Recently the Moral Markets site posted a blog post with four TEDx talks about ethical consumption. Three of the four speakers seem to firmly believe in its transformative capacity. But we put the burden too much on the consumer and make it too easy for companies. A plea for the certification of spaces instead of products.

Things are not easy for the consumer. He has to make choices between an abundance of certified or uncertified products. Without these choices the market will not fundamentally change, so is often the reasoning. This is the starting point of a market approach based on consumer sovereignty, a pre-war concept of the liberal English economist William Harold Hutt (1899-1988). The idea that consumers have the highest authority in a market has attracted enthusiastic new supporters in recent decades.

Recently the Moral Markets site posted a blog post with four TEDx talks about ethical consumption. Three of the four speakers firmly believe in its transformative capacity. For companies that participate in the market this is an attractive way to avoid taking responsibility. They do not have to do anything on their own account, and they can wash their hands in innocence by referring to the poor direction that the consumer gives.

In some respects, consumer sovereignty is a phenomenal success. For example, the annual turnover of fair coffee has grown from 50 to over 180,000 tons in just 50 years. Yet this is still only about two percent of the total coffee production.

One reason for the limited market share for fair products is that individual responsibility does not always work well. People are not consistent in their choices: they sometimes buy fair trade coffee, but hardly fair trade tea. Many consumers simply do not have the required interest or empathy to make these kinds of choices. Others do, but place more emphasis on other moral issues, for example organic or sustainable production. And, as I mentioned at the beginning, the jungle of certification systems available makes a good choice sometimes more difficult rather than easier. For many products moreover no certification system exists, although mobile applications are now starting to emerge that can help the truly motivated supermarket visitor make the right choice even then.

Kun je een betere wereld kopen?However, the biggest problem remains that companies like to keep consumers sovereign, so that they do not have to make fundamental choices themselves. It is bizarre that Dutch supermarkets casually put the slave-free chocolate of Dutch company Tony Chocolonely next on the shelf to ‘slave-full’ bars.

Apart from doubts that we can cast on whether the individual choice model is the most effective way to transform our trade practices, it places too much responsibility on individual consumers. In my book Can You Buy a Better World? The Consumer and the Fairtrade Complex (2015) [in Dutch, not yet translated] I argue that the individual choice model is morally questionable, because the division of responsibilities is not fair. We ask too much of consumers and too little of governments and companies. We should look for forms of collective actions, in addition to the choices we make as individuals. With a bit of luck, that strategy turns out to be more effective too.

Ethical spaces

There are alternatives. The consumer sovereignty model is connected to the certification of products. In the past decades there was always an alternative, namely to look at spaces instead. The Canadian economist William Low and sociologist Eileen Davenport, also working in Canada, have tried to get more attention for this alternative in their articles (see references at the end). They talk about ‘ethical spaces’, which we could consider as spaces which are certified.

What does this mean in practice? In the Netherlands, the Wereldwinkels (‘World Shops’) have traditionally been the ultimate ethical space. Ever since the opening of the first one, in the town of Breukelen in 1969, they have been small-scale centers where you, as a customer, can safely assume that the producers of everything on the shelves have received a fair price. The label ‘world shop’ can in fact be regarded as a type of certification. Over the course of time other concepts have been developed in the broader field of ethical consumption. Think of health food stores and ecological supermarkets. By now these kinds of idealistic initiatives have gotten rid of their ‘hippie’ image. The Dutch metropolitan sustainable supermarket Marqt nowadays enjoys an audience of young urban professionals. At a certain point Marqt even began to emphasize that they wanted to get rid of their elite image to attract a broader audience.

In itself, certification for this kind of ethical retail space is not yet a solution to above mentioned problems with consumer sovereignty. It is still the responsibility of the individual to make a decision. Only now the choice is between stores – a regular supermarket or Marqt – instead of between products. From the point of view of choice stress, that is a step in the right direction. Once you have stepped across the threshold of a sustainable store, you have for a while been relieved of your moral complex.

In the operation of both the product certification and the shop certification, however, there remains a fundamental gap between the consumer and thing that is ‘certified’. There are also certifications for spaces where no such gap between consumer and space exists. Where the consumer is, as it were, included. The best example of this is the ‘Fair Trade Town’ campaign. This is a certification that indicates that in a municipality, shops, bars and restaurants, companies, organizations, residents and the local government work together on more fair trade. The ‘Fairtrade Town’ concept originated in 2001, from a citizens’ initiative in the northern English village of Garstang. At this very moment there are already more than 2.000 Fair Trade Towns worldwide.

Of course, not everyone is being reached in such a municipality, but the emphasis on shared responsibility and consultation is an essential addition to the consumer model. Instead of a certification system that makes individuals responsible, it tries to include people into a public development process.

It is a concept that is gaining popularity. There are now also fair trade schools and universities, and since 2013 even whole provinces can acquire the certification. This shows that an alternative to the consumer sovereignty model does not mean that people no longer take responsibility. As a resident of a municipality or province, as a student of a school or university and as an employee of an organization you can commit yourself to change together with others.

And why stop at the local or regional level? If local governments commit themselves, why not national governments? The Netherlands as a fair trade country is a worthwhile milestone. Many of the pioneers of fair trade come from the Netherlands. As a result, a relatively strong position has already been built up. That is something to cherish and expand.


Authors / contributors