I’m tired of listening to the same old institutionalised, paternalistic rhetoric about sustainable development and global inequality. I’ve heard it all before.
But what IS encouraging and refreshing are the citizen-led initiatives, which put pressure on businesses, governments and institutions to change unethical practices or provide opportunities for ordinary people to help reduce economic exploitation for themselves… So today I’m counting down my top 5 favourite initiatives which have emerged or grown in popularity over the last 10-20 years, where people have not waited for top-down solutions and have instead taken matters into their own hands.
No. 5 – Fair Trade Products
The concept of fair trade isn’t recent and has been in practice since the 1940’s. For several decades fair trade was mostly limited to hand-made goods purchased directly from poor communities in Asia, Africa and Latin America where they were sold to a niche market of ethical consumers in ‘Fair Trade Shops’.
The success of this business and the economic benefits it brought to producers led to the development of global fair trade networks in the late 1980’s. As awareness of fair trade grew so did the demand for fair trade products. Fair Trade soon became recognised as a mark of decency adding ‘feel good’ value to imported goods which customers were willing to pay for.
Over the last 20 years the range of fair trade products has diversified as more companies invest in fair trade, not just because it’s ethical, but because it makes business sense to. Consumers are now familiar with the concept of fair trade and leading manufacturers of coffee, tea, cocoa, nuts, wine and other commodity products can’t afford to miss the opportunity to satisfy the ethical portion of their customers by offering fair trade products. The diverse range of fair trade products available in all mainstream supermarkets today is evidence of the success of this simple business initiative which offers ordinary consumers a convenient way to contribute to global fair trade.
No. 4 – Campaigning for fairer wage ratios
Both Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron have proposed an enforced wage ratio of 20:1 in the public sector and for government contract projects. The UK Green Party have adopted a 10:1 maximum wage ratio as part of their official party policy, and Switzerland held a referendum on the proposal for a 12:1 wage ratio in 2013, which was unsuccessful.
While it’s great that there has been political debate on the subject, it hasn’t actually produced much in the way of results, which is why I’m more interested in initiatives that tackle the issue of CEO wages, the establishment of wage standard certifications, and companies that lead by example with equitable internal wage ratios.
What organisations like Oxfam and The Equality Trust did when they published their reports in 2014 and 2017 exposing the extravagant inequalities in wage ratios amongst FTSE 100 CEO’s, was to create a public outrage. The shocking extent to which wage inequality thrives right under our noses is hard to ignore once seen. In cases like this the simple act of public awareness is a powerful strategy in changing public opinion and speeding up the call for greater transparency.
In tandem with this approach initiatives like Canada’s Wagemark Foundation are working to grow the international certification known as the Wagemark Standard. Forward thinking companies achieving Wagemark Certification must maintain a wage ratio of 8:1 or less, to be listed on the Wagemark Global Registry. The benefits to these businesses are once again based on the growing consumer demand for ethical practices.
Some shining examples of companies with wage ratios maximums of 5:1 are the Mondragon Corporation, a federation of manufacturing worker’s co-operatives based in Spain’s Basque region, American ice cream makers Ben and Jerry’s, investment company Shaftesbury, Challenger Bank Shawbrook and real estate investment trust (REIT) Londonmetric Property.
No. 3 – Divestment
I think it’s fair to say that consumer confidence in the banking and finance sector has taken a nose dive since the 2008 financial crisis and as a result educated investors have been forced to cast a more cautious eye over how their investments and retirement funds are managed. Combine this with the scientific consensus indicating that human created C02 emissions are leading to climate change. All of a sudden, the fossil fuel industry along with banks and finance, are the Big Bad Wolves dressed up as grandma, while the ethical consumer is left with the sinking feeling of Little Red Riding Hood holding the basket of goodies for the wolf to feast on.
Fortunately not all banks and pension funds are as unethical as each other and consumers have a choice.
The last 10 – 20 years have seen the emergence of the “Good Money” sector which allows consumers to invest in their values. Tools such as the FTSE4Good UK Index allow pension funds to manage investments based on a range of ethical criteria which can be tailored to the individual consumers’ values. While the ethical objectives of the Good Money sector are not necessarily aimed directly at making the economy serve people, the existence of ethical pension funds offer consumers the chance to take back their economic rights and invest them more ethically.
No. 2 – The Fair Tax Mark
Launched in 2014 the Fair Tax Mark hits tax-avoiding companies where it hurts. Put simply the Fair Tax Mark is a badge of honour that companies can wear proudly when they pay the right amount of corporation tax at the right time in the right place.
According to a Trades Union Council estimation of the UK’s Tax Gap, around 12 billion is lost each year through corporate tax avoidance. The Fair Tax Mark has shown us that many businesses are happy to pay their fair share of tax and with 34% of British consumers wanting to boycott tax avoiders it makes sense for these businesses to let their customers know who they can trust when it comes to paying their fair share of tax. Once again businesses are able to get an ethical edge over less scrupulous tax payers, leaving them exposed as the tax dodgers that they are.
And that brings me to my final and favourite initiative of all…
No. 1 – Introducing pluralism into economics teaching
There’s nothing like straight forward direct action, so when a group of economics students were disillusioned and unsatisfied with the explanations offered by their economic courses following the 2008 financial crisis, they decided to take matters into their own hands and make up for the deficiencies in their existing curriculum by organising their own lectures.
Good education is key for combating economic inequality in the long term. So much of politics is economy-driven. It’s essential that we have well-equipped, skilled drivers at the wheel. Current economics teaching, which is dominated by neoclassical economics, does little to help this. Neoclassical economics remains anchored in its liberal individualist origins devoid of many critical social considerations and hasn’t really changed much over the past 100 years. When taught in isolation, neoclassical economics leaves graduates ill-equipped for the challenges and applications that exist in our rapidly changing modern world. We wouldn’t send our junior doctors out to practice medicine today with bleeding dishes and surgical saws, so why do we let economists practice with primitive tools?
Groups such as Manchester University’s Post Crash Economics Society are campaigning to introduce pluralism into the mainstream economics teaching. Pluralism calls for the inclusion of a variety of economic principles and perspectives which go beyond the standard economics curricula. This campaign is run principally through monitoring and reporting on the failings of the university’s department, as well as organising regular events. These events include lectures, workshops and panels and seek to connect with like-minded groups (and those who are unfamiliar with the movement) by creating an outward looking and inclusive environment that is sceptical of the deeply entrenched status quo.
The initiatives I’ve listed here my personal favourites and by no means conclusive. Do you agree with my list? What are your favourites?