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Photo Gallery: Saving the World through Ethical Consumerism

Foto: JUSTIN SULLIVAN/ AFP

Buying Better The Impossible Challenge of Ethical Shopping

Many consumers are intimidated by calls to buy smartly and sustainably. Now a handful of activists and big companies are trying to make ethical purchasing go mainstream -- but they'll have to change the way we think.

One day, Claudia Langer found herself in the midst of a spending spree. Like a former smoker lighting up after a long break, she bought out half a toy store -- garish plastic toys, Lego bricks, Barbie dolls. For the past two years, she had been making considered, exceptionally sensible and sustainable consumer choices. She hadn't flown in a plane, and she had only purchased wooden, eco-friendly toys. "Joyless, colorless stuff that was totally uninspiring," she says today.

Langer is the founder of a romantically named online portal for ethical consumerism called Utopia. She had told her customers they could help save the planet with their consumer choices, but that day in the toy store, frustration set in and triggered a crisis of confidence. "For years I'd been telling myself that sacrificing exotic travel made me happy," she says. "But it wasn't true. In fact I'm energized by trips abroad, and it wasn't as if my sacrifice had any effect on climate change."

Langer is furiously chopping fruit and texting as she talks in the conference room at the Utopia office in Munich. She's an impatient woman, energetic even in her disappointment. At times, her resentment is almost comical -- like when she vents her exasperation with the Volkswagen Passat BlueMotion she bought. "What a downer," she says. "The biggest rip-off of my life."

She'd spent weeks researching cars, determined to make the right ethical choice. It ended up being a traumatic experience. "I deliberately bought the car with the lowest carbon emissions in its category, but I was duped by the advertising." Buying it was an act of sheer self-denial, she says now, and a total mistake. "My children laughed at me. The second you pick up a bit of speed, you start guzzling gas."

Anyone who has ever tried making environmentally friendly or socially and politically responsible consumer choices knows how tempting is can be to eat, buy and waste whatever you'd like or to buy whatever is cheapest. It can be freeing to do so without a guilty conscience, without feeling like you are destroying the planet, without worrying about the consequences.

And that day in the toy store, Claudia Langer wasn't just giving in to a whim. She was admitting defeat, turning her back on the idea that ethical consumerism alone could change the world and that her business could revolutionize Germans' consumer behavior.

Waiting for Critical Mass

It's not that Utopia wasn't a success: The website was admired and practical, and had a steadily growing consumer base, but Langer thought it was all taking much too long. She felt like she was preaching to the converted, the 15 percent of the population who didn't need to be convinced to buy ethically. She wanted to reach the mainstream, but the mainstream wasn't interested.

"My utopian vision was that consumer pressure on businesses and corporate pressure on politics could change the world," says Langer. "But as long as there isn't a critical mass of consumers harnessing their power, we won't be in a position to create a better future for our children."

Her message may be bleak, but she's not alone in her doubts. Many other Germans want to be responsible consumers, but have also come to the realization that saving the planet through purchasing choices is actually a lot of work. "Consumers aren't good allies either for industry or politics," says Langer. "They're hypocrites, always keen to point the finger of blame and pass the buck whenever it's time to take responsibility themselves."

Claudia Langer has by no means given up on conscientious consumerism. But now and then she treats herself to a long-haul flight or enjoys a snack without knowing its ethical credentials. She's no longer quite as strict as she used to be. But is that acceptable, given the stakes?

Even before consumers can start making ethically informed choices, hundreds of decisions have to be made in company headquarters, factories, marketing departments, supply chains and on the part of subcontractors. The decisions must be made by managers, inspectors and companies alike -- and untangling them can be nearly impossible.

Keal Leangky, Cambodia

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a dirt road runs through the western part of the city, where industry gives way to rice paddies. Twenty-one-year-old Keal Leangky, a seamstress, is sitting in a hut outside the factory where she worked for two years, dressed in a red t-shirt and blue harem pants. "I should never have eaten that mango," she says.

