Sunday, 26 August 2007

Green, schmeen

I'm suspicious about the term 'ethical'; as in, "eco-friendly toys and clothes for ethically reared tots", or "her biggest challenge was establishing a fully organic and ethical chain of suppliers". The word seems to have morphed from its original meaning of 'pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality' into 'being in line with recieved wisdom on which products are the right ones to buy'. In other words, let's not think about morals any more - let's just bandy around words like 'eco-friendly' and 'organic' and 'holistic' and kid ourselves that if we buy products with those words on the labels, we'll be living ethical lifestyles and 'ethically rearing' our 'tots'. (Forgetting that ethically rearing 'tots' is more to do with how they treat other human beings than whether or not their clothes and toys are made from special handgrown wheatgrass.)

When it comes to these matters, I seem to get more cynical by the day. Firstly, I'm wary of anybody who lays claim to their own ethics beings right without being able to explain exactly why. Eco-friendly toys made in Berkshire by middle-class mums might be great for kids (I'm not sure they are, but whatever), but if we all bought them we could do considerable damage to the economies of developing nations: Taiwan built a powerhouse economy on the back of manufacturing very cheap toys amongst other things, and it is now a prosperous society. Countries like Vietnam are now in a position to do the same thing, and who are we to deny them that opportunity because suddenly it's cool to go 'organic'? Factory jobs in those countries are tough, and need more regulation, but how are we helping in that respect by just switching our spending patterns to 'organic' toys? In other words, regardless of what you believe, it seems there is a genuine ethical debate to be had here, but it is brushed under the carpet because the word 'ethical' has been co-opted by one movement. One side is 'ethical' so the other must be unethical - but we aren't allowed to question why.

Secondly, I'm irritated when I see a vested interest of any kind. People have seemingly no problem in discounting research funded by the tobacco industry, or the oil industry, or major airlines, or McDonald's, because rightly they know that such research is tainted by subconscious or conscious bias. And yet even though the organic eco-warrior movement is equally a vested interest, with billions of dollars at stake, the spotlight is almost never turned on how that vested interest might be influencing research. Why is it that whenever I hear about a new eco-friendly product I immediately wonder if it is an honest attempt to go green or just another entrepeneur who has discovered a niche and is about to milk it for all its worth?

Anyway, I urge you to check out, just to prove that I'm not such a cynic after all. The organisation allows you to loan money to a specific entrepeneur in the developing world, which they will pay back to you as their business develops. In other words, it's an extension of the microfinancing concept which has been so succesful in countries such as Bangladesh and, I think, a brilliant way to donate without turning the reciever into a helpless victim or taking away their dignity and pride. I'm reliably informed by a friend that within two weeks, eight of the eleven people she had lent money to were already making repayments.


Random Magus said...

Words are always used by people to manipulate others, because words are powerful, a way to meaning.
People always see their convenience first and whatever is easy and convenient is the cause adhered to. Plus its a good way to lessen the trade deficit

noisms said...

That's the thing. I just dislike the hypocrisy of claiming that something is 'right' or 'ethical' when the motives behind it are purely selfish - making money, feeling good, and reducing the trade deficit. Maybe I'm too idealistic, but I'd rather people were honest about things like that.