Sleeping with the enemy


Last updated: Mar 2008

 

With growing numbers of companies wanting to get a slice of the ever increasing ethical market, how does the environmental movement avoid being ripped off, asks Simon Birch?


Good news! As we begin the countdown to Fairtrade Fortnight you’d be forgiven for thinking that Fairtrade cotton clothing has finally hit the big time. 

Walk through any city centre and you’ll be hard pressed not to find a major retailer who’s not selling Fairtrade t-shirts, jeans or y-fronts: Debenhams, M+S, Next, Sainsbury’s Tesco and Top Shop - they’re all at it. 

Hang on though, before we get too carried away let’s just look behind the latest retailer’s breathless press release and see what’s really going on.

“The reality is that for most mainstream retailers Fairtrade clothing contributes a tiny fraction of their entire clothing range, so what about the 99% of clothes that aren’t Fairtrade?” asks Simon McRae from War On Want. 

"I think it’s totally cynical on the part of the big companies in that they’re misleading the public into believing that Fairtrade is a significant part of their business when it’s not.”

But should we really be that surprised by the news that Tesco, which is after all the UK’s most successful supermarket, has turned its attention to the booming Fairtrade clothing sector?  After all this is precisely how free-market capitalism works: first spot an emerging niche market ripe for the picking and then wallop - pounce on it with all your accumulated marketing and retailing know-how.

With ethical and environmental concerns now firmly in the mainstream, what we’re now witnessing is an ever increasing number of big businesses trying to establish working relationships with environmental and development groups. 

How these moves are interpreted depends on your viewpoint: a cynic would argue that by and large this growing trend is just an attempt by big business to acquire a veneer of ethical respectability and amounts to little more than good ol’ greenwash. 

A pragmatist, on the other hand, would suggest that the opportunities presented by working with companies is a great way for green groups to mainstream their message.

 

 

McDonald’s, Nestlé & BSkyB
 

Breaking out of the green ghetto was a major driver behind the decision by the Vegetarian Society to work with McDonald’s in 2004 and give its blessing to a range of vegiburgers for the fast-food giant to sell in its restaurants. 

“We don’t want to be a vegetarian elite,” said the then Veg Soc Chief Executive Tina Fox in defending the decision in the face of howls of protest by die-hard vegetarians and vegans.

More ethical eyebrows were raised a year later when the Fairtrade Foundation gave its approval to Nestlé’s Partnership brand of Fairtrade coffee.  Anti-Nestlé campaigners were outraged as they claimed that Nestlé’s Fairtrade coffee represented less than 0.02% of all its coffee purchases.

“At the time I said that it was a totally cynical act on the part of Nestlé in order to get positive press coverage linking its name to Fairtrade and was something that the Fairtrade Foundation should never have done,” says Patti Rundle from the Baby Milk Action Group. “I have no reason to change that view.”

And just last year Friends of the Earth were split by an unprecedented internal row after their directors had been approached by BSkyB with the proposal to launch a three year deal which could have been worth almost £2 million and enabled the group to reach the broadcaster’s nine million subscribers. 

FOE’s staff reacted with horror, fearing that the group’s reputation for independence and not taking money from large corporates would be permanently damaged, and eventually the initiative was quietly killed off.

 

 

Uncharted territory
 

So given that we’re now in what is in effect uncharted territory, in that ethical issues have never been so far up the corporate agenda, just how does the environmental movement successfully negotiate these deals without being ripped off, and should it be even considering them in the first place?

“The starting point is to accept that big companies have huge power in terms of their potential investments in things such as new low-carbon technologies and they can also talk to huge numbers of people,” says Roger Higman from Friends of the Earth, which currently has financial relationships with both the Co-op Bank and Eurostar.

“We believe that working with companies has some potential to get political change to help Britain become more sustainable but that you must be very careful in who you choose to work with.”

Patti Rundle agrees that caution is paramount. “If environmental groups decide to work with companies they must ensure that they’re protected from undue corporate influence as this fashion for partnerships is potentially very dangerous,” warns Rundle. 

“I would like to see a very clear distinction between those of us who are working in the public interest and those who are working solely for profit.”

  

From Ethical Consumer, Issue 111, March/April 2008

 

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