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Proudly 100% Australian

27 February, 2008

Like many newcomers to Australia (I am one even after three years), I find this kind of text in advertising and on packaging amusing and occasionally irritating. Why not “Proudly 100% Bangladeshi”? On the whole, though, this kind of product nationalism is less menacing than the varieties I know from my home country — at least it doesn’t look at blood –and it can pass for left-wing, environmentally conscious “buy local” discourse rather than outright right-wing racism.

 But, as we know well from the history of the labour movement, the two have often been close. Yesterday, on ABC’s popular Lateline, there was a report of a union protest against Woolworth for including products made by Asia Pulp & Paper in its “ecologically and socially responsible” product line. APP is a Singapore-based company, owned by Sinar Mas, the conglomerate founded by one of the most famous Chinese-Indonesian tycoons of the Soeharto era, Eka Tjipta Widjaja. Most of APP’s plants are in Indonesia, others in China and elsewhere.

Although APP’s website says that most of its products have been “have been ISO 14001 and ISO 9002 certified for diligent adherence to both environmental and quality management” and has a special page devoted to “Sustainability and CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] News,” it is widely condemned by environmentalists for destroying the Indonesian rainforest. Indeed, Staples, an office-supplies chain, dumped APP earlier this month for that reason. This is just what the union spokesman pointed out, adding that APP had also been condemned for its labour conditions — a claim not readily corroborated by an Internet search. The reporter declared that the bag of paper towels he bought at Woolworth did not say it was made by APP, “but,” he added vindictively, “it does say Made in China.” The camera then went back to the union chap, who said, with an air of indignation, that it was not “fair competition” that paper products were made in countries where the environment and local workers were exploited.

So here we are the heart of the debate about the imposition of Western environmental or labour standards, the usefulness or not of the green/local/ethical consumer movement and certification, and whether these have the power of improving the lives of more people around the world than those whose jobs are threatened by the boycotts. I cautiously believe that they do, if they operate in an informed way. If APP, despite its certifications, continues to damage the rainforest or mistreat workers, then this should be exposed.

What worries me about this story and its reporting is that it equates Asia with labour exploitation, as if anything made in China or Indonesia were automatically tainted. Of course, blanket attacks against “made in China” seem rather too late, considering that probably over 80% of consumer goods in Australian supermarkets are made in China. But, though no doubt reflecting the fears of Australian workers, they also discredit the ethical consumer movement, whose idea is after all to encourage decent labour and environmental standards everywhere, not just where they already exist. And they smack of a new type of media-propelled eco-rights-xenophobia, in which China appears not just as super-polluter and a violator of political rights but also as the hotbed of industrial espionage, traffic in women and children, fake medicine, poisonous food, and sweated labour. No doubt, all of these claims have some truth in them, and each individual instance of possible abuse should be exposed and debated. But today, they are woven together into a giant conspiracy that appears to have a single teleology — viz., to conquer the world — and are beginning to taint everything and everyone coming from China. This is dangerous.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. stockeybridge permalink
    28 February, 2008 7:25 am

    Related to this, I just caught a segment on a morning show where they discussed a selection of products people consider to be cultural icons of Australianism e.g. vegemite, aeroplane jelly. A representative of the “Proudly 100% Australian” campaign was asked to explain how Australian these products are. Of course it turned out that the goods are actually produced in China, but the companies that pay the tax and make most of the profits are in Melbourne. I was surprised that this was his definition of “proudly 100% Australian”, that the money made on the profits stay in Australia. I was always under the impression that this campaign was about products grown in Australia and therefore supporting the Australian farm industry….

  2. stockeybridge permalink
    28 February, 2008 7:33 am

    ….and on the “newcomers to Australia” even after 3 years comment, I have to add that as a child, depite being born in Australia, I was not considered Australian because my parents were born overseas. So I would say that the “newcomers to Australia” extends to first generation Australian’s also. Although, I did grow up in the outer suburbs and there is a distinct pride and emphasis on those families that had been the area since the early 1800’s, having roots in the colonisation era is considered the ultimate in being a true blue Aussie. Perhaps this concept of who fits the socially inclusive definition of Australian and who does not is more rigid in the outer suburbs then the more urban areas….

  3. Third Tone Devil permalink
    28 February, 2008 1:51 pm

    Hmm, this definition of Australianness depending on where the profits go is indeed somewhat unexpected and apparently against the “local food” logic. Although I suppose it complies with that logic in that it excludes multinationals that export their profits to headquarters. But then what about public listed companies? The profits go to shareholders. So would you have to check where each of them lives?

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