Sustainable consumption: the power of consumers
In the context of globalised economic conditions, the drive to maximise profit is leading to a worldwide shift of production to countries with low wages. This often causes economic and social problems. Basically there are two ways of combating this.
The first way is to change the method of
production to one which emphasises sustainability. On a small scale, this is already
happening. There are already many sustainable products in the various sectors, especially
in food production. However, it is apparent that, though some products are ecologically
sustainable, they are lacking the dimension of social sustainability. In general, too,
these are isolated initiatives; there isn't any organisational network. Also, there is no
development of any social opposition, but we will not explore this issue further here.
Eco-fair is itself 'self-managed' by its workers. There is no director and everyone in the firm has his/her own tasks which share out the responsibilities. Income varies from 1.3 to 1.8 times the minimum wage. The profit margin is kept as low as possible and honest trading is the most important thing, not only giving a fair price to producers but also asking a fair price of consumers. To make organic products accessible to a broad base of consumers, prices are kept as low as possible.
A second wholesale organisation offering a full range of products is Natudis. With an annual turnover of eighty million gilder it is by far the largest (De Nieuwe Band's turnover is eight million). Both De Nieuwe Band and the Voedselkooeps (some of which are members of De Nieuwe Band) criticize Natudis for acting like a normal commercial company and taking the lead in the market. Natudis is achieving this by buying the rights to certain products. If they don't manage to buy them, they screen the market for other products which are selling very well, then imitate them. Small producers feel compelled to co-operate with Natudis, otherwise they might get pushed out of the market. Further, Natudis is trying to develop a system of franchising. Allard ten Dam of De Nieuwe Band says, 'The problem with their franchising system is that it is presented as though it's a joint venture of the whole sector in an attempt to satisfy the retailers. However, Natudis's main concern is not for the interests of the sector but the interests of Natudis.'
Meanwhile Natudis has swallowed up some of the sector's big retailers such as Ginsel and VNR (Vereinigde Neerlandse Reformwinkel). As such, we see that sustainable in the sense of 'organic' doesn't necessarily mean sustainable in terms of solidarity and society.3
Through fair trading, more and more people in the Third World can earn a living that will make them independent of economic aid. By fighting for the rights of weak producers in the world market, Fair Trade tries to break down trade barriers and improve both working and social conditions in the Third World. It is a structured way of working, involving setting up long-term relationships. Fair Trade originated from a Catholic youth organisation, Stichting S.O.S: 'Support for Underdeveloped States' (Steun Onderontwikkelde Streken) founded in 1959. Back then, the main concern was to support Third World countries financially. Only later did the principle of fair trade develop, and the name was changed to 'S.O.S. World Trade' (S.O.S.Wereldhandel). Under this name, so-called 'clean' coffee was introduced onto the market and became an established name in the Netherlands. Only in 1994 was the name changed to Fair Trade, to emphasise the special way of relating to producers.4 Fair Trade co-operated closely with its sister organisation, Fair Trade Assistance. This organisation helps local producers through technical support, training to improve production methods, logistics, marketing, organisation, and product development.
Other services include: consultation and mediation in loans applications, and the promotion of environmentally-friendly production methods. Further, Fair Trade Assistance supports organisations which are working towards the abolition of child labour, or are developing a gender policy to give women the chance to improve their situation.5
The 'Fair Trade' brand is sold in about four hundred 'Third World Shops', in certain supermarkets, and in Fair Trade's own shops. The bulk-orders department increasingly delivers coffee to companies and civil authorities. Fair Trade is currently developing initiatives based on socially-aware management principles as well as the 'fair trade' principle. This is also aimed at conventional trade, and the improvement of working conditions for those employed in production for the international market.
|Nils Buis worked as a graphic designer in his company Om tekst en vorm and in the Utrecht housing project de bonte kaketoe. He is a member of Solidair..||Jaap van Leeuwen is a consultant on sustainable technology with ADT (Advies Duurzame Technologie). He is a member of Solidair.|
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