Chances are, if you shop at major supermarket chains, drink bottled water or slurp coffee from a takeaway cup on the way to work, you’re probably unaware that these products are potentially manufactured in a fashion far from ethical.

Until recently, I failed to see the magnitude of the impact my consumption patterns have on others’ welfare.

Turns out, unethical trade practices, such as poor factory maintenance and overcrowding in the workplace, present a problem of Himalayan proportions.

Thursday October 24, 2013 marked exactly six months since the Rana Plaza complex collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,221 people. Among the international corporations whose clothing products were manufactured in the complex are popular brands ‘United Colours of Benetton’, ‘Zara’ and ‘Primark’. How did we get to a place where a building collapses, more than one thousand people lose their lives with an ensuing international outrage, yet just over three months later only 6 percent of survivors and families of the deceased have received compensation? To make matters worse, we have no idea whether this is going to happen again tomorrow, and yet sadly I suspect that if it does, we will still be outraged…

But that we’ll still want cheap t-shirts.

Can’t we eliminate this ludicrous trade-off between bargain tees and human life? Isn’t there something to be said for ethical consumerism?

Fair trade is a consumer-driven program with the aim of ensuring the world’s most economically-vulnerable receive a fair price for their products. Auret van Heerden, head of the Fair Labor Association, presents the confronting idea that, as indiscriminate consumers, we are effectively “accessories after the fact in human rights abuses.” Fair trade asks questions nobody else will about the welfare of those at the beginning of the supply chain, for products including mobile phones, diamonds, cotton and coffee.

But what motivation could be strong enough to sway us from our deeply-ingrained habit of buying to price?

Everybody knows that being beaten over the head with moral platitudes doesn’t facilitate effective behavioural change. Deep conviction about the need for justice, on the other hand, may prove forceful enough to begin shifting the glacial mass of Australian consumption. In today’s marketplace of ideas, it’s hard to find common ground over what constitutes justice. Religious, philosophical and political traditions vie for the opportunity to make a case. If there is one unifier, it is undoubtedly the intuition that human life is valuable.

I’ve learnt that people only care about fair trade when they begin to empathise with the distant strangers whose only commonality with us is, well, their humanity. Australian moral philosopher and atheist Peter Singer believes that when it comes to helping the poor, it makes no difference whether someone is suffering right before our eyes or on the far side of Africa. Our proximity to poverty makes no moral difference; our common humanity provides strong reasons to assist the poor.

That fair trade is consumer-driven is therefore very significant. Unless a business is driven by very strong social values (other than profit motives), there is no reason for that business to care about fair trade. It is only when consumers care for those at the murky beginnings of the supply chain that the momentum created by corporate greed and lethargic government begins to slow down.

If we don’t change, we endorse the allegation that ‘my convenience trumps another’s safety’— often, as recent history shows, resulting in serious consequences involving life and death.

It’s a morally reprehensible position, irrespective of what you believe.

More information about ethical manufacturing and fair trade can be found through Oxfams Labour Rights campaign and the Brotherhood of St Laurences Ethical Threads publication.

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