Paying the piper Calling the tune
In the midst of challenges we are facing as a society today, is a sense that the model of 20th century capitalism which did so much to generate the prosperity which we have enjoyed since the end of the Second World War, is no longer working to our interests. Inequality is growing, wealth is becoming ever more concentrated and economic growth is no longer able to deliver a sense of benefit for all. Multinationals seem able to outmuscle national Governments and dictate the terms on which they contribute to society through taxation. Capital is mobile and business models shift relentlessly to create increasingly insecure forms of employment. And, as I highlighted in my last blog We Robots, if we are concerned now wait until we see the impact of mass automation on both unskilled, and increasingly skilled, jobs.
It is hard to see where these changes will lead to. Socialism remains discredited and, as events in the last year illustrate, the wider public, and in particular those from communities most left behind by processes of economic change, are increasingly dissatisfied with what the traditional political system has to offer by way of solutions. While, personally, I believe that popularism and protectionism have nothing to offer to those on whom they most target their enticements, there is very clearly an issues to address.
In all of this there is an important question of agency. If believe the world needs to change, to what extent are we prepared to modify our own actions to contribute to that goal? Political actions are important, but we also have an important role as consumers, in particular if we act in sufficient numbers.
There are important precedents. The intellectual argument to abolish slavery in British dominions was won a long time before measures were passed to end it. Political pressure and the work of campaigners such as William Wilberforce were crucial but so were the actions of many individuals prepared to boycott sugar, demand for which had been the engine house in the growth of slavery. Nelson Mandela was vital to the end of Apartheid in South Africa but so was the boycott of South African goods. Fairtrade, initially a fringe movement aimed at offering the producers of tea and coffee a fair return for their products, has now become a mainstream economic activity with its distinctive logo visible all across our supermarkets. Where consumers come together capitalism does listen, perhaps at times quicker than politicians and Governments.
With at times some resentment or, more often, gentle mockery from my family I have tried to align my decisions as a consumer with my beliefs. At times, such as with Fairtrade, it has been gratifying to be part of a growing movement for change. On other issues, such as boycotting Amazon, on the grounds of not paying tax in the UK and their exploitative employment practices it has felt harder work. In all the cases, however, I have felt it has been the right thing to do, however many others are prepared to act in a similar way.
I am not claiming that consumer power, in itself, can solve all the problems in the world but it can make a contribution and it provides an important statement that people are prepared to make some sacrifices on behalf of their moral and political beliefs.
Individuals will vary in what they think is most important to try to influence in their actions as consumers. For me there are three general priorities. First is an assurance that companies I buy from are prepared to make their contribution to society through corporate taxation. Second is a desire to support companies which treat their workers fairly in terms of both pay and working and conditions. Linked to that is, increasingly, a desire to support those activities which value human labour and to avoid unnecessary automation and self-service. Finally has been a desire to support activities and goods which respect the environment, either because they are produced locally or because they are, in others ways, environmentally sensitive in the way they are produced, distributed or delivered.
I recognise my principles are not the same as those of others. I am not a vegetarian or vegan but I respect those who do not buy meat or other animal products for reasons of principle. Similarly I was prepared to pay for my children’s education, initially because it was clear to me that state system was seriously failing one of my sons. I know others would feel strongly that private education reinforces inequality.
Some will argue that such choices of principle are easy for someone like me, who is pretty well off, to make. I am sure that is a valid point and I would not wish to be critical of those for whom price has to be the sole determinant of their purchasing decisions because they do not have the income to do otherwise. I would, however, be more critical of those who have the income to make choices which align with their principles but still choose not to.
Consumer action needs support, most significantly in terms of information and signposting. The media and campaigning groups have an important role to play in exposing the actions of companies and explaining how things really work. The tax affairs and employment practices of multinational companies is scarcely general knowledge and my own judgements and actions have been helped by those in the media, and increasingly on social media, who have set out the facts on particular issues. Good branding can also help, something which the Fairtrade movement has exemplified.
The Germans have an expression “Man ist was man isst”, “One is what one eats.” If we believe in agency then we have to believe that our actions are important and our principles are worth some sacrifice when required. On our own we are powerless but with others we can make a difference. However someone has to make the first move and others have to follow.