Governments, Fairtrade and Ethical Consumption

Recently there was a survey released that said that consumers' understanding of sustainability is often very different from the companies' understanding of the term. It found that more consumers are aware of the term ‘sustainability’ compared to three years ago, 69% as opposed to 54% in 2007. However, just 21% could identify a sustainable product and only 12% could name a specific company they thought of as ‘sustainable.’

Ethical consumption is best encouraged through collective efforts at a higher level rather than targeting individual consumer behaviour. Ethical consumerism is not just a market response to consumer demand; it's drivers have a base in politics. The choice of buying an ethical product is not just a personal choice but it is also shaped by several external drivers. Lack of awareness of ethical products is most often assumed to be the reason why there is no wide-spread acceptance of Fairtrade, organic and other sustainable products. However, it is not entirely true: people don't actually have access to the products or effective means through which they can be more vocal about their concern.

Boycotting 'unethical' products is not the only means by which consumers can support positive buying. It is in fact, one of the most ineffective methods. The onus of boosting the profile of ethical products is not just on consumers but also governments and policy makers. The imbalance of ethical products available in the globe is rather obvious. The global North is filled with all kind of ecolabelled products whilst in the South, there is not as much in comparison. Many of the products labelled Fairtrade are exported from the South to the North; the whole idea of Fairtrade is to create a foreign market for a product which people are willing to pay extra for. Don't get me wrong, Fairtrade is a good system and is improving lives of many people. However, making these products more prominent in their countries of origin is also essential.

Doing this creates awareness of the product in the country of its origin and also ensures that consumers in those countries do not spiral into the concept of 'see everything, buy anything'. Personally, I would love to be able to buy Fairtrade tea for example, at my local supermarket. But the fact is that although India produces tea under Fairtrade standards, it is targeted towards an export market. I used to be able to buy Fairtrade Indian tea when I lived in the UK but I cannot do the same in my own country, which I find ridiculous. Don't even get me started on organic food.

This is a dilemma not unique to India but most countries in the South bloc. With food prices said to rise 20% in the poorest part of the world by 2011, people who will pay the extra for Fairtrade will also diminish unless governments start to become proactive in increasing the profile of ethical products before inflation hits serious highs. Maybe such proactive steps will even curb the increase in food prices.

Isn't prevention better than a cure? That's all I'm saying...