January 23, 2012

The Consumer’s Conundrum

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I was waiting in line at the grocery store with a friend of mine earlier this week when she pulled out her iPhone to send a text message.“I’m kind of torn about this phone,” she said to me. “I got it as a Christmas gift. On the one hand, I love the phone, but on the other hand, I keep hearing about all of these abuses at the Foxconn factory that produces them. And when I look for ways to fight the abuse, I can’t find anything. What do I do?”My immediate thought was simple: Don’t buy an iPhone! But after taking a moment’s pause, I realized that the problem might be a bit trickier than it initially appears.Suppose you’re in the market for a cell phone and you intend to be an ethically minded consumer. Phones that were produced at the expense of basic labor rights would be out of the question. With that constraint though, is it even possible to buy a phone? Perhaps not: It turns out that even if the manufacturing process is ethical, the sourcing of metals for the electronic components likely isn’t. Much of the cell phone industry relies on the use of “conflict minerals” such as tin, tungsten and tantalite, the purchasing of which has funded insurgent violence in African regions such as the Congo. Being an ethical cell phone consumer, then, might mean not being a cell phone consumer at all.My friend’s question had in fact struck at a core trouble with the fast-growing movement of ethical consumerism. If truly being an ethical consumer requires almost entirely abstaining from purchasing rather common goods, could the movement become widespread enough to actually incite meaningful change in industry practices?Market trends inspire an optimistic answer. Organic foods, for instance, have become immensely popular in recent years. With consumers more consistently demanding environmentally friendly growing practices, sales have increased by more than 2600 percent over the last 20 years.Or you can look to the pronounced growth in sales of Fair Trade products, which aim to promote sustainable practices, living wages and proper labor conditions in developing nations. Sales of Fair Trade certified products in the United States have seen more than 20 percent year-to-year growth, with an aggregate market volume of over $1 billion.Thanks to consumer dedication and resilience, organic and Fair Trade products went from being a niche market to being available in stores around the country. The growing popularity of conscious consumerism undoubtedly facilitated this trend: Nearly 9 of 10 Americans now say that corporate ethics influence their buying decisions.But not everyone is so glossy-eyed about conscious consumerism. One study conducted by two assistant professors at the University of Toronto found that individuals who purchase “green” products may subsequently act less altruistically, perhaps because they interpret the purchase as something of an indulgence. Imagine someone who eats a salad and decides to reward himself with a slice of cake: The initial behavior begets some unintended consequences.Perhaps the most pointed critique, however, comes from none other than renowned philosopher Slavoj Zizek. His basic contention is this: Movements such as ethical consumerism serve as nothing more than a Band-Aid for the social ills of the world. Fundamentally, ethical consumerism is still consumerism; it therefore feeds an economic system that is itself the cause of the very problems the movement tries to solve. And because ethical consumers are made complacent towards the intrinsic flaws of their consumerist culture, ethical consumerism may in fact stifle meaningful change. As Zizek sees it, all products face the cell-phone conundrum: There simply is no ethical alternative.I’m not so cynical. Capitalism is a dynamic system — the contours of the market depend entirely on how people choose to spend their money. By voting with their wallets, a more civically minded population of consumers has to the ability to demand goods that reflect their collective values. Even Zizek admits that ethical consumerism is better than simply doing nothing. If the alternative course of action he advocates involves dismantling the basic economic structure of most of the developed world … respectfully, Mr. Zizek, I’ll stick with being an ethical consumer.This is not to say that an unregulated marketplace will produce optimal outcomes so long as there are ethical consumers. Being a conscious consumer requires having access to consistent, reliable information about how products are made. Government certification and disclosure requirements for companies help ensure that consumers are able to make accurate purchasing decisions. And where some practices are deemed too unsafe, unfit or unethical, additional government regulation may be necessary.So what of the original dilemma? Is ethical consumerism too binding to produce real change? I certainly don’t think so. If consumers make their preferences known, companies will follow suit. In the case of Apple, negative press led them to allow third-party audits of the Foxconn factory, and publicly list all of their suppliers. It’s a small victory, but nonetheless a meaningful one.The “right” choice isn’t always obvious — or even readily available. But with a little research and a little discretion, even the average consumer can be an activist. Cornell’s campus is an excellent asset; it deserves to be treated as such.

David Murdter is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at dmurdter@cornellsun.com. Murphy’s Lawyer appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: David Murdter