In the following I will try and explain the Dutch political consumer’s mind set by correlating it with the national heritage and Volksgeist—in adequate Romanticist German terms. I will argue that the body of Dutch consumer-citizens seems to be very taken in by political matters of all trades, but in fact knows little about fair trade and certification schemes. Despite an inherent laziness, they do want to practice their global citizenship as funders of good causes, fair trade as charity over politics, tagged with (flimsy) certification.
The fairness of trade is a hot topic in consumer-circles. Consumers are more and more concerned with the wellbeing of the producers of their groceries. Globalization has made us aware of the evils that roam the world economy and now the consumer feels indebted to the short lifespan of bananafarmers in Costa Rica and the lives of hardship Bangladeshi children lead, sowing together footballs in sweatshops.
Fortunately there are institutions, foundations and organizations looking after the wellbeing of these producers. They monitor the production of imported goods to ensure the Western consumer that the stuff we buy for our personal enjoyment is made in a sustainable and morally agreeable fashion and that our money actually ends up in these people’s pockets. The problem is, however, how can we be sure about this? How do we know what to buy, what makes our consumption contribute to a better world?
For these ends labels and certificate schemes are developed. We only have to check the packaging of our coffee to know whether this is made under good conditions. We’ll pay more, but knowing that this money is a reward for the farmer and his hard work, we willingly part from it, and buy ourselves a clearer conscience with that. Unfortunately, not only sincere organizations issue certificates. Unreliable and corporate certification schemes like UTZ and ‘Ik Kies Bewust’ sidetrack and deceive the aspiring political consumer. More dyed-in-the-wool consumers will know what certificates and labels to pay attention to, but still, most will not have knowledge of the truth behind these certificates and pretenses. In many cases, a more romantic image of these causes will exist in consumers’ minds than factually is the case. But how to attain knowledge about this? How to verify the sincerity of these certificates and the issuers?
It demands a great deal of time and effort from the consumer’s side to verify certificates, while the labels are developed in the first place to rid him or her of that issue of verification. So, what’s the most effective middle road, and how to walk that? How does the consumer know? And is he bothered with the truth behind the labels at all? It is in any case not easy to truly consume politically justified. In the following I will set forth the troubles with consumption, consumerism and the its informational political dimensions in an environment I know very well: political consumption in The Netherlands.
The Netherlands hold a special position in the world of political consumption. The most famous certificate for sustainably produced coffee is Max Havelaar, founded by Dutchmen in 1988, under the umbrella of Fairtrade Labelling Organizations. Max Havelaar is a fictitious character from the novel with the same name (1859) by Dutch writer Eduard Douwes Dekker, known under the pseudonym of Multatuli (“I have suffered much”). Douwes Dekker wrote on the abuse of workers on coffeefarms in the former Dutch East-Indies, a place he knew well. Another Dutch addition to the political consumer-sphere is Fair Trade Original, incorporated in 1959 and selfproclaimed founder of development trade.
Dutch consumers are very aware of the political implications of their actions. They take pride in their heritage as seafarers and explorers, although the 17th and 18th century colonial era is looked back at with mixed feelings. They see themselves as cosmopolitans, having access to all kinds of uncensored media to be informed about the state the world is in. They consider themselves to be open-minded and tolerant, take part in global political discussion and have opinions on everything, not hesitant to vent these (as recent uproars concerning Pim Fortuyn, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ehsan Jami and Geert Wilders have proven—unfortunately united by anti-Islamic issues). The Dutch coastal area is characterized by chauvinism towards the rural east, inhabitants of the dominant cities and the conglomerate thereof—the Randstad—considering themselves to be intellectually advantaged. They deploy this idea in their assumptions on sustainability, since they are chauvinist enough to think the world will benefit from Dutch knowledge. Fact is that Dutch companies like Smit-Tak and Van Oord know how to raise shipwrecks and create entire islands. Also, our continuous fight with water and the related concern with the raising sealevel, due to climate change, justifies our preoccupation with similar global issues.
