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Cheap milk and supermarket ethics

  • 28 March 2011

The past decade has seen the rise of the 'ethical consumer' and especially of the 'green consumer'. The success of the Fair Trade movement can be seen as part of this trend, whereby consumers seek out the Fair Trade label to ensure that the producers of their goods are paid a fair wage.

Word occasionally reaches us of the high cost of our goods. Notwithstanding large distances, language differences and physical security barriers, the world heard last year about the suicides of overworked employees at Foxconn's Shenzhen factory, where the Apple iPhone is assembled.

Many concerned individuals have adopted a strategy of 'shopping ethically': avoiding products they know to be sourced unethically and finding alternatives. This was a great idea when products were made from raw materials and relatively close to the point of purchase.

But today supply chains stretch all around the world. One well-known company may be responsible for marketing and branding (Apple), another for assembling the product (Foxconn) and still others responsible for assembling the components. Dozens of unheard-of companies specialise in items as obscure as the tiny electrical motors that allow digital cameras to zoom and focus.

The whole system is so complex and interconnected that it is not uncommon for an outsourcing company to be unaware themselves that production has been further subcontracted. This happened disastrously to Mattel in 2007 when their children's toys were found to contain lead paint.

Who on earth can expect to truly know the environmental and labour standards under which the many parts of today's products were made?

Then there are some raw materials that are both ubiquitous and invisible. Take phosphate, for example.

Phosphate is used as a fertiliser mostly in corn and thus forms part of the production supply chain for everything from corn syrup to cattle feed to ethanol. It is also used as an ingredient in detergents, food additives (including one in Coca-Cola) and the lithium-ion batteries used in mobile phones.

As it happens, 85 per cent of the world's phosphate reserves are held by Morocco, and a large part of their production comes out of the occupied territory of Western Sahara. The hapless Sahrawis today sit in refugee camps in Algeria while we enjoy convenient access to phosphate dug out of the lands they used to live on.

Morocco's monopoly on this resource is so complete that even Australia, a phosphate producer, still imports from them.

If you are concerned about this state of affairs, would you