Not so ethical: Buying power and why we can’t all shop by conscience.

“You’re exploiting those worse off by buying that!” is something I’ve heard a lot since last night, it’s also something I’ve heard a lot, as someone who cannot afford to purchase ethical goods.

I’d like to pick this apart a bit.

Last night I called David Cameron out on his tweet in which he shared the menu of his G8 dinner. A menu of food that is beyond the budget of many in this country, and yet is being paid for by people who are, well, not him. 
There are half a million people in this country who are using food banks. To upload and share that image of his menu was an affront to those who are struggling to put food on the table. It’s tactless and shows him as out of touch. All in this together? Not even close.

My tweet was: “Half a million people using foodbanks and you post that? Out of touch, misery inducing, incompetent box of wanker.”

In response I was asked if the products I purchase are ethically sourced. Be it the computer I am tweeting from, the clothes I wear, the food I eat. The answer is, simply, no.

By buying cheap food, I am creating demand for vegetables, canned goods and so on which are produced by workers exploited by their employers. They may be working incredibly long hours for low pay, treated badly by their own employers.

By buying cheap food, I am creating demand for meat which is likely to be sourced from farms which mistreat animals. Which keep them in poor conditions.

By buying cheap clothes, I am creating demand for clothing which is made from countries where workers rights are minimal, pay is low, and there’s large amounts of exploitation.

By buying and using digital devices, I am doing very much the same as with buying cheap clothes.

I am aware of this. And yes it does bother me. The question is then, why would I do that?

I’m disabled and unable to work. I need 24/7 care which is provided by my husband (saving the state a fortune in care). Because of this we have very little income.

Much of my food, to ensure I have enough nutrients to keep me as healthy as possible, are vegetables. Meat is a luxury and when bought, it’s often on reduced to clear or the cheapest that’s available. Most of what is bought is from value ranges as even the own brand non-value stuff is too expensive.

New clothes, again a luxury. Often I have clothes donated to me, I will buy them from charity shops in larger sizes, and I will alter them on a sewing machine or make new/different clothes from them. If I do purchase *new* clothing, I either have to save up a lot or buy cheap. While I would love to order from an ethical company, the prices are often inflated, beyond the reach of people in my situation.

As for technological devices, very few are ethically made. The computer is one of my few means of having contact with the outside world as I rarely leave the house. It also provides entertainment, as does the television, because I have few other choices of things to do. 
Should I buy ethical foods, leaving me malnourished? Ethical clothing, leaving me out of pocket? Should I buy books I can’t always concentrate long enough to read [and before you say ‘library’, note library closures and access]? Arts and crafts, despite not being able to hold a brush or a pencil most of the time? Should I give up my phone, computer, and television, my means of socialising, entertainment, and way of getting in contact with people?

There is a reason I am in a situation, why many, many people are in this situation, and it goes beyond just ‘oh I’m disabled I can’t afford it’. Why can’t we afford it? Those who are in work, why can’t *they* afford it?

There is no living wage, and minimum wage is not enough to allow ethical purchasing. Housing costs are extensive, travel costs are extensive, it gives you little choice in what you buy.
The costs associated with disability are extensive and the benefits received just about [and sometimes don’t] cover the basics providing you spend frugally. In addition they are also facing a real terms cut. 
Those on out-of-work benefits are expected to survive on between £56 and £74 a week; to cover energy, travel, food, clothing, toiletries, household goods and so on. How can anyone in that group afford to buy ethical goods?

Companies are not under any real pressure from the global community to produce ethical goods. There are human rights groups, campaigners and so on, but it’s nowhere near the global pressure that would be required to force a change. Governments are paying lip service to the public and doing little. 

Ultimately there are those in the above groups who can only afford these goods because of current practices. People outside of these groups will buy them because it leaves them some spare cash in hard times.

Now join the dots. Who is in charge of deciding the amount of benefits disabled people get? Who is in charge of minimum wage? Who is in charge of out-of-work benefits? Who is lobbied by large corporations? Who is creating the gap in the market?

I’m not suggesting a wide scale and massive shift in global, or even national practices, wages, benefits, and so on [although as any of you know me are aware, there are some shifts I would very much like to see]. In order to shift things wide enough to allow people to buy ethical or even reasonable priced goods, the shift would be so large it would cause problems in itself. 

Individuals in immensely difficult living situations are not in control of the global economy, they have little choice but to buy goods which are not ethically sourced or produced. They are working to survive and live the best they can in difficult times. And this of course doesn’t even include those who do have the income to purchase ethical goods, but choose higher priced unethical goods instead.

If you are on your high horse about purchasing choices of those who are not as well off, I suggest you get down and look into why those choices are being made.

Edit: I was asked about the ethics surrounding things such as fast food chains, clothing chains and some others. The questions I’ve received amount to: Should the ethically minded choose where they go on the basis of the practices of the company if they’re able? Or what if you could effectively force companies to adhere to ethical practices?

A very simplified hypothetical:
If the consumer in question has an interest in ethics, then yes, for their own personal reasons if it makes them feel better/their choices are impacting things.  If there were a widescale boycott and more pressure on a particular corporation to take part in ethical practices they would have little choice if they wanted to continue to get the customers coming in.

There is another side to the coin though. They have a commitment to their shareholders, to get the highest profits possible. In all likeliness they would force up the prices up to deal with the increased cost of sourcing/production. If that happened it would limit the customer base to those who can afford it requiring all new marketing campaigns targeting the new customer demographic.

Right now not only does that not make sense in a business model, given the recession, it has the potential of putting jobs at risk. If less people purchase from the company, less members of staff would be needed and branches would be likely to close. 

They would more likely continue to market to their existing demographic; increasing advertising campaigns, putting on offers, and if their profits drop, sacking staff.

Either way there’s the potential for staff lay-offs, which means more people who are unable to put back into the economy.

If it were more wide scale and ethical practices were forced on companies, higher incomes of consumers themselves would be needed. Products in stores would be vastly more expensive and unaffordable for many on current incomes, forcing people into poverty. Again this would leave people unable to put money back into the economy, which in turn would harm company profits as they’d have less customers.  

Governments and corporations around the globe would need to increase benefits and wages. [import/export comes in here, which is a whole other kettle of ethically sourced fish]

Chances are companies would still find loopholes which allowed them to exploit workers to a degree, in any number of ways; Stating they are manufactured ethically while sourcing parts and materials from third parties which still exploit workers is one, finding loopholes in employment law, moving large amount of their business to countries which are willing to be exploited for the jobs they and whatever meagre tax they would be willing to pay.

Video that’s heavily related to this subject which is worth a watch. Thanks to @SandiaElectrica for pointing me to it.