A few months ago, in the middle of the rainy season, Leangky was nearing the end of her afternoon shift when she was overcome with hunger. She took a mango out of her bag and began to eat it. "The foreman, who was Chinese, saw me and started yelling at me. He went and fetched a translator who told me I had to stop eating."

Colleagues came over to help her. Leangky was two months pregnant and she'd always met her quotas, they argued, and she couldn't be treated like that. The foreman should apologize, or all 15 of them would lay down their tools.

Keal Leangky and her team are now all out of work. "They threw us all out," says her friend Chorn Rasy. They were paid for the work they'd done -- Keal Leangky got $35 -- but 15 garment workers with CWKH Garment Cambodia Ltd., a T-shirt factory with about 400 employees, ended up getting fired.

In the following weeks and months, more and more of the colleagues who rallied in support of Leangky were also fired, bringing the total number of people who lost their jobs over the incident to around 200. They protested as best they could, through legal and symbolic means: Since getting sacked, Leangky and her colleagues often trek from their ramshackle homes to the factory, making their way through mountains of garbage to arrive at the same time they used to start work. They sometimes make the trip every day of the week, wearing their old work passes round their necks. They want their jobs back -- but they're not allowed into the building. The gates to the factory remain closed.

"We lodged a complaint with the court of arbitration," says Leangky. "But we don't stand a chance. They say our strike was illegal and we need to look for new jobs. Now our experience is worthless. Our next wages will be entry-level."

A Turning Point

In Cambodia, one of the most productive of the global textile industry's low-cost hubs, entry-level translates to $100 a month for a six-day work week and shifts that are up to 12 hours long.

Stories like these have shaken consumers. Two years ago, on April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza complex collapsed in Savar, Bangladesh . Some 3,000 garment workers were in the building at the time, and the disaster claimed 1,134 lives. Images of the Savar collapse are now seared into the collective memory -- and in consumers' guilty consciences.

But conditions have not improved. Textiles manufacturers continue to invest in sites where there is "no rule of law but extreme poverty and an investor-friendly government," explains labor lawyer David Welsh, who works for the US NGO Solidarity Center in Phnom Penh. "But then they often act as if they're only in these countries in order to improve social conditions there."

Consumers, politicians and members of the textiles industry were shocked by what happened at Rana Plaza. The disaster made T-shirt production a top agenda point in the industry and among politicians. Gerd Müller, German Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, is now pushing for what he calls a "Textile Alliance" against exploitation. It was a turning point for the issue of ethical consumption.

Hans-Otto Schrader, Hamburg

In Germany, over 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles) west of Rana Plaza, Hans-Otto Schrader, CEO of the Otto Group, a mail-order giant and one of the world's largest e-commerce sites, has a surprising confession to make. He's just been talking about a tree project his company is organizing in Africa and describing the Otto Group's tradition of social conscience. He has personally become increasingly aware of sustainability issues, he says, and explains the horror he felt when a toy factory went up in flames in Thailand in 1987. His message: The Otto Group has an exemplary social and environmental record.

His claims are believable, but then he makes a disarmingly honest statement. Asked why Otto doesn't make this record part of its image, he says, "We need to be careful, so we purposely keep it out of our communications strategy."

He is worried about the power of the consumer and the Internet -- the combined clout of buyers and the media. "Our belief is that you won't necessarily be rewarded by customers and markets just because you're making more of an effort than your competitors," he says. "But you will be punished if you make a mistake."

Schrader goes so far as to refer to a "culture of outrage" surrounding the issue of ethical consumerism. "If you stick your neck out too far and someone finds out your track record is less than pristine, you'll end up a target of outrage that can destroy everything you've built up in one fell swoop."

It sounds defeatist, especially given Otto's need for an image upgrade. Not only is the company seen as dowdy, it is also being cornered by Amazon. But it's true that the media and customers are especially quick to blame supposed "good guys" for any breaches of ethical codes -- as drugstore chain dm, Germany's most popular retailer, can attest to. Shortly before Christmas, a blogger found out that the company was no longer solely manufacturing its cloth bags in a factory in Augsburg, Germany, that hires the long-term unemployed -- and that it had begun having them produced in India.

