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Cheap milk and supermarket ethics


'Ethical Consumers' by Chris JohnstonThe 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 even know what products to boycott?

It is a similar story with palm oil, much of which is unsustainably produced in Indonesia at the expense of the rainforest. Estimates vary widely but it is possible that 50–90 per cent of all packaged goods in supermarkets contain palm oil.

Milk has been in the headlines lately, with many people concerned about the effect of Coles' $1 milk on the 'little' producers. They should look closer. Those producers are actually large companies, quite capable of fending for themselves, who have been putting the squeeze on farmers for decades.

For their part, the dairy farmers' association is lobbying right now to reduce costs by denying food to 'excess' calves en route to slaughterhouses.

It's barely possible to move without touching a product about which you would be concerned if you knew the story of its production. Boycotting is not a practical option unless you are happy to accept pre-industrial living conditions. The only viable option is for ethical consumers to become activists. The process of globalisation that brings our goods so readily from around the world can also carry our concerns back to the point of origin.

There are groups helping companies establish adequate systems to monitor their suppliers. There have also been encouraging successes: in the past two months petitioners mainly from the change.org website convinced clothing chain Gap to insist on higher safety standards in factories in Bangladesh, and major florists 1-800-Flowers to offer Fair Trade certified flowers. Expect to hear more such success stories in the future.



Michael WalkerMichael Walker has spent ten years advocating for the causes of labour, poverty and refugees.

Topic tags: ethical consumerism, fair trade, green consumerism, organic, cheap milk, change.org, gap, 1-800-flowers



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Existing comments

It's quite overwhelming when you consider the implications of how our technological empires continue to support slavery in the 21st century, all in the name of progress. Here's hoping that we can use this same technology to turn the tide, live more simply, and eventually put an end to the tyranny of 'more'.

Gary | 27 March 2011  

I agree with the article which looks a little behind the scene and tries to do what journalists tried to do in years gone by, to uncover the truth.

I think the same situation applies to many “environmental initiatives”. It reminds me of the situation where “bio-fuel” is recommended to be used to lessen the harm on the environment. In most cases however bio-fuel is sourced by converting food (corn, sugar etc.) into ethanol. In many cases the carbon emission to produce the fuel is almost as high as the “dirty non-renewable” petrol or diesel it replaces. The worst thing is actually that “bio-fuel” helps to keep food prices high.

I was reading about an estimate which shows that a single tank filled with “bio-fuel” uses as much food as consumed by a poor child in parts of Africa. It is so easy to be righteous about everything, but it may be harder to proof to be totally innocent and to be able to pick up the first stone.

Beat Odermatt | 27 March 2011  

Not sure I agree with the tone of this article - rather than just sign online petitions and think we've done enough, I'd rather inform myself and act accordingly, though I'm fairly relaxed in the knowledge that I'll never know everything about products! For example, Michael writes "It is a similar story with palm oil, much of which is unsustainably produced in Indonesia at the expense of the rainforest. Estimates vary widely but it is possible that 50–90 per cent of all packaged goods in supermarkets contain palm oil" I did know about palm oil and I don't buy anything with it, and it's one of the many good reasons not to shop in supermarkets. Michael's simplification of the dairy farmers' woes is hardly convincing - has he read the previous discussion on milk prices on this website?

Russell | 27 March 2011  

While large businesses can make an impact for Fair Trade Certified producers, they most often fail to do so. Grassroots organization such as that on change.org is fine, but consumer support for smaller businesses that are wholly committed to Fair Trade and sustainability is needed even more. One World Flowers has offered 100% Fair Trade certified flowers from the fay it was started and will also launch a new individual product line this Mother's Day - not to be overshadowed by the larger business that was only pressured into doing the right thing.

Alaina Paradise | 27 March 2011  

It would be helpful to know what product, available in Australia, to boycott. The work ethics in so many countries are sickening to hear about.

As for 'the dairy farmers association lobying right now to reduce costs by denying food to "excess" calves en route to slaughter houses, it is a dispicable deed. Action by Coles (lead by a desperate CEO) has led to more and more cruelty. A civil society depends on nous, passion and magnanimity. Fair Trade: a necessity.

Joyce | 27 March 2011  

The big milk companies are not the producers of milk, they are the 'middle man' and the real producers are the cows and the dairymen, who as you say are being squeezed by the big companies.

Johnnie | 28 March 2011  

Supply chains are complex but it’s not all doom and gloom though. In the Australian garment industry FairWear has been campaigning for 15 years to ensure that outworkers are not working in sweatshop conditions. The solution Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) is a joint union/industry initiative with federal government support. The Rudd/Gillard governments put more resources into this accreditation scheme to improve its effectiveness. This has seen a vast improvement in the number of companies seeking ECA accreditation in the past year. The first 2 Oz footwear companies were last month. Why have you not heard of this scheme? ECA is about to initiate an awareness campaign to inform consumers. FairWear welcomes this improvement but we are acutely aware of the increasing importation of garments. Australia could be doing more. This unique scheme could be introduced to other similar economies. We could assist other jurisdictions to eradicate sweatshops, via a trusted accreditation scheme especially where workers, mostly women, are paid less than a living wage. And there is Ethical.org.au, who produce, The Guide to Ethical Supermarket Shopping. Whilst it's not an accreditation scheme like ECA it's a move to ethical shopping. Let's get some discussion going on the benefits and pitfalls...

Mark Riley, FairWear Victoria | 28 March 2011  

A very good article Mike.

brian walker | 29 March 2011  

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