Shopping for good? The perils of ‘ethical consumerism

Posted by john mariano on

The motley terminology (organics, fair-trade, local) used to describe ethical consumption – a concept defined by Crane & Matten (2003) as ‘‘ythe conscious and deliberate choice to make certain consumption choices due to personal and moral beliefs’’— is varied and rich. Perhaps counter-intuitively for those worried about societal moral decay (and in spite of the still-murky international economic picture), ethical consumerism in all its colorful variants is no longer a niche market dominated by hippies, yuppies, and others of that ilk; instead, it is a burgeoning sector whose time appears to have arrived. Statistics on this ascendant phenomena, chronicled in the excellent, newly released book Shopping for Good by Berkeley activist-scholar Dara O’Rourke, convey a strong recent growth trajectory. O’Rourke notes that the last five years have ‘‘seen a staggering growth in ethical consumption’’, citing several emerging prominent examples (e.g. ‘‘U.S. sales of organic food and beverages rose from $12.6 billion in 2005 to $21.4 billion in 2009’’). Elsewhere, he enthuses that the ‘‘U.S. market for LOHAS (an acronym for lifestyles of health and sustainability) is estimated to be worth more than $200 billion’’. Within a worrying global context of accelerating anthropogenic climate change, crumbling biodiversity, and severely degraded ocean ecosystems, these sustainability trends are certainly a welcome shift – even if they are evolving from a comparatively tiny base level. In this volume, O’Rourke’s essential thesis is that consumerdriven change to the market economy has been sorely lacking to date and, if properly harnessed, holds great potential for revolutionary positive change (the innumerable and diffuse benefits of robustly sustainable supply chains that incorporate environmental, human health, and social factors are well-known and, therefore, it is likely unnecessary to elucidate them in this brief space). To refine and problematize his controversially optimistic assertion, O’Rourke’s book adopts a unique format. It begins with solution proffering by the lead author. This short opening is followed by short contrarian critiques of his ideas by fellow experts, which range from the thought-provoking (for example, one respondent questions the logic underpinning Product RED’s fostering of conspicuous consumption for the sake of a small royalty diverted to worthy causes) to the wholly impractical (another contributor suggests that truly redressing poor working conditions within most global supply chains will require the Herculean task of convincing individuals on a grand scale that they must pay more for less). The tome concludes with a partial response from the original author to some of the points raised, along with a vision for the future. Given all of this, two questions remain: can ethical consumption make a difference and if so, can it succeed in creating appreciable, scalable change? The answer to the first question is an unequivocal yes. The second question is much more complex and will surely require further research—especially if we hope to collectively reach any ambitious targets for ethical consumption consumer participation. O’Rourke himself provides an exciting catalyzing opportunity for systemic change with his GoodGuide for consumers. Described in the book as a ‘‘research project aimed at understanding consumer decision-making’’, the GoodGuide now boasts ethically-inclined reviews of over 170,000 food, personal-care, household-chemical, and other products. Excitingly, the tool can be personalized to focus on the specific metrics of concern to the individual consumer (e.g. Labor rights or animal testing), steps for weaning oneself off any unsustainable favorite products are provided, and the entire package comes easily accessible through modern technologies well-backed by an interdisciplinary team of researchers. However, despite the enthusiastic prognostications contained in the book, this reviewer (a long-time proponent of idiosyncraticallysuited ethical consumption practices) does not see huge potential for the future of ethical consumerism. Accordingly, I must reluctantly side with noted expert and ethical consumption skeptic Vogel (2006). In a recent book, Vogel (Ibid.) cites a study that contends ‘‘(individual purchasers) will only buy a greener product (if) it does not cost more, comes from a brand they know and trust, can be purchased at stores where they already shop, does not require a significant change in habits to use, and has the same level of quality, performance, and endurance as the less-green alternative’’. Both anecdotal and empirical evidence seem to suggest he is generally right. To further complicate matters, O’Rourke and others like him are fighting a formidable foe in human nature, even if they are only seeking to capture the likely unattainable ‘‘5 percent of the market (that) can be very influential’’. Much of humankind purports to be altruistic, but humans are susceptible to so many influences—from ‘boundedly rational’ cognitive frameworks (Hepburn et al., 2010) to the unintended negative consequences of ostensibly positive activities (Mazar & Zhong, 2010) to innate quirks for preferring the status quo (Kahneman et al., 1991)—that derailed progress seems inevitable. When combined with other unavoidable barriers like ubiquitous poverty, poor education, and simple apathy, relatively largescale solutions bereft of government-mandated direction seem borderline impossible and, even when successfully enacted, recurrently problematic. Instead of focusing on consumers, this reviewer argues that any socially-minded lobbyists and change advocates should focus on ameliorating reactionary governmental or institutional practices. To use a famous example, a properly executed set of top-down ‘‘nudge’’ policies (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008) will likely go much further than even the best actions of a doomed-to-remainsmall minority – admirable, necessary, and laudable as this latter group’s efforts may be.

Acknowledgments Special thanks to Sali El-Sadig of the University of Toronto for helpful critiques of a draft of this paper.

References Crane, A., Matten, D., 2003. Business Ethics: A European Perspective. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Hepburn, C., Duncan, S., Papachristodoulou, A., 2010. Behavioral economics, hyperbolic discounting, and environmental policy. Environmental and Resource Economics 46 (2), 189–206. Kahneman, D., Knetsch, J.L., Thaler, R.H., 1991. Anomalies: the endowment effect, loss aversion, and status quo bias. Journal of Economic Perspectives 5 (1), 193–206. Mazar, N., Zhong, C.-B., 2010. Do green products make us better people? Psychological Science 21 (4), 494–498. Thaler, R.H., Sunstein, C.R., 2008. Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.


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