A storm of indignation erupted on Twitter, with the hashtag #Taschengate, or Bag-gate. The media picked up the story, and before dm even had a chance to explain itself, its reputation as an ethical company had come under fire.

How to Build an Electric Car

It was exactly the sort of response Otto chief executive Schrader fears. "If it comes to my attention that a product in our range has a demonstrably unethical provenance then I'll take it off the shelves immediately," he says. "The trouble is: How can mass market retailers provide a 100 percent ethical guarantee for products we don't always manufacture ourselves?"

Moreover, if a company such as Otto can't provide this guarantee, how can consumers be expected to make responsible choices?

In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster, international fashion companies and trade unions joined forces to investigate the soundness of structures in Bengali garment factories and improve the most egregious safety problems. Controllers were shocked by what they found: Not a single one of the 1,100 factories they visited stood up to scrutiny.

As Maren Barthel of the Otto Group says, it was a "wake-up call" for the industry. Along with a team of 21, Barthel is in charge of the purchasing and production conditions in the company's manufacturing countries, including Bangladesh. As she points out, it's one thing to compile catalogues of standards and get suppliers to sign them, but quite another to ensure those standards are maintained. Barthel has to be pretty imaginative in her quest to identify possible violations -- sometimes, even a sewing machine needle can be a giveaway.

If one of these needles breaks, it has to be recorded in a logbook -- mainly because the last thing textiles companies want is customers getting injured by a piece of broken needle. So Barthel perused logbooks to see if they indicated that employees had been working on Sundays and public holidays. A few suppliers were caught red handed. "Obviously word then got out that we check the logbooks, and of course it's possible that a factory might fiddle the dates," says Barthel. "It is and remains a game of cat and mouse."

Gray Areas

Otto sells over 2 million products and works with several thousand suppliers in over 70 countries. Even if Barthel manages to keep tabs on the 200 sewing factories contracted to Otto, they're just one cog in the manufacturing process. Even Otto's "Cotton made in Africa" project -- designed to boost conditions in cotton harvesting and spinning plants -- is just a drop in the ocean.

"For the time being, it's still hard to follow what happens between the spinning plant and the sewing factory," says Johannes Merck, director of corporate responsibility at Otto. Problematically, dyeing and finishing is when the most environmentally egregious steps occur.

"We're trying to reconcile two aspects of the flow of materials, which is complex and time-consuming," says Merck. As he points out, it took years to untangle the sewing factories' dense network of subcontractors, sub-subcontractors and sub-sub-subcontractors. "At this point in time, it's impossible to take responsibility for the entire production chain."

Whether it's even possible for a mail-order business on the scale of Otto -- which is geared to bulk sales -- to make a genuine shift to sustainability is, of course, a moot point. But by admitting to its limitations, the company is at least giving itself room to consider the issues, creating gray areas where usually there is only black and white, bad consumerism versus good consumerism, good consumers versus bad companies or even good companies versus bad consumers.

Norbert Reithofer, Paris

Peace at last. Norbert Reithofer has closed the door to his conference room and shut out the din of the BMW salesroom in Paris. Outside, there's a roar of music and the sounds of manufacturers making announcements about the cars of tomorrow. Inside, the only noise is the hum of the air conditioning.

It's a Thursday in early October, and BMW's CEO has been busy since 7:00 in the morning, going from appointment to appointment, attending presentations, giving interviews and chairing meetings. Right now he's taking a break and talking about the development of BMW's i3 electric car, a project worth billions, which Reithofer hopes will make BMW the most environmentally friendly car manufacturer in the world.

Reithofer recounts a long drawn out struggle. BMW is inevitably associated with 12-cylinder engines and Formula One racing, and even if Reithofer ultimately emerged victorious, he faced his share of setbacks. The Munich-based company has a lot riding on the i3, which purports to be the ultimate green car. It represents an acid test for ethical consumerism -- an expensive one, since one car costs customers at least €34,950 ($37,072). But it remains unclear whether consumers will reward the company for ticking all of the ethical boxes.

The wood on its dashboard is sourced from sustainably managed forests; the seats are made almost 100 percent from recycled polyester. The leather is treated with a natural tanning agent made from olive leaves and the door paneling is made from hemp fibers. So long as the car's electric batteries are powered by wind, water or sun power, carbon emissions are zero. Ninety-five percent of the materials used in the production of the i3 are recyclable. The list could go on. It's a car tailor-made for ethically aware customers.

Steering a New Course

Back in 2007, the i3 was just a twinkle in BMW's eye. The idea came out of a meeting of top managers that CEO Norbert Reithofer convened at Tegernsee, a lake just south of Munich. The goal: to talk about ways of ensuring BMW would still be one of the world's leading carmakers in the year 2020.

A number of attendees suggested the company take over Volvo, Saab or a truck manufacturer. These became known as the "fuel faction." Reithofer and two others disagreed, and were dubbed the "green group" -- which, in a company that is basically an engine manufacturer, wasn't exactly meant as a compliment.

But Reithofer was determined the company must steer a new course. Business as usual, he was convinced, was no longer an option. What benefit would BMW derive from acquiring a manufacturer who still builds cars with conventional engines? Given the serious smog problems faced by cities in China, India, Brazil and other emerging economies, their governments would soon have no choice but to reduce traffic. Emissions limits had already been introduced in Europe and the United States, making it high time BMW's engineers came up with a clean "Megacity Vehicle." Although Reithofer ultimately prevailed, some managers in the "fuel faction" were quietly waiting for the chief executive -- and his €3 billion project -- to fail.

The electric car may never have been built had Reithofer not employed a trick: When he commissioned the design, Reithofer gave the job to Ulrich Kranz, a trained mechanical engineer, instead of the normal development department. Two things about Kranz made him uniquely qualified for the job. He had experience developing cars, including the Mini, but he also had an interest in future mobility concepts. Kranz was allowed to tap people directly from all departments as the company moved forward with "Project i." This helped make him the butt of jokes from representatives of the main division.

But in Reithofer's view, far more was at stake than just "Project i" -- his ultimate goal was to take BMW in a new direction. He wasn't wary of taking serious symbolic steps either, including bringing former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of the Green Party on board as a business consultant and ending BMW's sponsorship of Formula One racing.

But when Reithofer questioned the need for BMW to continue manufacturing 12-cylinder engines, detractors inside the company began airing their grievances openly. Executives accused the BMW chairman of abandoning the company's core market and former BMW chief executives briefly came out of retirement to criticize the idea. Reithofer began to doubt whether his plan could succeed.

He yielded slightly -- at least when it came to the motor. He invited former top executives to a meeting, with a 12-cylinder motor positioned in the center of the room like a throne. "Don't worry," Reithofer told his predecessors, BMW will continue to manufacture it. But when it came to the company's overall future direction, the BMW CEO did not budge.

Lowering Emissions

Meanwhile, Kranz went about ensuring the lowest-possible CO2 emissions in the new line of cars. Because it is energy-intensive to manufacture the carbon fiber used in a plastic car-body, BMW built a factory in the United States that draws its power from a hydroelectric plant. The factory in Leipzig where the i3 is assembled, furthermore, uses electricity generated from wind turbines.

For every car part, a sustainability manager reviewed whether an alternative with even lower CO2 emissions was available. The eucalyptus wood on the dashboard, for example, is only treated with chalk instead of the usual five layers of lacquer.

Kranz and his team made good progress, and one day Reithofer got an unexpected visit from Adrian van Hooydonk. The chief BMW designer told him that the development team had secretly built a car and asked the chairman if he wanted to see it. He then unveiled a futuristic electric sports car. Project i had apparently gone from being the source of mockery to inspiring company developers to secretly design a car of their own. As a result, BMW now sells two electric cars, the i3 and the i8.

The ball is now in Reithofter's court. He has an appointment with a French government minister, his secretary reminds him. But the BMW chief executive has one other thing he'd like to say: "Electric cars aren't an option for our company. They're a must."

