These days, when buying coffee, I always reach for the Fairtrade brands. On an individual level, it's a ridiculously easy gesture. My hand wanders over the various labels; the prices aren't all that different and, as far as taste goes, well frankly I'm not sure I'm able to tell one brand of coffee from the next. So I choose the Fairtrade and notch myself up a tiny bit of moral credit. Multiplied a few million times however, small gestures can add up to a powerful economic force, encouraging sustainable agriculture and fairer rewards for growers - at least that's the idea. To be honest, I know very little about Fairtrade accreditation and how it's integrity is protected. I simply take it on trust. It's a similar story with the Soil Association, the Forestry Stewardship Council, the Marine Stewardship Council and so on.
And so this morning, I found myself putting my name to a standardised, pre-written email from Greenpeace urging shoe manufacturers to stop using leather sourced from Amazonian cattle farms. One part of me considered this a bit pathetic. After all, until this morning, I hadn't given the matter much thought and anyway, who's going to pay much attention to a thousand identical emails, each sent at the mere click of a mouse ?
My misgivings arose partly from conceit, from the thought that an educated person like myself should be capable of a more significant initiative, something along the lines of a finely-crafted letter that, through a combination of dazzling argument and heart-rending descriptive prose, would result in an immediate change of heart on the part of the recipient shoe manufacturing company (tears of repentance in the boardroom etc etc).
But that's to miss the point entirely.
Viewed in isolation, the decision to put one's name to an email (standardised or otherwise) is somewhat meaningless. Meaningless, that is, unless accompanied by an equally easy, yet highly meaningful commitment to exercise judgement in deciding which products we buy.
For collective action to be effective it must be focussed with laser-like intensity. Continue to do such and such and we won't buy your products; do so and so and we will. It is in orchestrating such collective behaviour by consumers, that campaigning organisations like Greenpeace appear to be most effective.
So I have joined Greenpeace and I'm content to put conceits to one side and to act with others in putting my name to their campaigns - well most of them, I imagine. That occupation of the Brent Spar oil rig, back in 1995, was a bit of a mistake I reckon. If sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic, as Shell originally proposed, it would have made a great artificial reef and wildlife sanctuary.
But then, I don't intend to surrender my personal judgement entirely.