The Monitor's View

The neighborliness of ethical shoppers

Purchases of 'ethical' products in Britain, such as organic food, now surpass those of alcohol and tobacco. What drives this steady global trend in 'conscious consuming'?

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    Joel Salatin on his "Polyface Farm" in Swoope, Virginia, is a leader in a type of agriculture that sustains soil through unconventional methods in raising cattle, pigs, and poultry. He sells to customers only within a day's drive of his farm so they can inspect his operation.
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In Britain last year, consumers spent more on “ethical” products, such as Fair Trade food and hybrid vehicles, than on alcohol and tobacco. Virtue beat out vice, at least in buying stuff. Other wealthy countries may have already crossed a similar threshold in “conscious consuming.” Is this trend worth celebrating?

First, it needs some perspective. The British nonprofit that tallies such data, Ethical Consumer, points out that the market for such goods in the country still makes up only about six percent of overall consumer spending. The tipping point seems far off.

Second, attempts to define ethical spending remain contentious, much like attempts to define organic food. The Ethical Consumer, for example, considers purchases of second-hand clothing to be ethical. Even a 1940s mink coat?

 Third, has this trend finally left the confines of the upper-class, going beyond pricier retailers like Whole Foods and Prius dealerships? Perhaps. Walmart plans to greatly expand its organic food section, with promises to keep prices low. And like other major clothes retailers, it has become more diligent in improving conditions for workers in overseas factories after the garment-factory collapse a year ago in Bangladesh.

What then really drives this trend? Is it simply shopper’s guilt? Shaming of companies by activists? Perhaps there are two main drivers, each related to the other.

One could be a recognition by more people to practice what can be called empathy at a distance. It is a greater awareness of how clothes are made, whether diamonds are “conflict free," which farmers treat animals humanely, or which types of endangered trees are being felled. It is “love thy neighbor” without actually seeing your neighbor as well as a shared concern for creation.

Yet that sentiment is also driven by what is called “radical transparency.” More consumers and companies expect openness in almost every detail of commerce, especially the origin and process of goods and manufacturing. The annual global survey known as the Edelman Trust Barometer finds 56 percent of people want companies to exhibit both ethical and transparent practices. And a 2013 survey found more than three-quarters of Americans will boycott a product if they find out an environmental claim is faulty. “Green” on a label better mean green.

In the digital age of social media and the always-on culture, it is far easier to track money and goods. The clothing maker Everlane has a website that reveals photographs of its factories in different countries. More charities now provide donors with specific details on how their dollars are spent, down to the GPS coordinate of a particular water well dug. The World Resource Institute has launched Global Forest Watch, a program that will use satellites, crowd-sourcing, and other techniques to guard trees in distant lands and in real time.

One potentially far-reaching effort is a campaign begun in 2012 to encourage companies to provide an annual report on “sustainability,” or the impact of their operations on world resources. The Sustainability Accounting Standards is backed by various philanthropies. A related effort is the issuance of  “green bonds,” begun in 2008 by the World Bank to finance environmentally friendly projects.

No doubt values-based buyers and businesses are here to stay, and growing. With their nonmaterialistic motives and a reliance on powerful tools for transparency, they hint at a view of the world that is in harmony with itself.

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