That may be the case. But so far, they haven't been a must for car buyers. According to the company's statistics, BMW sold 2,233 i3 models in Germany during the past year. During that time, it sold 12,664 -- five times as many -- of its X5 model of sport utility vehicles with a 306 horsepower engine and average CO2 emissions of 199 grams.

The numbers seem to suggest what Meike Gebhard, who succeeded Claudia Langer as CEO of Utopia, already suspects. "The less a consumer article has to do with a person's body," she says, "the less prepared a person is to act ethically." This is why, she argues, the greatest interest among "ethical consumers" is in food and cosmetics.

Adam Elman, London

Adam Elman grabs the small black card from the table in the Marks & Spencer café. We're sitting in one of the chain's department stores in London's Shepherd's Bush neighborhood and the card proclaims that the café's coffee is fair trade. Music plays in the background as customers recline in chic designer chairs. Elman, a Marks & Spencer manager, describes how a British department store chain can do its part to save the planet. "Here, have a look," Elman says wagging the card. "The message is clear, but subtle. After all, we want the customers to be able to relax here."

Of course, relaxation isn't exactly what most people in Germany associate with ethical consumerism. Here, the perception is that acting "correctly" must mean denying oneself nice things -- an attitude that may also explain the grim tone frequently used in the German debate about sustainable consumption.

When it comes to ethical consumerism, a little less perfectionism and a little more relaxation may deliver better results. And that's what managers like Elman are attempting at Marks & Spencer. Elman is part of a team implementing a sustainability plan launched by the company in 2007 under the slogan, "Plan A, because there is no Plan B for this planet." The company has adopted an entirely different approach than its competitors. People at M&S don't waste a lot of time whining about the risks of inscrutable global trade. Here, workers are proud of every solar cell on the roof and each fair trade leaflet -- and they're not that uptight about it.

This attitude is crucial to Plan A: "We want to convey the feeling that it isn't bad if you're not at 100 percent in every area," says Elman. "What's important is that we have begun to strive for 100 percent."

It's the details that matter. The number of milliliters of water used to ensure the freshness of every flower stem during transport, for example. Since the beginning of 2014, the traditional British department store has shipped its bouquets in air-tight packaging without water. "That protects the flowers during transport and we save up to a half a million liters of water per year," says Elman.

Searching for Solutions

At the start of the campaign, the company formulated 100 different resolutions: These ranged from using electricity from renewable energies to reducing packaging waste to decreasing the number of flights taken on business trips and improving standards for textile production. The goal is to set ambitious targets in all areas of the business while maintaining communication about what is and isn't working and why some areas are more challenging than others.

The impetus for Plan A was a poll showing that M&S customers expect the company to be thinking of ways to improve the world. It also found that the customers didn't always want to be wondering whether a pillow or a lipstick would be an ethically correct purchase or not. "The customers want to be able to place their trust in an entire brand," Elman says.

"Only if it's right we put our name on it," reads a black sign in the men's department of the store. The fact the Marks & Spencer mostly sells its own products also gives it a competitive advantage. Around 99 percent of the goods sold at its stores are marketed under its own brand, from lamp shades to sunglasses to sheets and peanut butter, and many companies manufacture exclusively for M&S.

The company works with more than 3,000 suppliers, many of which do most of their business with the department store giant. Elman says joint solutions are essential.

"Wait a second, I'm going to show you an example," he says, rushing through the Shepherd's Bush store. He comes to a stop in the cosmetics department and grabs a deep violet jar of skin cream from the shelf. The illuminated ad next to it features dark grapes. "We wanted to expand our line of organic cosmetics," Elman explains, "so we brought together our largest wine supplier and a cosmetics manufacturer. Now, we are creating something new with the pressed grape pulp left over that isn't used to make wine."

References to Plan A are discreetly distributed throughout the store, with small signs offering short but clear messages. They can be found everywhere from the meat counter in the food section to the clothing department and provide information about where the beef or the cotton comes from, or explain that the cashiers don't give away clothes hangers because they re-use them. Marks & Spencer is more than just a department store with an organic section, it's trying to make its entire operation as sustainable as possible.

