.

Nevertheless, the industry has discovered that a benevolent part of the consuming population is willing and able to consider and decide whether a specific purchase is promoting a better life (for themselves, for society, for the world in general) or not. And it is more than willing to support these committed  customers in choosing the right stuff. What that finally comes down to is what Berlin-based philosopher Byung-Chul Han calls ‘self-exploitation’. You pay the postal charges, but if you want your package to be delivered to the addressee within a week, you better bring it yourself, since ‘to save the climate’ postal service is reduced to the minimum. If despite everything you decide to fly to your holiday resort, you can pay a CO2-supplement. If you don’t want all your fruit and vegetables pre-packed in plastic, you can buy re-usable baggies at the checkout. And if necessary, public authorities will force you to do the right thing, such as p.e. separating plastic waste.

Solidaire describes how that works in the Belgian region Flanders. Although it’s the producers’ decision to pack as much as possible in plastic, the responsibility for the processing of the debris lies entirely with the consumer. Under ‘extended producer responsibility’ all environmental costs of the complete life-cycle of a product are incorporated in the market price. So first the consumers pay for the packaging (including cans and plastic bottles) and then for its collection and processing through the buying of the special ‘blue’ garbage bags from the local public operator. This is not necessarily what they had asked for. The standardized sterile packaging is in the first place a prerequisite for the storing and conserving of goods that can thus be sent and sold all over the world.

It hadn’t come to my mind, but Solidaire reminds me that mafia boss Tony Soprano was in the ‘waste management business’. In Flanders, where the plastic waste collection is carried out by a public operator, the actual processing is done by a private company that has been bought by a local national-populist mogul a few years back. The customer pays for the plastic packaging and finances the waste collection, but a private company makes huge money by recycling the waste into pet and new plastics. The more plastic waste to recycle, the more his profits.

For years now there are discussions about supply chains accountability. Not the consumers have to control the making of the product they are purchasing, but the producers should guarantee that throughout the whole delivery chain human rights and environmental standards are respected. The reluctance of producers – and their governments – when it comes to this is currently illustrated by the problems concerning the prolonging of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. The Accord is an independent, multilateral and legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions to work towards a safe and healthy garment and textile industry in Bangladesh. The Accord was supposed to come to an end in April this year, and quite a lot of brands and nations proved unwilling to continue the actual agreements on control measures, legal enforceability or the possibility to extend the agreement to other countries. (It must be said though:  companies such as  Asos, Tchibo, Zeeman, KiK, and G-Star have published public statements indicating they will support a new agreement with the crucial elements proposed by the unions.)

Back to consumer responsibility. No, it’s not your individual task to ensure that the products you purchase have not at any moment in the production and supply chain infringed human rights or criteria of sustainability. Agreements on that matter have to be made on the level of (transnational) companies, states and international unions and organisations. But – one of the limited means you dispose of is the power to boycott. Everyone can, within their own specific circumstances, act as best as they can as an ethical consumer and try to shun manifestly contaminated goods; and when organized, commercial boycott can put pressure on companies and industries. A famous historical example 1955-1956 is the boycott of the public transport companies in Montgomery, Alabama, after the arrest of Rosa Parks.

Moreover, as has been proven recently by Dutch court cases as Shell or Urgenda, organized citizen and consumer power can bring courts to put pressure on (big) companies and states. Appealing to the legal system is not evidence of citizens or consumers failure; on the contrary, it is using the machinery of capital and the state against them. Nor does it mean that individual or grassroots action is pointless; it shows that in western democracies – although in several states the possibilities for public appeal against decisions concerning p.e. the implantation of wind turbine areas have been seriously curtailed – the law still provides some means to oppose those by and for whom it was made.

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