Ben Rayment is a student reading international relations.
The lack of ethical consumption is one of many threats facing capitalism today. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn shows the discontent of many people about the current economic situation. It is time that this discontent is addressed. There has been — at least I have witnessed — a longstanding debate concerning ethics and capitalism. The question is often: can capitalism be ethical?
Regardless of your own answer, I think we can all agree at least to try to make it more ethical. Taking the father of capitalism, Adam Smith, as a focus point, capitalism requires individuals to make choices over what they want. Such choices, however, can be influenced – and many are today. One such influence is the human emotion of sympathy.
Smith discusses this in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which he describes the emotions of individuals are paramount in whatever they do. Heopens his book with: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” If people can find pleasure of their actions, then they should also find displeasure of their actions. Perceiving this displeasure can allow them to listen to their emotions and make what they believe to be the right choice.
Already consumers are nudged into a more ethical way of consumption by the use of the Fair Trade brand on foods, which alert consumers that more of their money will be going to help poorer farmers around the world. In the same way, consumers are also nudged into buying goods that are healthier for them: the bright reds, ambers and greens on food packaging already deter consumers from buying foods that are unhealthy for them. It is my belief that there should also be a rating or branding system for products based on the quality of working conditions undergone to create a product.
As the vast majority of us are aware, many injustices take place in workplaces across the world. There are reports of factories with terrible air quality and no protection from it; reports of rapes, suicides, brutal beatings; no protection against harsh chemicals, and so on. All these findings are readily available online but are not in plain sight of the consumer. Such injustices at work could fall under three categories:
- Countries that do not follow the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) standards of working conditions.
- Countries that follow the ILO’s standards of working conditions.
- Countries that follow or surpass the UK’s standards of working conditions.
As a rough idea of how this would work: a small brand — that is clearly visible much as the Fair Trade logo is on food — would be present on an item’s packaging or label. This brand would have the rating of what the working conditions were in the production stage of the item. Therefore, allowing consumers the liberty to choose how ethically they want to buy.
Of course, the questions over the effectiveness of such a rating system must be taken into account. One simple and slightly odd example would be the case of chicken egg sales: eggs laid by free range hens are beginning to overtake (and in some cases have already overtaken) those eggs that are laid by caged hens. This has been a slow change, yet there has been change – thus demonstrating the effectiveness of Smith’s understanding of sympathy when it comes to ethical trading.
On the other hand, simply relying on our own Government to improve the working conditions for those around the world is pointless. Not only is it not in our power to legislate in foreign countries, but in some countries whose economies are far larger than ours, such as China or India, we are completely ineffective.
Now imagine a UK that uses this rating system on products. Companies that cannot compete effectively, since they cannot afford to set up shop in countries that use poor labour conditions to produce cheaply, would able to use the argument of ethical production to aid their business – since the comparison of those with poor standards against those with good standards would be in the mind of the consumer.
Consumers that shop ethically would help in the decline of poorer standards of work, as the demand for goods that are created in good quality working conditions would rise – much as in the case of eggs. Consumers would feel that they were consuming ethically, and not say contributing to the upkeep of modern-day slaves.
Finally, diplomatic relationships would be less affected by this approach than by others, since the calling out the poor conditions in foreign countries by other governments doesn’t go down well. Instead, the responsibility for action would be with the consumer.
There are already organisations that highlight the conditions of workers in various parts of the world – one good example of this is the Ethical Trading Initiative. However, these organisations are limited by lack of recourses and political influence. Working alongside the British government, the UK and these organisations could help the British population know what they are paying for. Perhaps more importantly, they could contribute to improving the human condition of many people across the world through the power of the consumer.
There are challenges. For example, such programme could affect mutual recognition programmes that we have already set up with partners – and there might be complications when assessing who harvested what, or deciding at what stage of production the rating should apply.
However, I am confident that with the right mentality and willpower, the answers will emerge, and help provide a freer and more ethical marketplace. One in which consumers are aware of what they are buying — in every aspect. To conclude the argument for a rating standard that will give greater transparency, here’s another Adam Smith quote from The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have this adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels.”