Consumers put ethics on the shopping list

A rise in public concern is helping moves towards fairer trading, reports Louise Jury
Click to follow
Clever campaigning has placed ethical trading on the political agenda. If green consumerism was the buzz concern of the Eighties, ethics has become the issue of the Nineties.

Consumers have been the key. Some go out of their way to buy products marketed under a fair-trading banner, with a growth in sales of products such as Cafedirect coffee. Perhaps more important is corporate fear of a consumer backlash caused by any negative publicity.

Targeted campaigns highlighting the plight of workers in the Third World have placed major businesses on the defensive - and brought them to the negotiating table. Aid agencies widely expect the impact of the Overseas Development Agency's White Paper will be to promote an ethical-trading initiative, already under discussion, which will put retailers, aid agencies and such bodies as trade unions in talks on unifying standards.

Duncan Green, of the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development (Cafod), said: "A lot of people in the companies are concerned themselves, but they want to steal a march on competitors too. They are worried about negative publicity. These companies are sitting around the table now and they weren't five years ago. They're keen to get in on social responsibility."

Mr Green said that, as long as companies such as top supermarket chains were involved, it would improve standards for all. But present codes of conduct varied enormously and there was a need for standardisation. They also needed monitoring.

But that is a problem in itself, says Andrew Simms, of Christian Aid; there is an absence of people qualified to do the monitoring. He said: "They have got to invent a new industry. For years and years, companies have had to demonstrate their financial probity. I think one of the next big things will be environmental and ethical auditing."

He hailed the White Paper as a major success for those such as Christian Aid who have worked to publicise aid issues. "It is the first in two decades. It's really important," he said. "We hope it will focus on the basics of what aid is about - working in partnership with people who need a hand-up, tackling poverty and doing it in a way that doesn't repeat the mistakes of the past. The aim is to help people get into a position where they can help themselves."

According to Mr Simms: "The question is, will the White Paper stand up against the multinational corporate jackboot?" Even if it delivered everything the aid agencies wanted, a major doubt remained over what difference the policies of one government could make in the global context. "Even if it's really good and goes through, it has some pretty major enemies to stand up to," he said.

He said the recent row over the quota of Caribbean banana imports allowed into Europe showed that. After a concerted campaign by the United States, whose companies sell bananas from Central and South America, the World Trading Organisation outlawed the European Union arrangement which provided a protective trade arrangement for poor Caribbean states. "Not even Europe could uphold an arrangement that helped a small, poor economy."

A spokeswoman for Safeway, one of the supermarkets credited by Christian Aid with significant progress on ethical trading, said it was aware that customers cared "strongly" about working conditions in developing countries. It was lobbying for a standardised approach and wanted to help to bring about change on an industry-wide basis.

"We are convinced that it is only by all stakeholders uniting together that satisfactory improvements in working conditions can be achieved," the spokeswoman said.