Knowing commodities through corporate narratives: the poor prospects for ethical consumption

Commodities are often represented to consumers based on corporate promises of social responsibility. But with little evidence of positive impact on the ground for workers, is ethical consumption really a move in the right direction?

For many, everyday interactions with the economy are most tangible in the form of consumption. Whenever we buy anything – from food, to bus tickets, to holidays – we are implicated in, and productive of, the distributional mechanisms that shape the lives of people locally and across the world.

The purchase of goods and services constitutes a key phase in processes of labour, production, exchange, trade, consumption and wastage that determine who gets what, when and how in the global economy. Supply chains that produce these everyday goods are often fraught with uneven distributions of value, causing huge inequalities between brands, buyers and retailers at the top and workers at the bottom.

Individuals are bombarded with unprecedented volumes of cheap consumer products. These products are conveyed through modes of representation, such as advertising and packaging, that encourage particular responses. Marx described how, under capitalism, products are presented to consumers in a way that obscures the social relations that have gone into creating them, seeming to appear in a magical moment, with no past history or future consequence. He termed this ‘commodity fetishism’.

Movements highlighting labour abuses occurring within global production may appear a crucial step in overcoming commodity fetishism. They highlight the people behind the product, and encourage consumers to purchase ethically. However, ‘ethically sourced’ products are hard – if not impossible – to come by, and their representation continues to obscure the true social relations of production. Corporate social responsibility (CSR), including internal corporate programmes and external certification schemes declaring responsibly sourced products, is not delivering on its promises. For example, recent research by SPERI colleagues has demonstrated that there is little to no difference between labour conditions for workers’ on certified and non-certified plantations in the tea and cocoa industries. Certification is awash with methodological and enforceability-based shortcomings, yet is increasingly being adopted by companies to demonstrate ethical business practice. Consumers are presented with the idea that due diligence and legal compliance has rendered products socially unproblematic.

Take the coffee industry. Like many widely produced commodities, it is driven by downward price pressures from the top of the supply chain. Profit is highly concentrated among a few big (Northern) corporate players that dominate the global coffee market, while (Southern) producers often endure myriad forms of labour abuse, including wage withholding, debt bondage, and child labour. The realities of work in the coffee industry are complex, yet the story is canonised in a simple, positive way to UK consumers.

Coffee is represented in two dominant ways — through images of producers and packaging on supermarket shelves. After considering the UK online platforms of various coffee companies and certifiers, the overriding impression is one of homogeneity. Farmers are shown smiling, comfortable and well-dressed, standing among trees or holding beans, in beautiful sunny surroundings. This idealises coffee picking and encourages consumers to personally connect with individual producers. In terms of packaging, many products in UK supermarkets bear certification stamps, such as Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance. However, many others, such as Nestlé products which are not internally or externally certified as ‘ethical’, utilise similar imagery to that of certification stamps, and employ the same language of responsibility and sustainability.

The significance of these modes of representing coffee as a commodity is twofold. Firstly, they obscure the difficult realities of work in the industry and therefore encourage the purchase of products that have very little meaningful positive impact on the ground. This enhances the profitability of the certifiers and brands that emblazon their packaging with their stamps. Secondly, with such similar language and imagery being employed on websites, advertisements and supermarket shelves, consumers are faced with navigating a marketplace that propagates the idea that all coffee production supports farming communities; buying coffee is philanthropy. This encourages coffee consumption while subverting potential challenges to the root causes of exploitation in the industry.

CSR therefore serves as a marketing technique that plays on consumers’ ethical impulses, while fundamentally doing little to secure decent working conditions. We come to ‘know’ coffee through the telling of a particular story of how that commodity was produced, by healthy, happy, well-paid farmers – this story is skewed, partial and potentially largely untrue. Taking it at face value, rather than understanding it as a corporate narrative, encourages the ethical consumer to purchase products that reproduce the very exploitation they hope to combat.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable aspect of this is the way the representation of coffee gives the illusion of overcoming commodity fetishism, and in-so-doing reinforces it. We are reassured and comforted by stories of the labour relations that make our coffee; our curiosity is satisfied and our consciences cleared by photographs of contented farmers complimented by a recognisable seal of approval from a high-profile certifier.

The representation of coffee and the discourses of ethical production manifest similarly in other agricultural commodities such as tea and sugar, but also industries such as garments and technology. Corporations are selling the idea that consumption is a charitable act, benefitting the personal, social and economic development of Southern workers, while on the ground they are routinely underpaid, underprotected and are denied the freedom to associate. Telling a skewed story – or selling a corporate lie – may indeed be alerting consumers to the fact that products have not magically sprung from the capitalist well. However, if representation encourages a skewed view of the nature of labour relations, this discourages radical challenges to the systemic exploitation that characterises the production of consumer goods. This is not overcoming the fetishism of commodities, but reinforces it by dulling dissent.

Ethical consumption may not be the answer; we cannot trust where products have come from and under what conditions they were made. However, individuals need to cast a critical eye over their consumption practices, recognising that their purchases are political and constitutive of the economy itself. This awareness should be channelled into alternative and more radical forms of participatory politics, rather than relying on ‘voting with one’s wallet’ in a marketplace dominated by corporate narratives and a lack of reliable ethical alternatives. Those with access to resources to create and distribute narratives about how the economy operates can do so on their own terms, promoting their own implicit agenda. We consume and react to these stories in our everyday lives, and if impulse to consume ethically is swept along with corporate narratives of social responsibility, it risks reproducing the very processes it seeks to destabilise.