Sunday, September 15, 2013

Ethics for sale?

Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker, opened a store in Baltimore 1836 which sold only goods obtained by labor from free people. This is an early example of ethical marketing which continued up to the end of slavery in the United States in 1865.

Ethical marketing based on voluntary standards and certification has spread in a rapid pace the last decades, as a result of converging - and interacting – trends. Most notably,
- a trend towards emphasizing the market and consumer choice as important tools to accomplish ethical, economic, environmental or social goals;
- a trend of government de-regulation, which leaves more self-regulation to the industries; and
- stiff global competition which makes differentiation in the market place an essential survival strategy to escape ‘commodity hell’;

When you buy a cup of coffee for €2 the farmer gets 3-4 cents for the coffee in that cup. If you buy a cup of organic and fair trade coffee you are likely to have to cough-up €2.50 - and the farmer will get 4-5 cents. The farmer’s income will increase, perhaps with impressive 20-25 percent. Looking from another perspective, however, you spend 50 cents to increase the farmer’s income with 1 or 2 cents. This example begs the question if the market mechanism is efficient in transforming consumers’ willingness to pay for direct or indirect benefits of a product to an increase in income for producers.

We don’t have voluntary standards for social conditions for labor in Scandinavia – but there is a Food Justice Certified scheme developed in the United States now. Why? Because it is needed in the United States but not in Scandinavia. These systems mainly emerge in the space between what is well regulated by markets and by governments respectively. Whether they are results of “policy failures” or “market failures” or if they should be seen as permanent institutions is a topic for debate – a debate that is kept here.

Some sector wide commodity schemes, such as the Roundtables on sustainable Palm oil, soya and biofuels have the ambition of being “floor standards”, that is de facto a license to make business. The impact of such standards on trade is substantial. And if they are de facto compulsory, one can of course ask if they should not be subject of regulation and thereby follow the same lines of accountability both nationally and internationally. Many, in particular developing countries, see these voluntary standards as barriers to trade.

In most cases they are dictated by the strong actors in the market place. The most notable example of that is the GLOBAL GAP standard, where supermarkets dictate standards which effectively exclude millions of smallholders from the market place. The same supermarkets which market fair trade products intended to help smallholders.

In Sweden, like in most countries, governments say that it is consumer choice that will determine if farms will farm organically or not. But governments could prohibit, or impose prohibitive fees, on chemical pesticides if they so wished. They could ban factory farming, it they so wished, and if we demand that as citizens.

There are some 100,000 chemicals in use. Certainly, I didn’t make any conscious choice if my computer should be soaked in this or that flame retardant or which chemicals are in my new sofa. To have to select “environmentally friendly” products means that the government authorizes the sale of products that are harmful for the environment. I don’t think it should be a matter of consumer choice if there is Bisphenol A or not in our food.

My conclusion after working with this for some thirty years is that the market mechanism is not efficient in dealing with problems that are rooted in fundamental structures of society, the market itself and the economy. Which is why the buying of fair trade coffee never will end poverty. This was also realized by those fighting against slavery in the United States. The market for products from free labor didn’t abolish slavery. It was political action, and even a Civil War, that led to the abolition of slavery.

Our acts as consumers and our acts as citizens can be linked, and one can bear the seeds for the other one. For instance:
-For a while ethical consumers boycotted eggs from layers in cages, until there was a public ban.
-For a while environmental activists refused to buy refrigerators with CFC, or Freon, as it was called. Then governments agreed to phase it out with the Montreal protocol 1 January 1989.
-There were massive consumer and academic boycotts of South Africa for the apartheid policy. These lasted twenty years until most Western countries agreed to international sanctions.

Clearly this is not an either-or discussion. Most people, including myself, don’t want a nanny state where the government tells us in detail what to do, what to buy or not buy. It is also not a question about the market or the state only. There are many more, non market and non-state, ways of organizing our life and our food. The most apparent is of course to produce the food yourself. But new initiatives such as community supported agriculture are also based on non-market relations, even if they use some of the tools of the market, such as money.

In my view, it is a good thing to make educated and ethical consumer choices. It is not only a good thing - it is our responsibility. But in many cases it makes more sense to have those choices made politically. It is mainly the not so important things and matters for which there is a lot of disagreement that are best left to the market.

Telling consumers that they will change the world or eradicate poverty by shopping is to deceive them.

(notes for my introductory talk at the panel Ethics for sale which was part of the 11th EURsafe conference, The Ethics of Consumption: The Citizen, The Market, and The Law)

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