Dependency and Autonomy

By Adam Barker-Wyatt & Andrea Roeland

Have you ever walked through the supermarket in search for fairly and sustainably produced products while feeling utterly confused by all the labels that were stuck to the many variations of food, drinks and other items? How to know which products have not involved unfair payments of employees, inhumane working days, or other suffering? We, the authors of this essay, propose that all these labels signify that the supermarket-shopper has become dependent on large companies and has therefore lost control over the way in which her/his consumptions are produced. Working mainly within the framework of global food markets, we will start by presenting several examples of ambiguous production processes, over which we, western individuals, are unable to exert control. Taking  it further, we believe that the uncontrollability of production in the global market characterises the west in various ways and that reflection is necessary for an understanding of the problem of dependency. Lastly, there are several counter-movements to this trend of distance and dependence that are worth mentioning.

One of the largest international food companies in the world today is Nestlé. In 2005, the company had 500 factories spread over almost all countries on the globe, and owned 77 brands of food and drinks. Nestlé is promoted by the slogan ‘Good Food Good Life’. Nestlé aims to provide healthy and nutritious food and drinks, and therefore has been bottling clean water since 1998, among which Pure Life water, produced in Pakistan. While promoted as healthy and affordable alternative to sodas, some have accused Nestlé of being the cause of instead of the remedy to the lowering groundwater levels in its surroundings.1 The same goes for the company’s Fair Trade label, based on the cacao the company uses. Though praised by the UK’s media, this label has been opposed by Nestlé’s largest boycott company Baby Milk Action: the 1% of  Nestlé’s cacao that is indeed certified as fair distracts consumers from the 99% of the cacao production that is not – and consumers often do not even know. Baby Milk Action argues that there are still many children working for Nestlé’s cacao production, and that many farmers have lost the control over their existence to the company.4 Who, of the people standing in front of the supermarket racks is to say what is really happening?

The extent to which we, as consumers, know how our food and drinks are managed, and to which we can exert power on this process seems very limited. The gap – both spatially and abstract – between the consumer and the producer is too great to observe and know what happens. globalization and neo-liberalism have made the market more competitive and the production chain longer and less transparent.5 Apart from the argument that some corporations are careless about people’s lives and the earth’s well-being, one very important notion is that they are outsourcing the production of much of our food to beyond our view. This process has taken away our ability to keep those companies liable for the manner in which they treat people. Strangely enough we also have become dependent on these same companies in what they provide us and tell us. Consumers have put much trust in these enterprises, and thereby have given them too much power to act as they want – now often out of control. It seems that international industries have the tendency to plant their factories at locations where they can employ cheap labour and avoid high taxes, often in what are called Third World countries. As Young7 explains, this may not be a situation that the governments of these countries wish for, but they may have few other options that will earn them the money they need. David Harvey has similarly pointed out that the rise of the (global) markets has lead to the loss of power of nation-states. It has become easy to ignore the harsh conditions and the atrocities of production if consumers are not directly confronted with them. As with many other industries, it is easy to move the problems away from the West and leave it for other peoples to solve. What characterizes neo-liberalism is that business freedom and growth are glorified. The latter requires continuously increasing consumption and at the same time continuously growing production. This level of production cannot be maintained in the West and therefore is it relocated to the “Third World”.

On the side of the workers, there is an increasingly loud call for change and a wide range of initiatives that return to a local manner of living in which they can sustain themselves without depending on large international corporations for a wage and food. One of the largest and most successful is Navdanya, led by Vandana Shiva, in India. As the website informs us, ‘the main aim of the Navdanya biodiversity conservation programme is to support local farmers, protect their rights on food in the face of globalization, and protect types of crops and plants from extinction’. Navdanya thus tries to keep the control over farmers’ lives and production methods, and to keep the products themselves out of the hands of international corporations. The Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, too, have made very clear that they will provide for themselves what they need and will defend their autonomy against government, paramilitaries and industries alike.

Consumers, too, are realizing that distance has become an issue of lack of transparency and  dependence of both Western consumers and “Third World” workers on international companies. Activism for local food has emerged, including the Slow Food movement, Community Supported Agriculture and local farming products. These initiatives are businesses that are based on local food production, and thereby have taken risk, profit and responsibility over food and livelihoods into their own hands. They ensure that the production process is fair and open.

Though we have talked mainly about the food market, the problem is apparent for most of everything we consume in the West. Think of financial networks, for example. Many households have put their trust in corporations who will take care of their money for them, and in the process they lost control over their money. As financial crises happen, the dependency of households and small businesses on these corporations cripples them. Clothing and electronics are also examples of business which draws on cheap labour. Despite knowing this, a feeling of impotence remains. Who is to be held responsible for suffering through production? By pointing out this problem of distance, transparency and dependence, we have not been trying to force every person to radically stop consuming or adopt non-modern ways of living. However, this problematic does indicate the lack of information the supermarket consumer often has to base decisions on. To start with ourselves, as consumers, we can ask ourselves what we really need to buy, and question the attitude of ‘when we do not know its history, it is not there’, when consuming. Local food might offer an accessible alternative.

Sources used:

Baby Milk Action. (visited 2013, Nov. 20). Why boycott Nestlé Fairtrade KitKat? Retrieved from http://www.babymilkaction.org/pdfs/nestlefairtrade0210.pdf

Bjune, M. & Torjusen, H. (2005). Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in Norway: a context for shared responsibility. In D. Doyle (Ed.). Consumer citizenship: promoting new responses (Vol. I), Taking responsibility. Lillehammer: Hedmark University College Press.

DokLab GmbH. (visited 2013, Nov. 20). The story. Retrieved from http://www.bottledlifefilm.com/index.php/the-story.html ‎

EZLN. (2005). The sixth declaration of the Lacandon jungle. (Irlandesa, Trans.). Retrieved from http://www.cloudforestmexico.org/PDF/Sixth%20Declaration%20of%20the%20Lacandon%20Jungle.pdf

Harvey, D. (2006). Neo-liberalism as creative destruction. Geografiska Annaler, 88(2), p. 145-158.

Navdanya. (visited 2013, Nov. 20). Introduction to Navdanya. Retrieved from http://www.navdanya.org/about-us

Nestlé. (visited 2013, Nov. 20). Nestlé homepage. Retrieved from http://www.nestle.com/

Roos, G., Terragni, L. & Torgusen, H. (2007). The local in the global: creating ethical relations between producers and consumers. Anthropology of Food, Special Issue 2.

Rosemann, N. (2005). Drinking water crisis in Pakistan and the issue of bottled water: the case of Nestlé’s ‘Pure Life’. Retrieved from http://www.alliancesud.ch/en/policy/water/downloads/nestle-pakistan.pdf

Young, I. M. (2004). Responsibility and global labor justice. The Journal of Political Philosophy, 12(4), p. 365-388.

Young, I. M. (2004). Responsibility and global labor justice. The Journal of Political Philosophy, 12(4), p. 365-388.