Zoned outrage

Observations on ethical shopping

It sounds like a joke out of Smack the Pony - a woman, nine months pregnant, goes into labour at work, and her employer won't let her go home until she's spent an hour and a half filling in forms. Accordingly, she gives birth in the street outside. Only this isn't a hilarious sketch show, the employer isn't Anna Wintour, high fashion is not involved, and the baby dies. This is one of the more savage stories about working conditions in Indian factories that supply retailers such as Gap, though we play into high-street hands when we fall back on the fail-safe anti-globalisation rhetoric of zoning our outrage at one company over another.

The Guardian's recent investigation concentrated on one of India's largest clothing manufacturers, Gokaldas Export, which supplies clothes to M&S, Mothercare and H&M. Typical wages, at £1.13 a day, are so low that the workers often rely on state food aid. But here we run into the other cognitive pitfall that acts like a protective shield for businesses: seemingly contradictory, but existing quite happily alongside, is the idea that they're all the same, so there's very little we consumers can do about it, unless we want to run about naked. And the cyclists have already done naked.

In every industry, there is a bête noire. In the UK, campaigners point to Tesco as the most violent bully of agriculture, which is why Tesco was the first, last month, to claim a moral victory by raising the price of chicken in response to Asda's more usual manoeuvre of slashing theirs. There is something to be said for focus - when one company is singled out for criticism, it shapes up pretty fast.

But these changes are, for the most part, pretty cosmetic: companies can get a long way up the ethical hierarchy with fairly flimsy policies and an awful lot of noise. M&S has the best reputation of any British high-street retailer, and yet still uses Gokaldas; Hennes has won plaudits for its environmental policies (it aims to sell one million certified organic items by the end of 2007), but this is the worst kind of ideological pick'n'mix, waving baubles at the green lobby while continuing to use labour so poorly paid that it's at the point of starvation.

Choosing one high-street chain over another for special disapprobation serves one crucial purpose, to which the company itself is largely irrelevant: it makes us feel as though we've done something, we've made an ethical decision and stuck by it - at considerable khaki-cargo-pant-sacrifice to ourselves! We haven't just floated along the high street buying stuff at random, like so much credit-carded flotsam. We don't have to build on this block, however, because upon closer examination, all companies are as bad as each other; you'll make a fool of yourself swimming against a tide as strong as this. This is the attitude that gives companies just the boost they need to behave with total arrogance and disregard

We've been trying these jerky, intellectually inchoate boycotts for nearly two decades now, and they don't make any difference to working conditions. The only way to shop is to make an honest appraisal of how much a thing is worth, which we can all do, with simple reference to how much it used to cost. If it costs a lot less, don't buy it. Someone is making up that shortfall, and it's probably not the managing director.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Why Boris and London deserve each other