Go Ahead, Make My Day
Ever since I wrote a book about nasty multinationals and the activists who bash them, I started getting the question: "So Miss No Logo, where do you shop?"
Those are the aggressive people. The nice ones ask, "Where should I shop?" Sometimes, they send e-mails requesting annotated lists of "good corporations." Last week, an Irish radio interviewer asked me, on air, for suggestions of ethical gifts his listeners could give their children.
I don't know how I became a professional ethical shopper, and I'm not very good at it. But I can sympathize with the dilemma.
The newspapers are scattered with stories about factory fires in Bangladesh and sweatshop-stained children's toys imported from China. Last week, a coalition of labour and human-rights groups announced that, despite encouragement from the Department of Foreign Affairs to restrict trade with the brutal dictatorship in Myanmar, Canadian retailers have actually increased their imports from that country -- by 170 per cent since last year.
But it's tough to turn this information into shopping advice. The more you know about how consumer goods are produced, the harder it becomes to offer practical dos and don'ts. I usually give long-winded answers about how social change happens only through sustained political struggle. About how workers in lousy factories need unions, not guilty shoppers boycotting silently.
I might mention how nearly all the major brands produce at least some of their products in subcontracted, low-wage factories in repressive countries. And besides, the laws of corporate disclosure don't even require companies to tell us how many people they employ in each country, never mind opening their factories to environmental and labour audits.
Sometimes, I get really riled up and say, "We need to reclaim our identities as citizens, not just as shoppers!" That's when the people asking for advice nod and say, "What about Banana Republic? Is Banana Republic okay?"
If I liked crafts more, it would be easy. Then I could say: "Macrame! Give the children some Macrame!" But, alas, I hate macrame, and so do your children. Unless it's a $120 macrame poncho from Urban Outfitters, made in China.
So I've decided to embrace the holiday spirit. My new answer? Shop like crazy. It's all good. Or at least, surveying the latest batch of corporate public relations, that's the way it seems.
Bill Gates has taken to berating gatherings of business leaders as if he were the head of Oxfam. "I mean, do people have a clear view of what it means to live on $1 a day?" British Petroleum has just renamed itself Beyond Petroleum (which, according to a report by U.S. environmental watchdog Corporate Watch, is Beyond Preposterous). And Shell Oil ads feature a fresh-faced environmentalist in a zodiac boat that looks very Greenpeace.
All this might have something to do with a new report published by Edelson Public Relations. The international study shows that NGOs such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International enjoy roughly twice the public confidence as corporations such as Ford and Microsoft.
Clearly, the only solution is for multinationals to rebrand themselves as NGOs. Not only have they heard their critics, they are their critics. It's all about knowing your market and its "aspirational agenda."
In Better Happy Than Rich?, market researcher Michael Adams dices up the nation into 13 "social values tribes." There's even a market demographic for corporate-bashers: "the New Aquarians."
So get oriented for the new year: Corporations are anti-corporate protesters. Anti-market protesters are a market niche. And, best, shopping can save the world.
This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.