Which Comes First?

Article: Can ‘Ethical’ Companies be Union Busters?

Answer: Sure.

My union has spent (wasted?) many hours debating ‘responsible consumerism.’For example: do we buy our produce from the unionized and corporate Safeway or the all-organic local hippie shop down the street? Is our priority the lettuce or the people picking the lettuce? (Of course, it’s probably the truckers moving the lettuce who have the collective bargaining rights, and shame on us for that, btw.) Are those priorities inseparable? Should we stop trying to make informed decisions in the light of the fact that the idea of an ‘innocent’ purchase is off the table? Is ‘voting with your dollars’ an imbecilic attempt to ‘incentivize’ wolfish capitalism into cross-dressing as free range veal?

These debates are always case-specific and difficult to generalize about, but like barrooms, blogs are good places for abstract discussion on nuanced topics. What’s your ethical checklist? Here’s some for me, in no certain order:


Local/Mass Market?

Do my friends work there?

Where were the products made, and under what conditions?

I am put off by the model of ‘Green’ capitalism espoused by the Starbucks and Whole Foods models. The socialist in me would rather have these monoliths paying higher taxes than allowing them to acquit themselves through funnelling tiny bits of proceeds to “non-profits.” In short, I’d rather fix Medicaid than gesture vaguely towards ‘fair trade.’ Since these sorts of “ethical” asides function mainly as marketing ploys – that’s all they really are, regardless of good intentions, right? I’m not moralizing here – they are bound to be pretty goddam class-specific. This is the case of the bourge-ish motifs of WF and Starbucks, played out to the tune of ‘it’s organic to help brown people plow our future health food,” as though the people of the ‘developing world’ and their soil were metaphors for one another. And what’s with caring for faraway fields when you won’t at least adopt a position of neutrality in your workers’ union elections?

This is degenerating into “blue vs. green” crap that i oppose implicitly, so I’ll just shush up here. Please discuss.


3 Responses to “Which Comes First?”

  1. dave3544 Says:

    By all means, let’s be troubled by Green “corporate sustainability,” but let’s also examine the alternatives. Do you have an option to purchase foodstuffs that haven’t been grown in an exploitative manner? Certainly not at Albertsons, Cornucopia, or (dare I say it?) the “farmer’s market.” You might be able to find some sort small-scale grown/produced food at the Grower’s Market or on Saturday, but, obviously, without some sort of labor, then this kind of production/consumption will be very limited. Let’s face it, unless the pickers/weeders/harvesters/slaughterers are standing right in front of you swearing to God almighty that they received fair compensation for their labor, then we really can’t know can we? And even then we’d have to keep a wary eye on the proximity of the boss or the INS when these declarations were made.

    So, all I can do is assume that some sort of exploitation was involved in the production of my foodstuffs. I keep my eyes/ears open for word that some group or another is complaining about their treatment and don’t buy related products.

    Of course, some companies go out of their way to inform me that their products are “fair trade” or some such designation. Just publicity? Possibly. Short of checking out every freaking claim made on every freaking label, I tend to go with a “trust until informed otherwise” policy.

    Of course, none of this has anything to do with the issue of organics or sustainable business practices. These things are very bourgeois, yes. Mostly because it is cheaper to spray a whole bunch of chemicals all over everything than to pay labor to weed, etc. Maybe this is more exploited labor. Is this better than more chemicals in the Earth? I am voting yes for now. I will work to encourage the government to allow farmer’s unions in the US/Oregon (okay, my “work” amounts to little more than voting for Dems, but there we are). I think we can mitigate the exploitation, but we cannot mitigate the damage that “regular” farming does to the environment.

    Of course I am troubled by the idea that products that are better for you or for the Earth are more expensive, but I think the notion is that as demand increases prices will fall or at least become normative. At least until we take over and demand that “regular” practices cease.

    As for union neutrality, yes, yes, yes, of course. This is why you’ll find me at Roma instead of Starbucks, although I know absolutely nothing about Roma’s politics. Which of course brings us to that old labor paradox where I shop at the store that free exploits it’s labor because I am boycotting the place that has labor troubles.

    So much more to say, but since my comments have way outpaced the post, I will stop.

  2. minx Says:

    This is a good topic for discussion, and I enjoyed both the original post and Dave’s response. Since I am a labor issue novice, I am a shopper at places like Whole Foods some of the time (but definitely not all the time). If I analyze the marketing strategy of Whole Foods, I know that I am being seduced by the sickly pleasant atmosphere and Zoloft vision of the Whole Foods lifestyle, a vision even worse because of its condescendingly diverse attitude toward other cultures – like a Benetton commercial. At the same time, I am concerned about getting organic food, even though I know that “organic” can sometimes be misleading when judging safe farming practices. “Natural” is even more misleading. If I consider the exploitation of workers in the organic industry, I find it appropriate to mention Dave’s point that most agribusiness is exploitative on some level, and it’s hard to know the truth about a biz without talking personally to its employees worldwide. So, the whole shit is corrupt. Some of my friends are able to dodge this issue for part of the year by joining Community Supported Agriculture groups, in which they get a share of produce grown locally by someone or a group they know and can easily assess. This is an affordable and good alternative, but as you can imagine, the masses aren’t aware of it (and if they were there probably wouldn’t be enough CSAs in the short run to accomodate them).

    Would I choose to shop at an exploitative grocery chain that has some (but not all) unionized workers or an exploitative grocery chain that has organic produce but a poor union record? Honestly, right now my choices are not consistent enough for me to back them up.

    As far as fair trade or green business models are concerned, I’m interested in knowing how to reconcile a profit motive with virtue. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I’m waiting for a convincing proof.

  3. Blog hub « Drifting Crowd Says:

    […] 4.Lex’s post about responsible consumerism. […]

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