Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Ethical shopping?

Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley from Amicus and the T&GWU respectively argue that Peugeot should be boycotted because of the closure of its Ryton plant in Coventry. They're advocating this 'consumer power' against the background of the usual arguments about the government doing nothing to arrest the decline in manufacturing in Britain:
"Ethical shopping is an established idea. Unlike the chancellor in his recent speech to the CBI, we do not find the notion of "economic patriotism" ludicrous."
It's "buy British" all over again - the problem being there is no British car industry. But the phrase that stood out was this one about ethical shopping being an 'established idea'. Indeed it is, but I've often wondered how much sense it makes. Obviously consumers can easily boycott goods from one country, as people did during the apartheid years in the RSA but is it really realistic to expect consumers to make all of their purchases on the basis of often dubious moral/economic arguments rather than on price and quality? One of the reasons for markets to function less efficiently than they could is that often consumers don't have anything approaching 'perfect knowledge' about the price of alternative suppliers of homogeneous goods.

Is it really sensible to expect consumers to have in-depth knowledge about the ethics of firms they buy goods from? Is Heinz an 'ethical' company? Or do they pillage the environment and exploit their workers? I've no idea - but I do know my son likes baked beans with Bob the Builder on the tin.

I could investigate this company - then do the same with every other company I make purchases from. This would be incredibly time-consuming and at the end, what purpose would it serve? My own pattern of consumption is unlikely to influence the behaviour of any company.

The other problem I have with 'ethical shopping' is it imputes morality to actions that either have practically no cost or worse, make a virtue out of necessity. I won't be buying a Peugeot - because I can't afford a new car. Ok, if I had the money I hereby pledge to spend it on something other than a Peugeot. Big deal.

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