Trying hard to be good

Choosing “fair trade” or “organic” comes at a hefty price, far out of the reach of the masses consuming “made in China”. If you want to enjoy Euro-certified “Fair Trade” products in South Africa, you cannot afford to think about the routes travelled by those products to reach you.

Taking a closer look at where the things we consume come from and the power-relations embedded within them involves navigating a slippery slope. As we start delving into the devilish detail, the inevitable can of worms is laid bare.

Starting with “fair trade” and “organic”, whether veggies or India-sourced organic cotton-wear bought at a Proudly South African store, navigating the routes and roots of what we consume, whether it’s what we eat, wear, commute in, or simply walking-the-talk of leaving behind a light footprint, is enough to get our knickers in a knot for those who aspire to being socially and environmentally responsible consumers.

Continuing the journey through “ethical” and “humane” to “community trade” can easily lead down the path of green-wash hogwash, erasing poor working conditions in modern-day, slave-labour sweatshops, the use of child labour, and the concomitant use of harmful petro-chemicals with “Community Trade” ingredients in premium-cost cosmetic products, begging questions about the social and environmental costs of our feel-good items.

I use a shampoo called Organics.
Its ingredients listing reveals nothing organic about Organics (not mentioning the claim of containing clove oil, prominently displayed on its green-wash packaging, nowhere on the ingredients listing).

Green-wash saturated, when buying Olive Glossing shampoo from a global company (owned by a French multinational) that has put environmental awareness and “community trade” on the discursive map of the conscious global shopper. The Olive Glossing shampoo contains “Community Trade” olive oil, Italy-sourced, United Kingdom-produced and imported to South Africa, where I buy it in an air-conditioned mall. I won’t mention the petro-chemicals listed. My footprint seems to get murkier, dirtier as my hair gets glossier, cleaner.

If you can afford it, “Fair Trade” might be your label of choice. After all, fair trade is a noble objective worthy of support. The Oakhurst Kwikspar in Hout Bay offers “Fair Trade” coffee at more than R80 for 250g (before the rand’s tumble). Thrupps in Illovo could probably make a similar offering. But don’t think about the roots and routes of your “Fair Trade” coffee, or your aromatic roast might leave a bitter, carbon-polluted aftertaste.

While the concept encompasses ethical business practice, revenues reaching workers paid fairly and the like, there is little said about the high costs to a European source, for certification and labelling, while carbon miles travelled are likely to erase other benefits.

Afrisco certification, a South African initiative, where workers benefit from the sale of their organic produce, sounds good. It makes sense to support quality coffee grown on the African continent.

Ethiopia and Kenya produce premium quality coffee beans, arguably more full-bodied than their Latin and Central American or European cousins.

During recent work assignments in Mozambique and Malawi, I got hooked on Malawian Mzuzu coffee. Through working with a youth and child-centred NGO, I discovered that many Malawian tea and coffee estates use child labour.

According to the NGO, there is limited awareness of the illegality of child labour in Malawi. Added to this lack of awareness, the effects of extreme weather conditions on subsistence-farming communities, the mammoth effects of HIV/Aids on individual households’ coping mechanisms, including Aids orphans maintaining households and the reality of children camping out at the gates of coffee and tea estates, begging for work is not surprising.

In making responsible choices about what we consume how do we ethically respond to the possible use of illegal child labour on estates producing organic crops?

I’ve had a passionate affair with home-brewed African coffee for a while now, my most ardent being with Ethiopian dark roasts. Recently, chocolaty Malawian beans, mixed with a dash of Italian espresso, have added spice. I don’t have to think too hard about the routes travelled for my morning homebrew to reach me. And the roots, well, they are African. Instead, I can luxuriate in the aroma and taste, knowing I’m consuming organic, African.

Instead of mapping (carbon) routes, my newfound awareness means I navigate the slippery slopes of whether children were employed on the estates, whether they were physically abused while employed, all the while aware of the survival dilemmas of children seeking work.

A child and youth toll-free helpline in Malawi receives regular reports of child labour and child abuse from coffee and tea-growing regions. Help-line counsellors say it is not unusual for children to land up in chattel relationships with their employers on some plantations.

But before I go into free-fall, I break to indulge my current love; a deep, dark, full-bodied organic Kenyan roast—strong and black. Just the way I like it.

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