Wednesday, August 09, 2006


Last weekend some friends suggested going to a music-festival, Summer Sundae, put on by the American ice-cream makers, Ben and Jerry, at Clapham Common in London. ...

For starters, since when did ice-cream sellers, or for that matter a fruit drinks company such as Innocent, become involved in nominally `rock'n'roll' events? Isn't that supposed to be the job of flat and rubbish lager brands? On one level, of course, Summer Sundae and Innocent's Fruitstock - which takes place this coming weekend - aren't meant to impress the likes of Lemmy, Tommy Lee or Tommy Saxondale. On another level, though, they do play on hippie countercultural `vibes' and thus make vague claims to some form of `radicalism'. But in today's context, all that really means is not being McDonald's.

As a shrewd and cynical marketing ploy, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield understand this all too well. That is why in America and Europe they are seen to actively push ethical concerns regarding the environment or the arms trade: it's a way of saying, `hey, we're the good guys'. What could be a better approach to business? So last Saturday, Mr Greenfield made a speech informing us that Ben and Jerry are doing their bit to tackle global warming. An exasperated friend of mine quickly retorted: `Why on Earth would an ice cream company be against warmer weather?' Good point. But it is precisely such displays of `selflessness' that are taken as good coin - both figuratively and literally. Which is why so many other ethical capitalists are getting in on the act, too.

During a stroll around Summer Sundae it was notable that every food and drink stall was organic, wholesome or `real' (as if other food is somehow illusionary). What they all had in common was an earnest but transparent attempt to look like small-cottage industries rather than subsidiaries of multinational companies. In reality, Ben and Jerry's was taken over by the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giants Unilever six years ago - hardly the type of company to make ice-cream in someone's small kitchen.

In the Guardian, Jacques Peretti called this process `kooky capitalism', wherein huge companies simply brand themselves as `ethical, people-orientated cottage businesses rather than faceless behemoths driven by profit'. Peretti is right to note that this is often accompanied by faux-naive slogans and childlike scrawl over delivery vans and other company symbols. Even when `kooky capitalists' don't go as Innocent or Ocado, subtler brand designs still appear to be modelled on children's alphabet books - all blaring primary colours and bold Arial fonts.

In the past, parental responsibility, rather than how much ale you could handle, was the true measure of adulthood. Today it seems that having children is an excuse to join them in the safety playpen, away from the bullyboys of greedy multinationals and the gormless masses. Summer Sundae, with its notably high fences and high security, appeared like a gated community for ethical Peter Pans....

At Summer Sundae, the ethical and infantile collided in a queasy way. World Wildlife Fund volunteers, for instance, dressed up as pandas, held hands round the common and fundraised with all the pushy hustling skills of a two-day old kitten. Then again, given the inflated prices of the `real' food and drink on offer, not many of the revelers appeared charitably inclined. For sure, the burgers were a cut above standard festival fare, but not that much better than, say, Burger King's finest. So what, exactly, do you get for your cash at events like these? For ethical liberals it has two important selling points: a) it shows you're a concerned, planet-saving citizen, and b) you can avoid paunchy blokes in Arsenal football tops.

More here

No comments: