Fairtrade fortnight special: Shopping Discounts

By: greendave
Once upon a time progressive activists knew how to campaign on inequality and injustice in a global marketplace. There were clear stances to be taken; there was boycott, resistance and stand off; there were clear hopes for a different international economic order, opposed to one dominated by 'the' market. Campaigns were often aligned with national liberation struggles and bubbled with the ideals and potential of new states.

Now there is only the apparent inevitability of a direct engagement in the market and with the few, powerful market-makers. Governments have an ambiguous position: on the one hand we pressure them to regulate transnational companies (TNCs) for the wellbeing of the people; on the other hand they frequently support business in undermining such regulations.

The effect of this shift has been a proliferation of policy initiatives for the governance of companies, the financial sector, of overseas development and the environment. Simple commercial and legal mechanisms such as labels have become tools for social and political agendas. Many new private- sector, NGO and trade union think tanks and 'talking spaces' such as the UK Ethical Trading Initiative have been launched. Many companies have signed up for working groups on monitoring and verification processes. Specialist ethical company associations, notably the enormous Businesses for Social Responsibility in the USA (which includes companies responsible for 20 per cent of the world's total turnover, including Monsanto and Coca Cola) have been formed.

There is also a new, still-evolving discipline in ethical and responsible business management. There are already graduate courses and degrees, dedicated institutes and academies, and (forthcoming) a government-backed new learning centre all derived from the need to deliver ethics and responsible supply chain management. There is also a growing number of direct agreements between Northern and Southern non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and TNCs. The big accountancy firms and SGS (Surveillance General De Securite) now offer to audit companies' values and labour standards alongside other more conventional measures of profits and stocks.

As the Maquila Solidarity Network, based in Toronto, recently stated: Five years ago many of us dismissed codes of conduct as nothing more than company attempts to protect their brand image and/or avoid government regulation...In just a few years we have moved from company codes of conduct with no provision for monitoring or verification towards codes with elaborate systems of internal and external monitoring, factory and company certification and mechanisms for NGO and labour participation in monitoring and third party complaints procedures.

Intuition and bitter experience are turning more and more people into activists. This has risen from action and argument against the market and its assumption of unassailable rights and an unaccountable sway over people's lives and the planet's resources.

This new wave does bring to the fore some contradictions. For instance we now find trade unions 'understanding' why good companies like Levi's must lay off thousands of workers; we have NGOs like Oxfam encouraging buycotts (lending their ethical 'brand' of approval to specific products or stores like Sainsburys), we have localists anxious to preserve and reinvent their community without heed to notions and benefits of interdependence; and there is a tier of the world's population who are not currently engaged in the global economy and thus miss out on gains achieved through any negotiations via the formal economy. Further, we have popular alliances which aim to influence the behaviour of powerful companies but are financially and morally entwined with those very companies.
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