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Dara O’Rourke asks whether consumers can transform global production. We answer, “yes,” but not alone. While we agree with many of the points that O’Rourke raises, we challenge three.
First, consumers are not citizens without a state. Regulation and state intervention are still key factors in shaping the boundaries within which consumers make their “ethical” choices. For example, without subsidies and government mandates in the United States and the European Union, there would be less renewable energy for transport, perhaps none. Today consumers can choose whether to fill up their cars with straight gasoline or a 5–10 percent ethanol blend, or they can buy electric cars. And recent changes in renewable energy regulation have encouraged the development of sustainable biofuels, made from forest and crop residues and even algae, not food stocks.
Second, while O’Rourke correctly observes that a large majority of consumers do not walk the walk, an increasing number do. In the early 2000s, critics dismissed the ethical coffee market as a small niche. As it grew they declared that it would hit a ceiling. And when the economic crisis hit, a dramatic slowdown was expected. Yet consumption of fair trade, organic, and other sustainable coffee keeps growing—it’s now more than 8 percent of the market. Another example: ten years ago there were no wild-caught sustainable fish on supermarket shelves. Now thousands of products in more than 40 countries are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a nonprofit eco-labeling organization.
Companies can burnish their reputations without changing their ways.
Third, O’Rourke suggests that initiatives such as Bono’s Product (RED) are part of the growing success of ethical consumption. A portion of the profits from the sale of (RED) products is donated to the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. But there is an important distinction between “ethical consumption,” which makes claims about a product (e.g., the conditions of production, environmental impact), and marketing campaigns that donate some profits to a cause. In our recent book, we explain how Product (RED) and similar initiatives are part of a new phenomenon we call “brand aid.” Brand aid involves brands that provide aid, but also aid to brands. Brand aid helps to sell branded products and improve a brand’s ethical profile and reputation. But it doesn’t ask companies to improve their conditions of production and thus is not ethical consumption in the sense that O’Rourke endorses.
Brand aid, in fact, shifts attention away from the way products are produced, workers’ wages, and environmental impact and toward a good cause, which, not coincidentally, has nothing to do with the product. In the case of Product (RED), Fighting HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria is not only important work, but also allows companies to do something socially useful without drawing attention to what may be harmful production processes.
Labeling systems, such as MSC’s, are critical to the future of ethical production and consumption. Ethical consumption relies on standardized practices that are guaranteed by labels. If the claims of supposedly ethical initiatives are not vetted, then brand hype gets in the way, and consumers cannot make informed choices. O’Rourke’s GoodGuide may help the rich and committed focus on truly ethical choices, but other consumers—poor, rushed, or distracted—will not be able to join the ranks of ethical consumers this way. Our solution is to create better policies that democratize ethical consumption.
Without regulation and state intervention to guarantee standards, Product (RED) and similar forms of brand aid are like greenwash initiatives, enabling producers to raise their corporate social responsibility profile without substantially changing their business practices. All the while, consumers engage in low-cost heroism, unaware of how little difference they are making on behalf of people whom their purchases “save.”
A small percentage of consumers have already moved a portion of the market toward more sustainable practices. But the larger promise of ethical consumption remains unmet.
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