Nils Buis / Jaap van Leeuwen

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.
The second way is, as a consumer, to limit as far as possible the negative consequences of non-sustainable production. Sometimes products have to contend with obstructions. The power of such actions becomes apparent in, for example, the boycott of South African products during apartheid in the seventies and eighties, or more recently the boycott of Shell over the Brent Spar issue. Organisations such as the Alternative Consumers' Association (de alternatieve kosumentenbond, AKB) disseminate information both about unethical and damaging products, and also information about positive trends - especially in food production. AKB also publishes the magazine Kritisch Konsumerer (The Critical Consumer), distributes leaflets, has set up a help and information line, and runs a documentation centre. AKB raises consumer-awareness with campaign slogans such as, 'How many miles are you eating?' They try to influence public opinion and change attitudes among the middle classes, the producers, and in the political world. The Kritisch Konsumerer not only describes products but also the companies which produce them. The evaluation of products follows certain criteria, like working conditions and the concept of honest trading. The latter is mainly applied to products from the Third World, from whence quite a lot of food products originate. Max Havelaar and 'fair trade' products receive a lot of attention.1

Between the producer and the consumer stand the retail and wholesale sectors. The number of health-food stores has been increasing recently, especially branches of big chains like Groen Winkel, Ginsel and Natuurwinkel. Also, conventional supermarkets increasingly offer organic products. In bigger towns, food co-operatives (VoedselcoŲperaties) are active. Food co-ops evolved in opposition to the increasing commercialisation of health-food stores and the need to keep organic food affordable so that it is accessible to all. They work with volunteers who maintain relationships with the co-operative's customers so as to eliminate the cut taken by the middle-man. This means that the price can be somewhat controlled, since only a small amount will be added to the retail price. This amount very often goes into a fund which supports other projects. Food co-ops heavily criticise the commercial health-food sector, which emphasises the health benefits of products while ignoring the conditions under which they were produced, and ignoring environmental and political arguments for conscientious consumption.2

In The Netherlands there is a specialist wholesale supplier of organic products called De Nieuwe Band. The company has been in existence since 1983 and is a co-operative of sales people, producers and workers. The basic principle is to market environmentally-friendly products, but also have a concern for the conditions under which they are produced. De Nieuwe Band gives preference to small democratic enterprises in the Netherlands and the Third World. De Nieuwe Band works together with Eco-fair, an organisation active worldwide which guarantees local farmers a good price for their organic products.

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

Fair Trade
Fair Trade, another wholesale organisation, has developed its own way of co-operating with development aid, by actively promoting fair trade with the 'Third World'. The two main objectives are, firstly, to try and convince consumers, companies and authorities of the necessity of fair trade, and secondly, to practise the principles of fair trade. The latter is manifested in the importation of more than 2,500 products from the Third World (consumer goods such as ceramics, jewellery, toys, coffee and tea) bought directly from small enterprises and producers. Fair Trade pays a fair price up front, before selling the product on. Fair Trade believes that 'fair trade' is primarily an attitude. Small producers in the Third World have little or no access to Western markets. They have no hope unless the West gives them an honest chance. Without consumers, there is no trade. It is therefore important to do a lot of consciousness-raising to make consumers aware of fairly-traded products.

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.

1 Nils Buis: 'De biosien', in &, IdeeŽn voor de doe het zelf revolutie no 2 (Utrecht, summer 1997).
2 Ditto
3 Ditto
4 The Fair Trade Organisationen: Jaarverslag (Annual Report, 1999)
5 Fair Trade Assistance (Culemborg, 1999)
6 Fair Trade Organisation, Jaarverslag 1999 (Culemborg, 2000)


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.