Can consumers buy a fairer world? An interview with Wouter Mensink

24 May 2016

The modern consumer is faced with a dizzying amount of choice when it comes to certifications and labels. The Ecolabel Index , the largest global directory of ecolabels, currently lists 462 ecolabels in 199 countries. It would seem we have more power than ever before when it comes to shopping consciously. But how fair and transparent are these labels? Do they really help food workers and the environment, or is just good marketing? Do consumers know what these certifications and labels actually mean?

Wouter Mensink is a Dutch philosopher, writer and researcher who recently published the book ‘Kun je een betere wereld kopen? De consument en het fairtrade-complex’ (Can you buy a better world? The consumer and the fair trade complex), which was nominated for the Socrates Wisselbeker 2016, the annual prize for the ‘the most urgent, original and stimulating Dutch-language philosophy book’. In this book, Mensink questions the power of consumerism to transform the food system and pleads for collective action within communities. In this interview with Richard Glass, he talks about the certifications maze, the myth of consumer sovereignty and how philosophy can help us come up with better solutions.

You have a degree in philosophy and your PhD thesis was on the relationship between patients and technology, what made you write about fair trade, certifications and labels?
Basically, it was through the Movies that Matter festival, which has a lot of documentaries about social issues? I saw a lot of documentaries about fair trade and that’s what made me think about it.

Which of the documentaries influenced you the most and what was the message you took away from them?
I started with documentaries that say a lot about how the supply chain works, so how a product goes through the chain and ends up with a consumer in the West. There were some documentaries about this, but other documentaries took a different approach not only discussing the Westerner as a consumer, but also trying to see if there are different ways of organising.

For example, ‘Blood in the mobile’ is about a guy who wanted to find out if there was ‘blood’ involved in making his Nokia phone. He first goes to Nokia, but they are not able to tell him. So, he goes to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to the mines where the minerals in his handset originate from, to see if he can figure out himself, but he doesn’t. It’s a very insightful thing to show how complicated this mess is and shows, in particular, that you are in no position to do this as an individual consumer.

So supply chains are not transparent?
That’s right.

Did any of these documentaries propose a viable solution to the current unregulated, neoliberal model?
There’s one documentary that actually discusses a lot of alternatives. It’s called ‘My Cultural Divide’ and it questions whether ethical consuming actually does anything good for the workers behind the machines, focusing on Bangladesh.

There is also another documentary called ‘We Want to be Sweat Free’ and it talks about the ‘No Sweat campaign’ in the United States, where a group of students at the University of Montana figure out that their University clothing is made by Nike in sweatshops. They go to the board of the University and try to pressure them to sign onto the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP), which would ensure that workers making their collegiate clothing were given basic human rights. Even though the documentary is fairly basic, it does show how you can be involved with these types of topics. Not necessarily as a consumer, but by joining together and putting pressure on a governing body to convince them that the way the system works now is not working. The model that they show in this documentary is quite nice. What is quite interesting with this ‘No Sweat’ case is that a lot of university campuses decided to take part too and it became one of the biggest campaigns with respect to sweatshops.

There are so many certifications now vying for the consumer dollar, such as Fairtrade and the Rainforest Alliance. How can anyone know what is actually green washing/good marketing or what is something positive?
That is illustrated I think by the documentary about the Nokia phone. You could do it, but you’d probably need to become a full-time consumer and spend 40 hours per week to try and figure out all this stuff. For example if you look at the difference between Utz and Fairtrade and the standards they have you can probably go to the website, and there are many articles discussing the two certifications, and you could decide that one is better than the other, but it would take you a ridiculous amount of time.

But if it’s so difficult for anyone to gauge this, can you actually trust any certifications or is it the better of two evils?
Probably the latter. You can’t fundamentally trust certifications. It has turned out there are issues with pretty much every certification. A lot of people would then just say, so it doesn’t make any difference and then I might as well just buy the cheapest. But that’s not really an answer either. I think some certifications are trying to do a decent job. Fundamentally, you can’t trust many labels but that doesn’t mean you should completely ignore the whole thing. It’s not a black-and-white issue.

Looking at the rise in popularity of certain fair trade products, such as coffee and chocolate, are those examples of consumer sovereignty winning or is consumer sovereignty a complete myth?
I think the idea of consumer sovereignty is one of the biggest problems. My book tries to get people to think about this: what does consumer sovereignty mean? The notion of consumer sovereignty is a problem. It is flawed, but I think a lot of effort is put into trying to make people believe that it does work this way. We have had consumer programmes on television and consumer organisations, like the Consumentenbond (Consumers’ Association), for many decades. There is this ‘the customer is king slogan’, which is deeply ingrained in our systems. We have labels, we have certifications, and we have governmental websites that help us to make decisions. What I’m trying to do is to discuss the consumer as a construct, to show how the idea of an autonomous consumer is constructed by governments and companies. What happens if you realise this, that it is a construct and that maybe this autonomy, the free market and consumption are not as obvious as they are made out to be.

