The European Union is often at the center of academic discussions on the forces of globalization, gradually burgeoning greater relationships with distant regions of the world. Economic trade, political regulations, and social cohesion are among the cornerstone principles of the EU's foundation.
Yet, socioeconomic blocs such as the EU, in recent times, encountered a growing resistance fueled by concerns over rising immigration levels and the diminishing competitiveness of domestic industries, including agriculture and metal production––mostly due to the lower cost of importing from abroad with minimal tariffs. Growing dissent over this, due to perceived threats to domestic jobs, has fuelled a new wave of protectionist policies and arguably isolationist politics.
But, it is the trade aspect of socioeconomic blocs that we'll focus on in this article, particularly by honing in on the more important, but unfortunately sidelined, question: Where does Fair Trade fit into socioeconomic blocs? Does the EU represent a “fair for us and only us” trade policy for Europe––regarding labor and environmental protections––or, does it contain the widespread potential for improvements in global supply chain conditions?
We'll consider this through two lenses, both of which vary in how they relate to consumers' abilities to effect positive change.
In a socio-economic bloc where the lowest HDI out of 28 countries bottoms out at a still-reasonably high 0.794 (Bulgaria), the scene is set for a high quality of life. With its proximity to major conflicts such as the Sudanese and Syrian Civil Wars––, it's hard to find a sharper contrast between domestic politics than in the case of the EU and its economically marginalized neighbors. While rising wealth disparities and a growing awareness of the problems in developing regions have combined in recent years to drive extensive aid programs in poorer countries, international attention is now shifting to more engaging and innovative ways of working on development issues. These aren't just the basic raise income and build infrastructure strategies, but rather specifically targeted on conditions of fashion production.
Below are some highlights from targeted development projects that are striving to make a difference in a more innovative way:
- Achieved 351 new garment industry unions
- Alliance on 'Bangladesh Worker Safety'+ 'Accord on Fire and Building Safety'
- Indian Government now have full responsibility for inspection of factories
- Better Work Programme' 199 factories in April 2016 collaborating on a corrective action plan
- Aims for creation of jobs in the artisanal sector for micro-enterprises
- Ghana- helps young Africans build fashion brands
- Burkina Faso-EDF 10 Cotton Programme funds in 2014, $10m from Emergency African Trust Fund of EU
- Ethiopia- Introduce the highest quality leather to supply chains with HADFE Producer, to improve possible margins and build entrepreneurial experience
One of our core messages is the power we as consumers wield with our wallets. Our spending on shoes and clothing manufactured with recycled materials, and in more sustainable and responsible ways, is critical for the advancement of the global Ethical Trade movement. Ultimately, the global consumer economy is driven by the production of goods that consumers desire––goods sold at the prices they're willing to pay, and made under certain conditions that people accept. If greater transparency in our supply chains reveals unacceptably low wages or exploitative manufacturing conditions to consumers, we can choose what to sanction with our daily shopping choices thus introducing accountability.
This point is significant for how we understand socio-economic groupings or the manner in which individual consumers can coalesce into a single market. The European Commission estimates that the EU's consumer base is around 500 million people. The average GDP per capita is $33.7k, and over $51bn was spent on fashion products in 2017. Collective consumer action in this area alone, whether in terms of the preferred brands or products, holds the real power. Furthermore, such action is easy to mobilize in light of greater attention paid to atrocities within fashion supply chains, but also in the everyday pollution and abuse instances faced by factory workers every day.