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March 05, 2007

Adding virtue to vanity

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Fair trade, organic, go green. Is consumerism finally turning responsible? In the UK, more specifically in supermarkets, we are certainly assaulted from all sides with ‘ethical’ or ‘green’ products. Are these campaigns really effective? My international economics lecturer doesnt seem to think so. He argues that ‘fair trade’ only ends up forcing developing countries to produce crops they don’t use in mass to profit the supermarket chains. The fact that this involves ‘fair’ employment, and actual benefits to the developing country is highly questionable. What do they mean by ‘fair trade’ anyway? As an economics, what i understand is that it is fair trade as opposed to protected trade, which is when domestic markets are protected by taxes and subsidies against cheaper imports. So, removing these unfair advantages, the developing countries can compete on ‘fair’ grounds. Supermarkets aim at augmenting their corporate responsibility by selling ‘fair trade’ products, however they still buy them extremely cheap from the developing countries, and sell them at a profit here. And the conditions under which production is carried out in the developing countries is highly questionable. From an FT article, an African farmer was interviewed and he was producing vegetables such as mangetout, and babycorn, which would be sold on a european supermarket shelf, but which he would never himself eat. So is this really fair trade?

Bono says ‘shopping is politics’. He believes that by curbing consumer demand towards ‘greener’ products, firms would eventually work towards becoming more environmentally responsible, and aim to satisfy the new trend. So that inevitably seeped into the fashion industry, a trend needs to start at the top, and needs to be adopted by the people’s role-models. In an industry which prides itself on frivolity, originality, and elitism, it might actually work… According to Simon Cipriani from the International Trade Centre, there is a consumer group known as ‘the new authentics’ who wants products that convey a message of authenticity and are still beautifully made (FT). And what’s more authentic than a product made in Africa? So Bono thought, planning to base the production plants of ‘ethical’ fashion line Edun in sub-saharan Africa ( ). Edun is not meant for profits apparently, but more about establishing ethical fashion, and also establishing infrastructure in developing countries. The designs (by designer Barbara Guardicci) are an absolute breath of fresh air, and will in my opinion be a precursor to stimulating consumer demands towards environmental responsibility, see model with ‘peaceful forest/river’ tattoo on forearm. However, Edun faced initial problems such as lack of primary established infrastructure, communication links, and skilled labour, and eventually had to relocate to Peru, India and North Africa (FT). It took much more time than it would normally to be established, but Edun is in full swing now, and is believed to become profitable by 2008.

The new thing will be to look good and to feel good, thus adding virtue to vanity and establishing this as the new fashion statement. Tshirts made from novel sources such as Bamboo shoots, and ‘organic’ jeans (a normal pair of jeans is estimated to use 3/4 of a pound of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers). Clothes made with renewable fibres, embroidered by women in exotic tribes will be the next fashion thing. something to follow…

Source: FT

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