Consumer awareness survey

Do labour conditions in developing countries affect our purchasing decisions?
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  • Updated:3 Jul 2008

03.What can you do?

Does this mean most people don’t care?

No. Witness the expansion into supermarkets of Fairtrade products, with total sales increasing from half a million dollars in 2003/04 to over $10m in 2006/07. The Fairtrade label is highly regulated and monitored, and the logo assures consumers they’re helping people in developing countries. There’s also growing interest in so-called ethical investments, and assets invested in such portfolios have grown from $325m in 2000 to over $17 billion in 2007.

But for other products it’s not so straightforward to buy ethically. While our survey shows people are concerned about poor working conditions, particularly in some Asian countries, many consumers just don’t know where to turn for reliable, trustworthy information. Also, a company’s ethical status can change quickly, so you need up-to-date information.

You also need to do your homework before you hit the shops, because there are no ‘star rating’ stickers for a product’s ethics, and there are so many logo schemes and green and ethical claims it’s difficult to know who to trust (for more on this, see Supermarket Green Watch). Consumers are also sceptical of companies that say they’re ‘doing the right thing’ — are they really addressing environmental and human rights issues or is it PR spin?

Best intentions can come to nothing

Supply chains are complex. Many companies contract their manufacturing to independent factories (called suppliers) that control labour conditions and know local environment laws. The original company may have a ‘code of conduct’, but often the supplier doesn’t adhere to it. As suppliers gain more power, a growing number can pick and choose the companies they’ll make products for: if they’re not willing to meet working conditions standards required by one company, there’ll be another, less ‘ethical’ company they can supply.

Suppliers outsource work and supply chains are extending further and further from the control — and watchful eye — of the company whose brand is on the product. So if consumers are sceptical of company spin, even companies themselves can be in the dark (but some may prefer it that way). On the other hand, some companies are developing schemes that require suppliers to certify the ethical or environmental qualities of each delivery they supply. Whether all these schemes are robust is currently difficult for consumers to determine. Another force undermining good intentions is that governments of poorer countries often view their cheap labour force and resources as a competitive advantage to attract investment and stimulate economic growth.

That doesn’t mean companies aren’t trying, even if their attempts are ultimately thwarted. One company reportedly worked hard to ensure its suppliers allowed democratic trade union elections so workers could influence wages and working conditions. While it had some success in some countries, in China it amounted to little as the official government unions wouldn’t allow what was perceived to be foreign interference.

What can you as a consumer do?

You can buy according to your conscience in one of two ways: you can buy products made by companies doing the right thing, or avoid those that don’t. If you believe coffee growers should have decent wages and working conditions you can buy Fairtrade coffee. Or if you want to be sure child labour wasn’t used to make footballs, buy fair trade footballs. If you’re concerned about pesticide poisoning of cotton growers, buy organic cotton. Lack of reliable information is the biggest stumbling block for consumers who want to buy ethically — we’ve suggested some resources in Buying ethically.

Then there’s product avoidance or boycotting. About 30% of consumers in our survey indicated that they had at some point avoided buying certain products for ethical reasons, mostly concerns about human rights or working conditions. Many claimed to boycott products specifically from China for these reasons, which ties in with perceptions of China rating poorly in our survey for human rights (75%) and working conditions (76%).

There have been many consumer boycotts over the years, some as part of broader campaigns. Not all boycotts gain wide support and even those that do don’t always achieve their aims — Nestlé is still selling infant formula in developing countries despite 30 years of protest and boycotts. But there have been wins for activists: a boycott of Shell in Europe against its proposal to sink the Brent Spar oil rig in the North Sea resulted in massive reductions in sales, particularly in Germany, and a rapid change in company policy.


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