People today cannot afford to be ethical. The measure of your worth as an ethical being is tied to the measure of your wallet. In our society we are preached the value of “value” and and the value of “organic”. “Value” is bad but perhaps it is necessary when times are tight, yet it can never be the morally wholesome arrangement of “organic” and Fair trade. Jamie Oliver pleads with you to not kill your children with Turkey Twizzlers or wafer ham. “Feed them fresh food instead,” we are told.
When we buy fresh and organic, it brings together ideas of authenticity and naturalness to the produce that we are purchasing. Yet these products are distributed and the profits reaped by the same system that is responsible for providing the factory-farmed, the pesticide sprayed, the mechanically reconstituted that fresh food is marketed as being in opposition to. It is a fetishistic nostalgia that is shown in images of hands clasping soil and root and logos brimming with intensive distributions of earthy green colours.
The UK Fresh Produce Consortium, who promote and support the “5 a day” and “Healthy Start” campaigns, protects the interests of its members such as Morrisons, Asda, Tesco, and Sainsbury’s as well as smaller and independent retailers. That you are expected eat 5 a day and fish every week, that seemingly intrinsic expectation of what makes you healthy, is produced by the very same retailers that shovel you with crap.
If I want to buy a happy chicken raised in an open field on corn, then I pay over £6 in comparison to the £3.70 or so that it costs for that chicken’s sad, factory-farmed cousin. To buy a chicken costs a full hour of work at minimum wage. With the cost of rent and bills rising as well as food, our society still deems it fit to tell them that this is not enough. You must pay more to be more moral. It is a two-fold problem. It’s healthy for being organic and healthy yet again for being one of your five a day. A price to be paid twice over for peace of mind on an expectation that was pushed by the retailers in the first place.
Fairtrade certification, which is awarded for adhering to the Fairtrade standards, is another example of this rhetoric. It is intrinsically set up against other forms of trade, which are implicitly deemed Unfair trade. Therefore, there’s an implicit morality weighted into its cost over similar “unfair” goods. Tesco Fairtrade coffee is £2.99 and it’s Unfair trade alternative is £2.09. We can assume then that the price of a moral person is approximately 90p. Instead of asking us to question the premise of trade at all, it simply quantifies itself as purity and morality. After all, who would be monstrous enough as to be against fairness?
The rhetoric of this consumer ethics sets up our world as a choice between immoral cheapness and bad technology or moral expense and good naturalness. It is the difference between grey clouds, rust, machinistic chaos and blue sky suns, cows in fields, leathered farmers. Of course, it doesn’t account for the fact that the distribution and profit of both choices goes to the same organisations. It sanctifies the perverse notion that morality requires sacrifice, turning the inward asceticism of the monk into a productive market force.
It should not surprise us that Fair trade, this inversion of asceticism, was born from religious initiatives like the Mennonite Central Committee. The monk gave up his life of plenty. His spirituality was a place where consumption was minimised so that God could be emphasised. In place of luxury he lived a plain life. In contrast, the spirituality of Fair trade is not an injunction to consume less. It is an injunction to consume more, spend more, grow more but in a different way. It would not make economic sense for retailers to support a movement that would encourage its customers to consume less – that would hurt the bottom line.
Instead of risking the bottom line by limiting consumption, the retailers suggest that if you buy more Fair trade then more Fairness will be spread around the world through the generosity of your spending. The more Fair trade you buy then the fairer the world becomes. You can preach to the crowd with your wallet and are spiritually rewarded in that way. The monk chooses piety, the shopper chooses luxury, and in their own way they achieve salvation. Yet when that choice is buy organic or pay bills, as is the case for growing numbers of people, it doesn’t seem to be much of a choice at all.
The consumer ethics of value vs organic serves to reinforce the predominant view of the poor in our society. Our society is not content to castigate the poor for making bad choices – for being venal, lazy and immoral – it must enforce it. This is a mechanism that specifically excludes those without the means from pursuing what society deems to be ethical. Fortunately for us, the market is beginning to take heed of the growing number of middle class people in perilous circumstances by rebranding the red and blue functionality of Tesco Value with the pleasing, earthy pastel colours of Everyday Value. Now value does not look so different from organic anymore.