From the TUC

The Good Life

20 Nov 2008, By

Here’s my dilemma…

Yesterday we ran out of coffee in the office (well we ran out the proper stuff, I don’t count decaffeinated as coffee in the same way that Kaliber is not a lager), so I was forced to go out to a local coffee shop for my daily fix.

The nearest,and frankly best, coffee shop to the TUC’s Liverpool office is Starbucks. Now, already I know a few of you will be wincing…Starbucks has a pretty rotten reputation, and is the bete-noire of many left of centre activists. They don’t recognise unions; they dragged their feet on introducing fair trade products (which in and of themselves don’t do enough to guarantee workers rights); and for many they symbolise all that is wrong with bland, standardised consumer capitalism. Pretty much wherever you go in the world you’ll find a Starbucks -probably sitting next door to McDonalds, the Gap, Borders and a couple of dozen other global retail monoliths.

But if Starbucks coffee leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, where else can you buy a decent cuppa without parking your ethics at the store door? As far as I know, none of the other local cafes or coffee shops recognise unions; few if any take fair trade seriously; and most probably provide staff terms and conditions that are worse than Starbucks. Is there an ‘ethical’ alternative to Starbucks?

Nicole Schulman designed this poster for the IWW Starbucks Workers Union. Photo from Labourstart Flickr group.

Nicole Schulman designed this poster for the IWW Starbucks Workers Union. Photo from Labourstart Flickr group.

More broadly, is it realistic to only buy from shops – or eat at restaurants – that recognise unions, and have a modicum of ethical scruples? Where would you drink at night – how many bars and pubs in Liverpool or any other major UK city recognise unions – what hotels would you stay in, which airlines could you fly with? And how do you ‘balance’ a business’s ethical score-card? Back in the day the GMB used to keep a ‘fairs list’ of hotels which recognised a union. A 21st century equivalent would be useful, but would recognising a union be our only measure of fairness? What about a company’s environmental record, its supply chain policies, how it deals with the local community? Are these more or less important than union recognition?

Here’s a practical example. Many people would consider Marks and Spencer to be about as decent a high street store as you could wish for – certainly, they claim to lead the way on environmental issues. But they don’t recognise unions, and UNITE would question their commitment to ensuring their supply chains are ethically sound. ASDA is part of the Wal-Mart group – rightly criticised around the world for their stance on labour  and other issues. But in the UK they recognise unions. Does this make them a better or worse ethical bet than Waitrose – part of the John Lewis group – which doesn’t? Much has rightly been made about the human and environmental cost of cheap fashion, but Primark is a member of the Ethical Trading Initiaive, while the companies that own many of the high end fashion brands are not. Does all (or any) of that branded ‘mark-up’ find its way into the pockets of workers at the end of the luxury retailers supply chains, or do they just make more profit than their low-cost peers?

All of the above is a long-winded way of introducing a little experiment that I am going to carry out over the next week. Starting from tomorrow, I am going to log EVERY transaction I make, or interaction I have, as a consumer or service user. I’m then going to try and work out which of these transactions/interactions meet my completely un-scientific ‘ethical’ test. Key elements of this test will be:

  • Does the company/organisation recognise unions?
  • If they don’t have they got a track record of actively trying to prevent workers from organising?
  • Is the company/organisation a member of any ‘ethical’ organisation, or signed up to any relevant ethical, environmental and/or labour standards, and are these standards worth the paper they’re written on?

I warned you it was unscientific! Readers of this blog can help by pointing out any mistakes I make in my balancing up of the score-card. If you know something  I don’t about a company or organisation that I mention, then please  let me know!