A View from Britain: Greenwashing Profiteers

By Siobhán McGurrin, journalism graduate student, UCA London

In recent years, Britain has established itself as a forerunner in ethical consumer consciousness due to our keen awareness of green products. With “expenditure growing threefold in the last 10 years” according to Co-operative’s 2009 ethical consumerism report, our response to eco and ethical produce has been unequivocal, especially when it comes to food. As the leader of the pack, Fairtrade works towards social and economic change for farmers and their communities. Since its conception 18 years ago it has been steadily, but noticeably infiltrating our purchasing habits. Yet it wasn’t until the 2000’s that Fairtrade really took off, proudly announcing a staggering 30-fold increase in purchases over the last 10 years.

A relative newcomer to British shores and challenger of Fairtrade’s title is American based Rainforest Alliance, which as you can guess are in the business of saving the rainforest. Although it has been around for almost 25 years, Rainforest Alliance has only recently crept onto our eco radar. Using the current surge in environmentalism, they offer companies the chance go green with little cost and minimal involvement. Working in the same key product areas as Fairtrade including cocoa, coffee and tea, Rainforest Alliance aims to raise awareness of the impact of agriculture in order to switch to more sustainable cultivation.

By choosing to purchase Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance affiliated products, we have concerned ourselves with the plight of total strangers in far flung continents and environmental problems for which we are only modestly responsible. So what is the attraction?

As non-governmental organisations (NGOs), both Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade concentrate on helping people and planet to get a better deal, offering us the opportunity to be more charitable from the comfort of our supermarket basket. With interest in previously hippie-related eco and ethical consumerism evolving, the extra cost has established better pay for workers and more sustainable working practices for both the planet and future livelihoods.  Far from trading in unfashionable hemp apparel or oddly-smelling alternative cleaning products, both organisations offer a continuously expanding range of high quality luxury items, including beautiful fresh roses from Kenya and rich, aromatic coffees from South America.

Exploitation but with an ethical guise?

The rising trend in consumer interests have seen companies rush in recent years to become certified with either label, offering money to NGOs as part of their corporate and social responsibility (CSR) development. Such a current cachet in all things green has led to conglomerates like Kraft and Nestlé advocating unbeknownst green credentials that hardly gel with their track records in ruthless business profiteering. With highly publicised recent green campaigns for chocolate and coffee emphasized on nearly every advert, are we seeing just another form of exploitation but with an ethical guise? Putting companies on a virtuous pedestal based solely on clever marketing spin, rather than a genuine interest often leads to criticism of greenwashing, which is where we find ourselves today. So does purchasing items based on the NGO certification give these companies a free ethical pass and what do we really know about where our extra pennies are going?

As consumers, we are often unaware of the complexities behind such allegiances. Evidently “with Fairtrade there is no halfway house, you either sign up or you don’t, it’s very black and white. There are rules, you stick to and obey them or you get thrown off, but with Rainforest Alliance, intent is all you need” according to Chris Arnold, author of Ethical Marketing and the New Consumer. And he should know, having worked with one of the founders of The Fairtrade Foundation, Traidcraft for a number of years. So with companies such as Cadbury who have a history of fairness and equality based on their Quaker roots, surely Fairtrade is the obvious next step for them. With over 150 years experience in the cocoa industry, predominantly in Ghana, Cadbury has certainly got the background to make their transition to Fairtrade more believable, beginning with their most popular chocolate bar Dairy Milk in late 2009. Yet, there have been concerns that their recent takeover by American conglomerate Kraft will force a change of heart.

Another recent convert to the cause is Swiss corporation Nestlé, who, though possessing a poor ethical reputation, are unparalleled in their conquering of the food and drink industries with the largest range of coffee and chocolate on the market. They announced Fairtrade certification on their four finger Kit Kat back in January this year as part of their Cocoa Plan which “brings together Nestlé’s activity to promote sustainable cocoa supply” in the Ivory Coast where they predominantly farm. With two such larges companies championing ethical change through their products and their advertising, surely it could only go from strength to strength.

However, their progress was severely damaged by a recent BBC Panorama investigation which exposed the use of child slave labour on Fairtrade cocoa farms in Ghana and Ivory Coast. Fairtrade’s most well known cooperative Kuapo Kokoo, which was responsible for these farms in West Africa, supplied traceable cocoa to both companies. Picked using the worst forms of child labour according to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) act 182 of 1989, children worked without schooling opportunities or pay. Although the majority were working alongside family or community members, an unacceptable number were found to have been trafficked away from their families across borders and countries into a life of slavery. Children as young as 6 and 7, endure hard labour, walking great distances to climb trees and cut down cocoa pods with dangerous machetes day in, day out.

Both Cadbury and Nestlé vehemently deny knowledge of such occurrences, leaving the responsibility firmly in the hands of the Fairtrade Foundation. But it appears to be a little like déjà vu for Cadbury. After being accused of using slave labour on Portuguese islands at the beginning of the last century, they moved to cocoa plentiful Ghana. As Paul Kenyon (Panorama journalist) concludes “If they’ve been there for 100 years, you think they would have been able to sort it out by now.” Yet they haven’t. Ploughing millions into lobbying groups the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI) and the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF) to avoid child slave labour labelling in America, both Cadbury and Nestlé have known about the trafficked, enslaved and overworked children picking their cocoa since before legislation was threatened back in 2002.

Obviously it is extremely difficult to patrol these vast and impoverished areas. And as Kenyon explains, the cocoa beans “grow in the wild jungle and go on for miles”, rather than in sun drenched orderly rows of trees which consumers often imagine it to be. It is a persistent problem that Fairtrade is attempting to tackle by ensuring traceability of their produce and educating producers about child labour and schooling. So what are the chocolate companies doing about it? They use footage and stories of their family of workers in adverts, so surely, as Kenyon believes, “they should have the responsibility.” With a cynical view grown from seeing the extreme poverty first hand, he also considers that “…they are using these individuals as a marketing tool and…in return they should make sure that they are giving them the best living conditions. Do some checking themselves and not just think it’s a case of handing over a relatively small sum of money to a co-operative.”

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Click here for the second part, and conclusion, of Greenwashing Profiteers.

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