Plan A is an ongoing process and that's important to him, Elman says. He thinks it's great that the company has wholeheartedly embraced the strategy. Many managers' bonuses, for example, are pegged to their departments' Plan A goals.

Elman is surprisingly relaxed when he talks about failures, though that may be the product of British diffidence. "We don't just automatically fire each partner if we discover a mistake or a violation of our guidelines," he says. That wouldn't be cost effective, and would be too short-sighted. "We try, if there is any way possible, to find the cause of the problem and solve it together."

He then hastens to the men's suits section. Next to the QR-Code on the inner-lining of a sport coat the words, "I am extraordinary, scan me to find out why," appear. The suit is made of recycled scrap clothing, Elman proudly explains.

The suit is the product of the company's "Shwopping" campaign against disposable fashion. "Every five minutes, 10,000 garments are thrown away in Great Britain," Adam Elman says of the campaign Marks & Spencer mounted together with the international relief organization Oxfam. In 2014, Marks & Spencer customers donated 4 million old pieces of clothing, up from 3.8 million the previous year. The used clothing is then either sold by Oxfam to raise money for its programs or recycled. "You have to make it easier for the customers to do something good," Elman says.

Vittorio Hösle, Notre Dame, USA

The Marks & Spencer concept makes reconciling ethics and consumerism -- and then acting on it -- look easy. But consumerism is not a very rational matter in practice.

Philosopher Vittorio Hösle has spent a lot of time thinking about the fundamental tension between consumerism and work. Hösle, who is German, teaches at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He's a man of contradictions: Pope Francis appointed him to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, but some newspapers have also dubbed him "the Boris Becker of philosophy." The problem, as Hösle sees it, is that it is extremely difficult to reconcile ethical consumerism with capitalism.

"Even long before Adam Smith, the moral of capitalism was based on the discovery that each could act according to his own ego -- in fact should act on it because it would lead to greater prosperity for all in the end," he says. "Over a period of hundreds of years, ethical standards once considered to be self-evident have been destroyed. For example, we lost appreciation for the idea that a person must sometimes refrain from pursuing his or her own interests for the sake of the greater whole."

But how is ethical consumption supposed to work when it costs the individual more? Hösle describes himself as an ethical consumer. He doesn't eat meat and says he has no interest in impulse buying or luxury goods. He says he hasn't ever even purchased jewelry for his wife. "We're not interested in stuff like that," he says.

Asceticism, reserve and discipline do exist in capitalism -- at least in terms of labor and manufacturing -- but they are always compensated for with an increase in consumption. "It's fundamental to capitalism that reserve is eventually rewarded with more consumption," says Hösle. "It's hard to break through that. That is, unless you say: You don't want to just be able to consume today, but also in 20 years, and you also want your children to still be able to consume."

From Theory to Practice

Ethical consumerism is undoubtedly good for the world. It does matter, after all, if a person's actions cause harm to other people and future generations. It's important that purchasing decisions actually benefit others. And it does matter if a person's behavior wastes energy, pollutes our air or poisons our water. But well-meaning customers often feel more helpless than empowered when shopping. More than anything, they feel overwhelmed.

The flood of information can be intimidating: Every purchase of a t-shirt is a potential sin, every cup of coffee contains a risk of exploitation and every kilowatt hour of electricity is a potential climate offense. Indeed, it seems that any purchase can steer a person astray.

Even when consumers think they're making a safe decision, the next ethical trap is already waiting. Take the organic cotton label on a T-shirt, for example. It provides no indication of the working conditions where it was made. Could it have been a sweat shop? And an organic tomato that is transported hundreds of kilometers on its way to a store is no better for the environment than a normal tomato harvested nearby. Meanwhile, the batteries in electric cars contain rare earth and metals whose sources are often dubious. And even with fair-trade coffee, the country of origin gets only a fraction of the proceeds from sales because most of the money is earned after the coffee is roasted in Europe or North America.