In your book you make reference to a German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and the need for people to organise as groups within societies or as collectives. Could you clarify why you think that’s important?
That idea stems from John Dewey, an American pragmatist. He comes up with this idea, which he calls ‘the public’, in a book he wrote in 1927 called ‘The Public and its Problems’. What he basically says is that if you have a group of people that are struggling with the consequences of particular issues, they will often organise. And he gives all sorts of examples and he basically says when we think of politics we should not start thinking from our established political institutions, but we should take issues that the public raise seriously. This is a good idea. I don’t think we can rely on building a political system entirely around these ‘publics’. We need to have some basic institutions.

Peter Sloterdijk is a very conservative thinker, and I disagree with many if not most of his views, but one of the nice things that he tries to point out is how collectives organise within certain spaces and he puts this concept of ‘space’ into the discussion; a pretty useful albeit pretty basic idea. One of the nice things is that if you look at how these publics, which Dewey talks about, organise is that you will often see that they organise around a particular space. This is also something you’ve talked about in previous interviews, like the case of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida. If you talk about cooperatives in coffee plantations, it’s really important to be aware that this is a group of people who form a collective because they deal with the consequences of a particular social problem, but they do it in a particular area or space. If you start thinking about those basic parameters, you move from a system in which an individual is supposed to make moral decisions, maybe helped by these consumer programmes and certificates and labels, to thinking about how our morality is formed by a group of people forming a collective within a certain space.

The example I gave about students who organise on their campus is a nice example. What they’re saying is that in this space, which is our campus, we don’t want to have to choose between good and bad products. So basically they’re saying we want our campus to be an ethical space and this idea of ethical space is an interesting one I think, because you can apply it to many different types of initiatives. Take, for example, this old initiative that we have had in the Netherlands since the 60s and 70s of wereldwinkels (world shops). You could also regard those as ethical spaces. The idea basically is that once you enter this space, this is like a safe space where we guarantee that you don’t need to take the consumer role that you normally have to take. Once you enter the space you don’t need necessarily to be a consumer that is in charge of making decisions. We will help you to make these decisions.

So these spaces could be anything, like workplaces or universities?
Yes. They can even be cities. You can go a lot deeper with these spaces. There’s this idea of ‘Fair Trade towns’. Amsterdam is now a Fair Trade Town and The Hague. There are a few hundred around the world. The idea is that fair trade is put on the agenda as a fundamental topic of discussion, as a core value for the city. This obviously does not mean that everyone in that city suddenly has this mindset. It’s a different way of talking to people; not merely as consumers, but also as inhabitants of the city. You can invite people to join in the discussion, to involve them in terms of setting priorities. What should be on our agenda? What should be our priorities? It’s an entirely different way of involving people. You don’t necessarily need to involve people in their role as consumers. You can involve them in many different ways. They could be involved, like the case of the University, as activists. This is what I tried to do with the book: to show people that this idea of the consumer is a construct. You are not the autonomous free consumer that you are made out to be and if you realise this you can also decide to take on other roles.

This is one of the things I talk about in the book. We have made fair trade and sustainability into an individual problem and I think we should make it into a public problem. One of the ways of making it into a public problem is the notion of the public as activist groups that basically put pressure on governing bodies. The other idea is more basic, which is just the idea of having a public debate or discussion. I think we could do much better with public debate than we currently have. One of the main things is to address the system as a whole. The public debate shouldn’t be about which label is better than the other label, but we should talk about the labelling system in itself. Is this the best way? I don’t believe in putting the blame pointing the finger at, for example, Max Havelaar, and saying we’ve heard that workers are still doing badly at that cooperative so you are doing a bad job. We should rather see this problem is much broader. Let’s look at the root causes of what’s causing unsustainability. Inevitably you will find the system as a whole is unsustainable and needs to be changed. However, at the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, for example, there is no discussion at all whether the system as a whole is sustainable. This is just a given.

The Belgian Psychologist Paul Verhaege has said: ‘A neoliberal meritocracy would have us believe that success depends on individual effort and talents’. Do you think collectives can take root in the current neoliberal individualist political climate?
There are historical examples in which this has worked, so yes I think it can work. But it’s pretty hard. You’re right that this idea of individualism and competitiveness and meritocracy goes really deep and if you want to fundamentally challenge the idea that’s not going to happen from one day to the next. That’s a pretty fundamental shift. Sometimes these paradigms shifts can happen. For example, it’s really hard to imagine now that 20 years ago we could smoke on aeroplanes. I sometimes ask people in talks: ‘Don’t you think it’s weird that you go to shops where you have a product on the shelves that’s slave free and right next to it there’s a product that is made by slaves. That’s really weird. You’d like to think that in 20 years we will look back on that and say God that was awful. I think it is possible to convince people that the system we have is crazy.

What do you want to achieve with the book?
I want people to start thinking about what it means to be a consumer, also to start thinking outside of the system and to start thinking about the system as a whole. If I’m not going to be involved as a consumer, but I still think I’m part of the system, what other roles can I take?

Visit Wouter Mensink’s website to find out more about his work.