'In Conversation with Huw Thomas'

Hi, and welcome to my second ‘in conversation with Huw Thomas’ piece. For those of you who are new here, this is a series of guest blogs I’m going to be writing which take their inspiration from conversations between myself and Huw; Managing Director of PMC. It’s an opportunity to bring together observations of the changing world of retail and business, presented from my vantage point as a creative writer, anthropologist and avid observer of the world around me. This week, I’ve been thinking about consumerism, ethics and activism and how these come together in the ever changing - and ever more fast-paced - world of online shopping, keyboard activism, or clicktivism, and social media. In this changing environment, maintaining ethical codes of practice and embedding ethical principals as core aspects of business branding is incredibly powerful in bringing businesses and consumers together to face, with integrity, the process of globalisation.

As consumers, the way we shop has changed massively over the past decade. The move to online shopping as an everyday part of many Brit’s lives has shaken up both consumption habits and the retail industry itself. Everything is more readily available, faster to find and prices are easier to compare than ever before. Companies are being forced away from face-to-face service and stock management toward a focus on logistics, parcel management and delivery speeds. It is well documented that this transition has both positive and negative consequences. It’s not just online shopping that’s shaking us up either. As far back as the introduction of debit and credit cards, to now, with Amazon 1-click, Apple Pay and contactless cards, the tactile connection between the money we earn and the products we buy is altering.

Within this world of cheaper products, global goods and ever growing competition, the ethical environment within which we exist, as consumers, is also changing. This is especially the case in the realm of production. We shop in a global market place. Trade deals and the opening up of the labour market in the Third World provide opportunities for the mass production of goods. With this, come opportunities for the exploitation of workers and the negation of worker’s rights and health & safety regulations.

The collapse, in April 2013, of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh brought mass media attention to unethical activity regarding the treatment of workers in the supply chain of cheap clothing stores, in this case, namely Primark. Later that same year, clashes between riot police and striking garment factory workers in Cambodia garnered media attention and an ethical call to action which spread across the world. People power – crucially here, a phenomenon intricately entwined with consumer power – began to rally to hold these clothing chains to account. Slowly but surely, action from brands such as Primark to clean up the global clothing supply chain is filtering down and ensuring safe working conditions and fair pay for some of the most exploited members of the global community.

This is not just the case in the fashion industry. Greenpeace released a report in 2006 into the use of human labour in the South American Soya industry; the growing problem with debt bondage and environmental destruction inherent in an industry which is booming due to demand for livestock feed in Europe and the US.

If consumption habits, and the ethical challenges they bring, are changing, where does this leave activism? How do we harness people power, or consumer power, in this environment? Business is no stranger to this kind of interaction. In a very tactile way, the boycott of South African goods, led by the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which spanned the second half of the 20th century in the UK, placed socio-political action in the hands of the consumer.

Similarly, modern technology paves the way for a new kind of social activism; clicktivism. Digital and social media is used to support causes and affect change through online petition websites (such as Avaaz and 38 Degrees) as well as promoting alternative options to conscious consumers. This is a much less physical but much more digital savvy way of engaging with the changing ethical environment.

The rise of Fairtrade goods and organic produce demonstrates this growing cross-over between values and consumption. Similarly, the call for companies to demonstrate and uphold policies of integration, diversity and fair working conditions contribute to an awakening of activism in the realm of business.

It may be fair to suggest that engaging digitally actually negates ‘real world’ action against injustice but I believe it’s deeper than that. The world is changing and new models for our everyday activities, shopping included, need to embrace ethical values. Moreover, there is value for businesses in engaging with this. This could take many forms. PMC, for example, are experts at eating for charity; selling snacks and drinks in the staff canteen, the income from which goes directly to charity. PMC also have strong ties to Adoption UK and The Akshar Trust in Vadodara, India. In-house fundraising and company donations have helped directly with Adoption UK’s work with children in Britain and to support hearing impaired children develop and grow in India.

Consumers hold the power to make or break retailers and the world is becoming ever more integrated. In this environment, maintaining ethical codes of practice and embedding ethical principals as core aspects of business branding becomes incredibly important in maintaining the appeal of retailers to ethically conscious consumers. As technological development shows no sign of slowing down, promoting human rights through ethical production & consumption habits is one way to engage with consumers and face, with integrity, the process of globalisation.

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