Have you ever seen a thing and thought to yourself, “that thing there is both true and.. kind of disingenuous? Maybe a bit problematic?” Agreed with something while simultaneously thinking it’s fairly dodgy?
Take a look at this quote:
Yep. I can’t argue with the truth of the statement- the fact that our money does support the companies making the things that we pay for is not something that we can get away from. I’m generally in favour of people voting with their wallets. If my money goes toward a sustainable, local business that provides great working conditions from its employees and sources its products ethically? That’s obviously a hell of a lot better than that same money going towards a company that tears apart communities and environments.
But it’s a problematic statement to make, as well. Because- like more kinds of voting than most of us are comfortable admitting- voting with our wallets isn’t something that we can all do.
Can you afford to vote?
When I have money to spare, I buy ethically sourced products and try to be careful about where my money is going. I minimise the amount of my money that goes towards people that I know to be seriously unethical. It’s something that I keep in mind. I do my best.
But I can’t do it all the time.
It’s unavoidable that the people who are most screwed-over by our economic systems are those who are least able to exercise choice in what they spend their money on. If I’m completely broke, I don’t get to decide to spend my money on sustainable products. I need to eat and I need new socks and I get what I can afford. Yes, that means that sometimes I buy things made by people I know to be dodgy. Yes, I would prefer if it wasn’t so. But there’s not much I can do about it.
Except when there is.
Sometimes, of course, I’m not flat broke but I don’t have a massive amount of disposable income. Then I’m faced with only having the basics, all sourced ethically, or else getting some dodgy things and having money for little luxuries. That’s the choice. And a lot of the time, yes, I choose to take care of myself. Most people do.
I’ve heard a lot of people talk (often loudly) about how they only buy things that are organic, free-range, fair-trade, locally sourced, and all of the rest. I rarely hear that from someone who can’t afford not only their basics, but also the odd treat, that way. And yes, affordability is about time as much as it is about money. I can have cakes if I can buy them, or if I can bake them.
If I had enough disposable income to afford the things I need to keep going, the little luxuries that keep me happy, and to do so ethically, I’d do that. But if I have to make choices, then, well.. those choices will depend on a lot of factors.
And I’m not sure those choices make as much of a difference as we tell ourselves they do.
What are we changing, really?
The idea that we should purchase ethically sourced and produced things from people who treat their workers well is a great one. And it definitely has the potential to make a certain amount of difference. But it’s not going to fix everything.
Not everyone can buy more expensive things that were produced ethically- the very system that makes it important leaves many of us without the resources to do it. When the problem is that people’s resources and work are being stolen from them or auctioned off for far less than they’re worth, are they really going to have much left over for buying things sold for what they are worth? Of course not. The cards are stacked against people from the beginning.
And it’s not going to fix things. Even if everybody in the world bought ethically sourced products from fantastic businesses all the time, we’d have, at best, a precariously balanced kind of good. We still have a system ripe for exploitation. One that would require constant vigilance on the part of, it seems, absolutely everybody in order for it to work to make a decent standard of living for everyone. Even a profoundly flawed system could work okay if everyone in it was decent, upstanding, good people who always work ethically towards the common good. But we don’t live in a world where that’ll happen, and we evidently don’t have a system that is robust enough to work with flawed people without leading to ridiculous exploitation.
Oh, I love talking about shame, don’t I? Shame gets on my nerves. A kind of shaming that really gets on my nerves is where people who are privileged to have enough resources to regularly support ethically sourced products and businesses (yay!) seem to think that absolutely everyone has a moral obligation to do the same.
The people who are most messed-around by a system are not those who have the greatest moral obligation to do something about it. They’re the people who often end up doing so, yeah. But that’s mainly because nobody else will.
But people- even people who aren’t in a great economic situation- have the right to make decent lives for ourselves. And blaming the worst-off people for a situation that is not of their making, because in some small way they don’t have much options but to contribute to it? That’s just not okay.
- Certified to the Source (betherippleeffect.wordpress.com)
- Ethical Behavior in Marketing – What’s Right and Wrong? (beawaremarketingiseverywhere.wordpress.com)
- Care for the earth (resilience.org)
- The importance of ethical procurement (guardian.co.uk)