The Ethical Paradox

By Elias Wachenje

More or less everybody knows about the conditions that labourers work in across the globe to provide us with cheap goods. Yet we still buy Nike trainers and Apple iPhones? Oh, the irony! These are the same consumers who drink Fairtrade coffee and make sure everyone knows that they’re vegan because cruelty against animals makes them ‘sick’. However much we like to think we are, very few of us are truly ethical consumers; in fact the two words are almost paradoxical.

Shifting the blame from us as consumers to the producers of the goods we crave, it makes me sad that business and ethics aren’t best friends. The emphasis of many corporations is on making profits and meeting financial targets rather than using their influence and finances to do the right thing and give something back to society. I know it’s idealistic, but hey, I’m only 15 years old.

We then have to ask; is there even such thing as ethical business?

Take Fairtrade for example. We have to take the word of the charity and the brands that use it as assurance that the farmers behind the scenes are getting a ‘fair’ deal. What constitutes a ‘fair’ deal, and what is this in comparison to? We quickly assume that this means farmers are getting the right rates, when in reality it may be that they’re simply getting paid more than before but still a pittance.

Ethics depend on the moral principles of the individual. Let’s say, hypothetically, that there was to be some sort of independent body policing ethical standards. Who is to determine what constitutes something unethical or ethical? Matters of opinion are all subjective. Opinions vary from person to person so would they vary from inspector to inspector in this case?

This makes me wonder about whether there is actually anything we can do to force ethical practice upon the big companies. Government legislation would be very hard to force through and considering that thanks to legal loopholes many of the biggest corporations often don’t actually pay much tax, if any, it seems impractical and unfair on the consumer to try and tax unethical goods.

Rewarding ethical brands seems the better option, but with what and by who? And what’s to stop the powerhouses finding some way to make themselves eligible for these rewards at the cost of those sincerely trying to be ethical.

However, I may be missing the big picture. Ethical business is essential because it’s morally correct. Then again, each person has a different moral compass. Who am I to say that without ethical business more vulnerable people are going to get sucked into the vicious cycle of working for next to nothing in grueling conditions.

And unfortunately, with every extra pair of sneakers, or every smartphone we purchase, we further cement the position of those people, no matter how ethical we believe we are.

In many ways we’re all ethical hypocrites. If all of us did the best we could, within reason, to shop ethically, then that’s the most that anyone can ask for.


I’m writing this article with Nikes on my feet.