Ethics and the International Garment Industry: Part Two

Last week I criticised, in particular, one aspect of Hobbes’ own critique of the ‘ethical shopper’ paradigm, his argument that western brands have weakened due to shifts in global economic structures. I won’t rehash this here, the image below captures the gist of my argument: western brands are more powerful than ‘mega suppliers’.

brands.suppliersWestern mega brands have great financial resources. The most popular brands are the biggest players in negotiations with manufacturing interests. The largest of the ‘mega suppliers’ is much smaller than the three brands listed here (Nike, H&M, Walmart – crudely represented here in terms of net profit). Not only are western brands already popular and becoming more so in developing markets; these markets have their own homegrown brands with potential to rival western brands on the global stage.

Here, I want to continue to defend the role that brands and pressure on brands plays in global reform while exploring Hobbes’ argument that formal institutional means (state/international laws) should be used to push global reform and also the problems associated with the ascent of new markets in developing countries (a relative decline of western market power).

The argument

In a sense Hobbes’ argument is a tacit criticism of an ethic constructed around the individual, choice, and responsibility for choices. This mode of thinking leads some to strive for an ideal that an individual should be ‘pure’ in action and leave no ‘immoral footprint’ – following a particular interpretation of Ghandi’s ‘be the change you want to see’. Hobbes’ point is that even if it were possible to live a life that does not contribute to injustice – an ideal that probably provides much of the impetus behind the ethical shopper movement – there is still the issue of all those who suffer despite our not being actively complicit in their plight. Many of the ethically relevant facts of the world remain beyond the frame of our choices; sometimes they are systemic, and embedded in our choices whether or not we are aware (as Hobbes argues is the case when the fabric sewn in ‘sweatshop free’ clothing is created from cotton picked with child labour), or beneath them (as when our own wealth depends, to an extent on our nation’s advantage in the terms of trade, over that of another).

But is Hobbes chasing a straw-man with this account of ethical consumerism? Is there really anyone who thinks that ‘ethical shopping’ alone leads to utopia? There may be, but these people are few and far between. But even despite this, if ethically conscientious consumers were asked ‘what other methods do you support for reform in global manufacture?’; aside from pointing to contributions to a few charities I suspect many of them would be stumped –and it is at this point that the ‘ethical consumption’ movement risks becoming complacent: when people fixate upon this mechanism – even while they recognise its limitations – at the expense of others. Hence Hobbes’ proposed counter narrative in which pressure should be applied to formal institutions (pressuring our own, and through our own, others, as well as lobbying the IMF or World Bank, WTO and other international institutions) to change law and institutions (and to police the laws!) on the ground in countries with the most flagrant abuses. The advantage of this approach, contrasted with the effects of consumption-lobbying which are voluntary – brands don’t have to pay attention – is that properly policed laws demand their adoption by every factory.

But the flaw with this alternative is that it, too, is proposed as the primary solution. It would ideally lead to systemic change but this ideal is very far from realised and, again, it relies on us; as lobbyists this time rather than consumers (as well as pressure from workers on the ground and deep institutional reform to counter corruption). Hence it suffers from many of the flaws of the ethical shopper movement Hobbes’ pointed to; in particular, a future decline of the power of the western consumer/citizen/nation, as well as the decline or transformation of the global institutions like the IMF (this transformation can already been seen with the Chinese initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Not either/or

In Part One I argued that western brands have more power than Hobbes give them credit. There are a great number of brands, they have more abundant wealth than the largest of the ‘mega-suppliers’ let alone factories and factory-groups. I concede that these brands produce a proportionately small amount of all goods, and that the worst abuses likely occur in factories producing products we’ve never heard of, yet this is not a good argument for dropping one the greatest points of leverage: the interest immensely wealthy brands have in maintaining a clean reputation. It is a good reason to find other, complementary, pressure points. In addition, Hobbes’ attempt to dismiss movements that lobby or boycott brands*, neglects to mention that while the significance of western consumers is posted to decline this is not true of the many western brands with large market growth in developing countries. Additionally, there are many home-grown mega brands in developing countries such as China which will soon establish markets in the west. This means two things: these brands will be susceptible to the ‘ethical consumer’ cry for reform in western markets, they will also be susceptible to ‘ethical consumers’ in developing countries if such movements take hold. In other words, brands remain one of the most useful points of leverage into the future. The potential for consumer movements in developing countries should be taken seriously.

Could there be new consumer movements?

If there are few consumer movements in ‘developing’ countries now and those that exist have weak prospects, does that mean there will not be more success in the future? Hobbes quotes Manchester University academic Khalid Nadvi who raises an interesting consideration, “the emerging middle class in China is first and second generation … many of them worked in the kinds of factories we’re advocating to improve.” Undoubtedly demographic factors like this are true of the in many other countries too. Contrasted with the big push in the USA, UK, Europe during the 1990s to reform sweatshops which emerged after many of the conditions being protested against had become a distant memory to the protestors and which as a result seemed all the more abhorrent. Will there be no potential in the future for the growing middle class of developing countries to fight for the “rights” of foreign workers because these conditions, once endured by the parents of emerging markets, may not seems as dehumanising as they do to the long established western middle-class.

In addition to this, there may be cultural hurdles too. The propensity of western people to think in terms of individuals and rights goes hand in hand with the ethical consumption movement. While this mindset has its problems, it is founded upon one very relevant notion: the ideal that dignity be universally bestowed to individuals because they are individual, regardless of colour/nation/creed. And this is easily rationalised to include in its ambit people all over the world, a tendency which is not as self-evident in traditions of other cultures. This is a topic for another time.

Nonetheless, though there may be problems establishing consumer movements in ‘developing’ countries, these need not be unsurpassable. Reform is promoted to take advantage of the specifics of the culture, its traditions and institutions. And an expansion of ethical consumerism into the new markets could aggregate with movements in western and non-western developed countries.

Brands, institutions and everyone else

There are multitudes of groups with an interest in reform. As Hobbes’ argues it is necessary that that formal institutions are included in the project if exploitative conditions are really to be dealt with– the individual will not provide the answer to systemic problems – but this method by itself is no less of a pipedream than the ‘ethical consumerist’ utopia and it will not happen in cases where countries lack the vision or feel that they cannot afford to impose laws and lose their market advantage. Compared with these countries, brands sit in a position of power (and immense wealth). Given this it would be wise to keep them as an absolutely central pillar in reform strategies. They may even be useful in lobbying for institutional changes that would level the playing field (raise the basement) for reasons of price competitiveness. In this sense, Hobbes could consistently advocate that brands be lobbied to play a part in the systemic reform he envisions.

*It is worth making the point that ‘brand activism’ and ‘ethical consumerism’ are two different things, the former being very much an active political movement and also a driving force behind the emergence of the latter, which more passive by comparison (politics of purchase).

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