News & Blog

Fair Trade: Greenwashing the Capitalistic Ponzi Scheme?

Posted on February 28, 2008

Fred Pearce is a smart blogger on environmental topics for the UK journal New Scientist at ruminations below strike a true note for those of us who think the real planetary sustainability level is about 15 notches below where we are now:

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Fred’s footprint: Eco-friendly and ethical?

Can capitalism do sustainable development? OK, let’s ask that question again without the jargon. Can I really help save the planet by buying products from all these big companies “going green” and selling Fairtrade products?I have been thinking about this a lot while researching my newly published book, Confessions of an Eco Sinner. You will have seen some of my travel notes here at Fred’s Footprint over the past year. Here is where I have got to.Many companies are making a real effort to cut their carbon emissions and fight climate change. Whether it is Richard Branson’s biofuels plane or Rupert Murdoch’s carbon-neutral media empire, they mean business.Some of this is down to emissions caps imposed by the Kyoto Protocol, some to consumer and shareholder pressure, and some is real executive interest in long-term sustainability of both their companies and the planet.The bottom line is they believe they can make money out of cutting carbon emissions. Hardly surprising, when trading in carbon emissions permits and voluntary offsets is now a business worth more than a hundred billion dollars a year. And no wonder major US corporations are leaning on this year’s Presidential candidates to sign the Kyoto Protocol, so they can join in the new brand of carbon capitalism.And in my own small way, I am part of this, whether it is offsetting my flights, turning down the thermostat, taking the train or buying an energy-efficient fridge. The potential is so great that capitalism really could save the planet. But will it make a fairer world?Here my optimism gives out. I don’t yet see a way in which companies can make bigger profits by making the world’s poorest people wealthier. Rather, we of the rich world seem increasingly to demonise the poor for daring to want a better life.Sure, some of us buy Fairtrade tea, coffee, socks and bananas. But what I discovered during my book researches was that, though genuinely worth supporting, Fairtrade is a misnomer. Call it: slightly less unfair.The premium price I pay for my coffee does not reflect what the farmer on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro or wherever should receive. Rather it reflects how much Western consumers like me can be encouraged to pay for feeling a virtuous glow as we stand at the checkout queue on a Saturday morning. And that’s a different matter.Some clothes companies would like to treat workers in sweatshops on the other side of the planet rather better. They have corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments devoted to the task.But in the factories of sub-contractors in Bangladesh and India and China, I heard endless stories of what really happens. The day after the CSR inspectors come to read the riot act over workers??? conditions, the buyers from the same companies show up and threaten to cancel contracts unless they get cheaper prices. Guess who wins.And we are partly to blame. We may weep crocodile tears over the sweatshops; but we still buy the ten-dollar jeans that create them.I fear that, in coming decades, a combination of Western consumerism and corporate muscle will conspire to save the planet and starve the poor. Unless we are careful, we will unleash a new green and global fascism.Fred Pearce, senior environment correspondent

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