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The ethical consumer

December 29, 2007

As a rule, we know too little about the social and economic histories of the goods we consume. (Oddly enough, this is what Marx was referring to when he talked about the “fetishism of commodities”.) This is true of food — we consume coffee, tea, sugar, rice, or beef without thinking much about the conditions of human labor through which these goods were produced, or what fraction of the purchase price goes to the farmer or farm worker. And it is true of apparel and consumer goods such as toys or electronic gizmos — we don’t think too much about the factory conditions in which the products are made. We are distantly aware of “sweat shops” — but we don’t take the time to collect much information about what this means. And we certainly don’t know very much about the value stream through which the product passes, and the revenues generated for various parties along the way.

This is about the congealed history of the product. But we also don’t pay much attention to the future of the product — the consequences it will have after use. The social cost of recycling the AA batteries we use and the computer monitors; the ozone-depleting effects of the refrigeration we depend upon; the climate effects of the energy we consume — these all have major consequences that we recognize upon reflection. But we don’t look at the product and “see” the long-term consequences it represents, and we too rarely make consumption choices based upon those consequences.

And yet both features of a product need to be noticed and measured. How much exploitation and misery of distant farmers is congealed in the pound of coffee or the scoop of rice? Which seed and grain corporations have received what percentage of the total value of the finished product? Is the division of the final price among the producers and conveyers “fair”? Are we creating too much of an environmental deficit for the future by continuing to charge up all our cell phones and mp3 players? And how could we measure and compare products on the basis of criteria like these?

There is data to suggest that consumers in Europe and North America would differentiate among the products they purchase based on the “fairness” content and the “sustainability” content of the product — if this information were readily available. For example, a Eurobarometer study in the 1990s found that European consumers would pay a premium for fruits and vegetables labeled “fair trade”. (The amount they would pay varied significantly across countries, however!) (Visit the Eurobarometer website for a wide range of public opinion research on Europeans.)

We might imagine — literally imagine — a marketplace in which the social costs of a product are a part of what we examine when we consider a purchase. Like the list of ingredients on the can of soup, we might imagine each product labeled with basic information about its production history, the composition of the value stream, and the environmental costs of resource depletion and recycling that the product represents. And we might speculate that consumers would actually behave differently in the face of this kind of information.

This is the scenario that the Fair Trade movement in food is trying to create: a situation where consumers know more about the labor components of their choices and have some assurance that the primary producers and growers are receiving a fair share. And to judge from the visible successes of this movement in many places, consumers are willing to adjust their choices to bring about greater fairness.

So one wonders — what’s the next step? Is it possible that the resources of the internet might be a new way of leveraging consumer behavior in the direction of greater fairness and sustainability? Could we imagine a data service that allows the consumer to search for the product and see at a glance the “social accounting” that it represents? The possibility is tantalizing because of the exploding set of resources and tools that we possess to get a handle on the world’s data. And would this have the effect of further shaping our world in the direction of greater justice?

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