Between weapons, women, and goods produced by slave labor, the world has a long way to go on the path to ethical trade. The energy market is particularly problematic, given how fundamental it is to the global economy, how much of it comes from regimes recognized as violators of human rights, and how stubbornly the industry has obstructed efforts to tackle climate change. That's partly why I've been critical of Canada's attempts to label its dirtier-than-average petroleum as "ethical oil." My main dispute is that if we're going to start talking about ethical oil, then that opens the door to asking: Why not ethical everything? My sense is that the spinmeisters behind the "ethical oil" campaign aren't interested in having that conversation. Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki touches on some of the details of their hypocrisy in a recent blog post, and one idea in particular stands out to me:
The "ethical oil" argument is so absurd as to be hardly worth mentioning, but it's one the government has latched onto. Oil can't be ethical or unethical. People, and by extension the companies they own and operate or the governments they represent, can behave in ethical or unethical ways, but a product can't.
While Suzuki wins the semantic battle I wonder if he loses the war of actually applying ethics to international trade. Humans love to pronounce things good or evil, and our objects embody the values with which they were created. Today this tendency is expressed in the certification revolution of products such as Fair Trade coffee. With the premium price such products demand they have always flirted with the fetishism of elite luxury, but perhaps it is equally dangerous to strip our material goods of their talismanic power, if such power is wielded for a socially recognized good. By transferring all moral responsibility onto actors—be they consumers, businesses, or governments—Suzuki outlines a very stoic social responsibility. The point is to figure out how the system, and the tradable goods themselves, can carry this burden for us.