The Dutch market is saturated by certificates and labels that indicate a product’s healthy or sustainable nature. It’s a popular pastime for Dutch consumers to find the strangest and rarest products in these categories, as part of our global chauvinism, and show off with them. The Dutch website ConsuWijzer.nl provides information on these certifications, varying from electronic devices to jewellery and food and animal welfare. Not only are these labels to be found in general supermarkets (of which Albert Heijn, market leader, also has its own certificate to tag ‘healthy’ products: the keuzeklavertje), but entire shops dedicated to biological and sustainable consumption are to be found in every city or bigger town. Recent research has taught that not all of these certificates are as charitable as they seem. The Dutch IKB (Ik kies bewust; “I choose with awareness”), for instance, was revealed to be an unreliable certificate conveying an unclear message. But consumers don’t bother to investigate these labels until something goes wrong. That is understandable, since—as stated before—these certificates are meant to make political consumption easier. But, as it appears, it doesn’t.
Another task arises for governmental organizations that are to promote sustainable development: certification of certificates. This should be done by an independent third party that verifies a certificate’s sincerity and informs the consumer about the reliability of the certificate, to take the wind out of the misguiding commercial sails of corporations that wish to abuse certification for their own gain. This might strike the reader as circular and a “slippery slope”; who is going to prove the reliability of the certificate for certificates? Here we have to draw a line. Beyond governmental interference, there should be no anxiety about certificates and labels. Of course, this is merely another axiom, but the Dutch government makes a less corporate effort in achieving certification schemes’ transparancy.
The broad variety of certificates is being checked by the Keurmerkinstituut, or certification institute. This institute is run by a foundation that governs certification and employs a total of 35 experts in various fields, governed by a management team composed of a product-designer and a physicist. Another organisation monitoring certification is Stichting Skal. Skal provides the verification for certificates concerning biological and sustainable cultivation of Dutch products since 1985. It’s a foundation that issues the EKO-certificate in The Netherlands.
Unfortunately, very few consumers are aware of these institutions that should verify certification. The easy way out for the consumer is to pay attention only to the labels, thereby dismissing all available information about the certificate and in fact only spending more money and effort on a shadowy pretext of political awareness. The question now rises whether these consumers are actually aware of their choices, if they only know what they mean on a superficial level, putting all their trust in the hands of—again—other corporations, only shifting towards the appearance of political awareness. Føllesdal’s three motives for political consumption—the arguments of agency, identity and instrumental arguments—in this matter seem to stick with the argument of identity: expressing one’s sympathy. But not towards the worker per se. Moreover, it seems to express concern with global politics towards the peers. Another problem is that political consumption in The Netherlands does not imply home-economical benefits. It’s purely a moral consideration. The lack of sincere interest also explains the relatively low percentage of boycotts practiced by the Dutch.
Apart from whether political consumption is effective, as a means deployed by the consumer to change the world from below, the important question is if the consumer is really interested in global change. The Netherlands is a very rich country that spends millions of euro’s on development in the Third World and issues more millions to institutions and foundations that monitor and/or manage similar projects for good causes. Added to that, the Dutch are not unwilling to part from their money for charitable causes. But if it takes immediate or intense action, the Dutch prefer their comfortable couches. Companies benefit from this wealthy Dutch sloth by creating certificates that function rather as more advertisement for the product, not recognized as such by the consumer.
The Dutch consumer’s universe is infested by certification schemes and labels. Their nature allows them a position on top of politically correct global action and their colonial roots make them permit themselves to intervene in issues on welfare and sustainability. But in the actual contribution to the sustainable landscape, the practice of political consumption is a shallow one. Verification of certificates is only practiced by a small elite of hard-core greens, by far the biggest part of the Dutch who consider themselves political consumers have no idea how deep the certification scheme’s rabbit hole really goes, and is blissfully ignorant. This does not only demonstrate the Dutch Volksgeist but it should also be an indication towards institutions and organizations to revise the system of certificates into something more digestible. Creating certification schemes for certification schemes is not a sustainable solution. Restructuring society, as Micheletti likes to see it, should start with restructuring certification schemes.