Saturday, February 17, 2007

Feel-good shopping news?

Way back in October I wrote a post about Product Red -- and half-jokingly talked about how ethical shopping can change the world (in reality I was just trying to make myself feel better about my excessive consumerism). Today, as I was reading up on Inhabitat, I came across EPIC. Are you an ethical, progressive, and intelligent consumer? Hell yes I am! My first thought was to book a plane ticket to Vancouver as soon as possible so that I could be among other cool EPICs...but then I began to wonder if it might be the new millenium's yuppie-fest. How beneficial can ethical shopping really be?

The Economist article "Voting with your trolley" (7 Dec 2006) sparked a lively debate on whether or not ethical food shopping actually makes a difference in the world. When faced with the enormous challenges of world poverty and climate change, the average person feels overwhelmed and helpless. Buying locally, choosing organic food or purchasing Fairtrade products seems like an easy enough lifestyle shift that can make a difference. But does it?

Many argue that ethical food shopping is like the traditional "vote with your feet" argument (tip of the hat to Mr. Charles Tiebout). When you don't like the package of public goods (schools, infrastructure, etc.) being provided in the community in which you live, pack up shop and choose a community that provides the mix and quality of public goods you're looking for. This forces communities to be competitive...or so the argument goes. Now apply this to shopping. If the masses start purchasing more organic/locally-produced/fair trade products, the market will have to respond - the message will travel the lengthy journey of the supply chain from the consumer to the producer. This phenomenon is pretty visible - lots of grocery store chains (including Wal-Mart) now carry their own organic food lines. But are all aspects of these products actually beneficial? Here are some interesting arguments against the buzz words:

  • FAIR TRADE: Economists argue against subsidies because they encourage overproduction. So while Fairtrade farmers are earning a higher price for their crops, the overproduction is driving down the prices received by non-Fairtrade farmers making them relatively worse-off. In addition, the Fairtrade premium creates a disincentive for farmers to diversify their crops. Some also argue that the Fairtrade certification policies to not help the majority of poor farmers - those who work on large plantations that are ineligible for Fairtrade status.

  • ORGANIC: A Nobel-peace-prize-winning agriculturist (think Green Revolution) argues that organic farming (without fertilizers and pesticides) produces less output, which in turn requires more land - leaving much less land for forests. How environmentally friendly is that?

  • LOCALLY-PRODUCED: The main argument for buying locally combines supporting local farmers and decreasing "food miles" - the distance your food travels from the source to your table. However, a study in the UK found that majority of food miles are racked up between home and the grocery store/farmers market. In addition, studies found that it's (in many cases) more efficient and environmentally-friendly to truck in veggies from someplace warm than to grow them in hothouses. And what about the boost in trade and development received in developing countries get when we import our food from outside the US?

My opinion remains the same - expos like EPIC are creating a more mainstream and popular image of the "sustainable lifestyle" - and this makes it more easily digestable for the yuppie masses, who aren't ready to turn in their pointy-toe boots for Birkenstocks. The stereotype of the environmentalist/social activist is changing, and I think that's great. Keep the talk going - the more people become aware, the more solutions we'll see - and maybe (just maybe) the movement will advance beyond changing consumer habits, to something more concrete like changing policy. In the meantime, I'll look for flights to Vancouver.

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