In a trend study conducted in 2013 by Otto Group, 56 percent of Germans said they "often" bought ethically correct products. Four years earlier, that figure was only 26 percent. And an incredible 89 percent of all those surveyed said they at least did so occasionally. Yet despite these figures, ethically sound goods remain a niche business.

Graphic: Otto Group Poll on Ethical Consumerism

Graphic: Otto Group Poll on Ethical Consumerism

Foto: DER SPIEGEL

The problem is that too little is done to help guide consumers to ethical consumerism. There's no unified quality label ensuring that a person's purchases are organic, environmentally friendly or Fairtrade. Instead, consumers are faced with a tangle of labels that are more confusing than enlightening. Fewer than 50 percent of Germans place their trust in those labels, and it seems as if no company with market strength is willing to take complete responsibility for its products.

So far, only niche companies in Germany and other countries offer products that consumers can feel relatively secure in buying -- firms like organic food producer and retailer Alnatura, organic clothing company HessNatur and sustainable goods retailer Hans Natur. Even Germany, champion of recycling, sustainability and organic products that it is, lacks serious government policies that seek to reward ethical consumption.

Customers could be forgiven for thinking companies are trying to deceive them. Some clever marketers exploit consumers' ethical interests without really offering products that are any better than others'. And no industry or company appears to be scandal-proof -- as far as consumers are concerned, it's only a question of time before a supposedly ethical product turns out to be another sham. Even large companies with noble goals aren't exactly saints. BMW still focuses on gas-guzzling SUVs, while Otto and Marks & Spencer continue to profit from consumers' profligacy.

The Need for Political Solutions

Producers are acting like their customers -- neither are going to mutate into Mahatma Ghandi-like ascetics overnight. There is certainly growing demand for products that are environmentally friendly, organic or Freetrade, but many customers are still buying energy-intensive vehicles, disposable clothing and cheap meat.

It's possible that the only ones disappointed and angered by this are people like Utopia founder Claudia Langer, who believed that a consumer revolt might make it next to impossible for non-environmentally friendly or exploitative products to be brought to the market.

But from the very start of the debate, people have overestimated consumer's ethical clout. The logic is flawed: By having consumers shoulder all of the blame, politicians are being absolved of responsibility. Today, Langer, the founder of Utopia, is convinced that the only way to deliver real solutions is through politics. She is currently establishing a foundation focusing on the interests of future generations who will be saddled with today's environmental sins. She wants the political process to take them into account.

Hösle, the philosopher, doesn't believe that the selfishness of individual consumers can be eliminated through education. He is convinced that politicians and consumers need to enter into a pact. "There is no alternative to the introduction of environmental taxes and perhaps also environmental tolls. And those prices have to reflect what every purchase means in terms of damage to the environment," Hösle says. "Humane working conditions won't be pushed through by consumers alone. The unions will have to fight for non-exploitive wages and working hours in manufacturing countries."

"It Has to Start Somewhere"

Keal Leangky, the seamstress who lost her job, and her colleagues are currently mired in just such a struggle. They want a minimum monthly wage of $177, which is what a government study calculated as the living wage for a garment worker in Phnom Penh.

According to David Welsh from Solidarity Center, Cambodia could serve as a textbook case for the global textiles industry. Home to 600,000 garment workers and with industry turnover totaling $5.5 billion -- that accounts for 80 percent of the country's exports -- the nation could finally set some standards.

The sector comprises some 600 factories, a manageable number, while the number of subcontractors -- which are less easy to keep tabs on and whose conditions worsen when demand is high -- is also workable and the country at least has a minimum of state organization. "It has to start somewhere," says Welsh.

His mobile phone rings. It's his office calling. The foundations of a garment factory south of Phnom Penh have caved in.

"Has anyone died or been injured?" he asks. Four have been injured. The next day, the Phnom Penh Post reports that the buildings' foundations were damaged by heavy rainfall the previous summer and should have been reinforced. The factory was operated by Nishiku Enterprise, a company with 1,200 employees that manufactures clothes for retailer H&M.

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