Trade & corporations

The businessman is only tolerable so long as his gains can be held to bear some relation to what, roughly and in some sense, his activities have contributed to society.

John Maynard Keynes


International trade is one of the primary engines of global economic growth. The cell phone that you buy from your local electronics store may contain circuit boards from China, a battery from Malaysia, software from Ireland and rare earths from Mozambique. The fruit and vegetables in your local supermarket may come from halfway around the world. The total value of these goods and services traded internationally was over US$23 trillion in 2013. However, the benefits are not spread evenly.

International agreements are designed to facilitate trade between countries, but can include double standards or be unfavourable to poorer nations. For example, free trade agreements the U.S. has with Peru and Colombia give forestry, oil, gas and mining corporations special rights to acquire and exploit Amazonian lands and to challenge environmental and indigenous protections.

The price of goods in high-income countries often bears little resemblance to the earnings of the workers who produce them. For example, a shirt that sells for $25 in Australia could be made by garment workers in Bangladesh who are paid a meagre 22¢ an hour.

The international nature of trade also removes the sometimes unethical conditions of production from the view of consumers. The computer-parts corporation Foxconn gained international notoriety when it ‘solved’ the problem of suicides among its overworked employees in Shenzhen, China, by installing nets around its factory complex.

Advocacy organisations such as the UK-based Trade Justice Movement and Global Justice Now have publicised injustices and lobbied governments for the regulation of corporations and fairer trade negotiations. In addition, some major brands and supermarkets have launched Fair Trade lines, giving consumers the chance to make ethical choices when they do their shopping.