Danger: Ethical Consumerism

I've just read a blog from TreeHugger.com entitled "Why Corporate Fat-Cats Love Ethical Consumerism." Although I can't think of a title quite as catchy, I've been thinking a lot about this stuff lately, and wanted to share my thoughts.

The new, watered-down, corporate version of "Fair Trade Certified" and the slew of other 'eco' and 'fair' claims out there make me wonder about how we can really move towards our goals of creating a true, equitable trading system, and respecting human dignity and the environment. In our struggle towards these goals, what are the impacts of 'quasi-ethically' sourced products on our grocery store shelves; of companies that sell some products that are ethically sourced, and some that aren't?

I don't really know the answers, but here are a few ideas that I've been mulling over:

First, as the Tree Hugger blog discusses, ethically sourced products can be used to distract us from the real goals. For example, many companies have a meager portion of their products certified "Fair Trade," let's say 10%. They then spend 50% of their marketing dollars pushing these products, creating a nice halo around themselves. But what about the other 90% of their products? Is it okay to exploit 90% of farmers, as long as a few others are treated fairly? We all so 'no', but as consumers, we fall for it. We say, "Hey, those guys are alright." The truth is, these companies exploit Fair Trade (or Organic etc.) to make a buck, but don't care for a second about the underlying issues of justice, environmental stewardship or human dignity. In the process, they muddy the waters with their many labels and certifications and confuse consumers.

The second idea that I've been mulling over is about us, the consumer. I read an interesting study about human psychology and ethical consumerism recently and it suggested that each of us creates a personal mix of moral standards. We set goals for ourselves about how we should act. The study suggested that, for example, when we see an ad for a 'green' product, we begin to feel like we're not achieving our moral goals. When we act on that feeling and buy a 'green' product, we feel better about ourselves, like we've met or even surpassed our moral goals. What happens then? Well, after meeting or surpassing our moral goals, we sometimes thing we're done. We say, "okay, I'm moral now, so I don't need to keep thinking about this stuff."

I worry about this in terms of coffee. I worry that people will buy our Fair Trade coffee and then say "okay, I'm done." This is obviously not our intention. Our goal at Dean's Beans is not to distract consumers from the real issues, but to show that a business can think about the big picture and can incorporate the real issues into the fabric of its dealings, and not just use them as marketing tools. We hope that other companies and that our customers will do the same.

- Michael

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