Natasha Walter: You can have your cake and eat it

'As you watch programmes about modern-day slave labour, you don't have to weep those fat tears into slave-produced cocoa'
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The Independent Online

The end of The Body Shop has been so often predicted, but now it may be upon us. The news came last week that Jorge Vergara, an eccentric Mexican who produces dietary supplements, has made a bid for The Body Shop that is pretty likely to succeed. Anita Roddick is talking about how glad she would be to get away from her dark-green shopping vision, in order to "smash the World Trade Organisation and do some real populist campaigning".

This prospect turned out to be the cue, on many business pages, for commentators to opine that ethical business can no longer be the way forward. Apparently consumers are tired of getting "hectoring messages". Certainly, The Body Shop's particular brand of ethical consumerism has long looked tired.

Even from the early days it was ripe for parody. Roddick's sincere belief that she could challenge the values of the profit-making global capitalists by setting up an, er, extremely profitable global business made sense to her. Just as it made sense to her that you could challenge the way the beauty business capitalised on women's insecurities about their looks by, yes, selling them yet more lotions and potions.

But it provided great targets. Roddick may not have been the direct model for Jennifer Saunders' Edina in Absolutely Fabulous, but she felt its sting. And the fun goes on. Even Nick Hornby's new novel, How To Be Good, features a chap writing a novel about people who think they can save the world by selling banana elbow cream and brie foot lotion.

Others made noises that must have hurt more. Three years ago, London Greenpeace made The Body Shop a target of campaigns, accusing it of exploiting idealism for profit. They pointed out that the very stuff of The Body Shop, putting oils and scents into plastic bottles and selling them all over the world, could hardly be seen as a moral crusade ­ until it had been cloaked in a vision of spirituality and sustainability. They wanted to examine that vision for its weaknesses, and it hurt.

Why go after them, The Body Shop wondered, rather than any number of other cosmetic companies? Hadn't Anita done business with the Kayapo Indians? Hadn't she used big women and old women in the company's images? Hadn't she been the prime mover behind changes to regulations on the testing of cosmetics on animals? Hadn't she supported human rights projects, from women's shelters in Britain to refugee groups in Kosovo?

She had, she had. But as she learnt to her cost, if you try to sell to people on the basis of how very good and how very clean you are, they listen for a few minutes, and then they bring out the sniffer dogs. That's the way of the nasty, suspicious world ­ after all, we can't all be as nice and trusting as Anita herself. Now, finally, she seems to have decided that global profits and spirituality are uncomfortable bedfellows, and has declared she has different ambitions in life. Along with smashing up the World Trade Organisation, she would like to blow up the armaments industry.

Does the fact that you will no longer be able to buy love along with your loofahs really mean that ethical consumerism has had its day?

Ethical consumerism: to purists, the very yoking of the two words is absurd. "The truth is that nobody can make the world a better place by shopping," London Greenpeace said in its anti-Body Shop leaflet. And they are probably right. Not just The Body Shop, but all sorts of other companies have tried to make ethics into a marketing tool, another brand that you can put in your shopping trolley to make yourself feel better. You can buy cruelty-free cosmetics, environmentally sensitive detergents, furniture made from renewable hardwoods, recycled paper ­ but at the end of the day, the great bulldozer of consumerism just keeps rolling along, and all these feelgood stickers get mashed up in its maw.

In reaction to that ugly reality, many campaigners believe that the only way consumers can flex their muscle is not through buying, but through boycotts. In a world where there are so few products that a moral purist would actually want to support, boycotts have the simplicity of negation. And yes, they can work. You can point to the boycott of Barclays or the boycotts of genetically modified foods to see where consumers' power to stay away makes corporations change. But it's not always that simple.

For instance, are you even aware that this month you have been asked to boycott Esso, because of its terrible effect on the environment and its influence on American environmental policies? All sorts of disparate figures, from Bianca Jagger to Damien Hirst, have tried to alert you to the boycott, but the effect so far has been low-key ­ maybe because the people who are most likely to support it are also pretty likely to be on bicycles and buses already, rather than filling up their people carriers. And even if you turned away from Esso, where would you take that people carrier? To Shell, or BP, no doubt, those leading lights of ethical business.

Boycotts may be the only behaviour that satisfies the purists, but for realists, who know that people are still going to go shopping ­ and love it ­ ethical consumerism still has some life left in it. And in one area, at least, it's booming. We all have to eat, and we've all been hit by more and more knowledge about how the production of the food we eat hurts us, hurts workers, hurts the animals, and hurts the land we live in.

Fairtrade, the mark you see on cocoa and chocolate and bananas, is one strategy whose time has come. If nothing else, it means you can watch programmes about modern-day slave-labour without weeping those fat tears straight into slave-produced cocoa. But ­ much as she'd like to ­ woman cannot live on Green and Black's chocolate alone. As we all know, the real boom is in organic food. The swirly blue Sainsbury's organic logo, the plain green Tesco's organic label, the dinky little packets of Crazy Jack apricots or Hipp babyfood ­ you see them everywhere, because everyone with a bit of money to spare for their consciences is putting pennies into the organic kitty.

It may still be the privilege only of the richer people in our society, but this new faith in the organic tag is big enough to be having a real effect on changing the way our food is produced. If the organic movement succeeds in its goals of reforming food production for good, then it will be a triumph for consumer power. But if consumers begin to lose faith in organic food, then the ground may never be made up.

In this context, a programme that is to be broadcast tonight, BBC2's The Money Programme, "Organic Dirt", is horribly timely. "If the public knew what I knew, the consumer confidence in organic food would be shattered," one expert confides at the beginning of the programme. It's not so much the evidence about the odd fraud or scam or slip-up that makes so disheartening, but the realisation that the supermarkets are using the organic label like any other brand, a way to improve their profit margins and whet customers' appetites, without entering into any practices that might have a sustainably good effect on British farming.

Undercutting British organic milk producers by buying from subsidised continental producers; importing organic vegetables from all over the world rather than supporting local organic farming; cutting corners at every stage on organic regulations; such practices make the promises of organic production completely empty. After all, if you leave a filthy footprint of pollution on the land by transporting organic produce from all over the globe, you wipe out the positive effects that reducing pesticide use might have on the environment.

Such counsel of caution can easily turn into counsels of despair. But, who knows, perhaps wake-up calls like these will translate into more urgency, more anger. After all, you don't have to believe that the world can be saved with peppermint foot lotion to believe that sometimes the choices we make at the till ring out more loudly than we think.