The Price Tag on Social Justice

WHAT price social justice? And will people pay it? Anyone conversant with the concepts of the developed and the developing worlds knows that the former uses a disproportionate share of the world's resources. And anyone politically more moderate than Attila the Hun may have second thoughts about, say, flying an airline trying to break its union, or about buying a supermarket item targeted by a well-publicized consumer boycott.

But do these little tremors of personal concern amount to anything? Is there a role in the economy for ``ethical consumption,'' as it is known? The answer seems to be yes, a small but growing role for consumers who vote with their dollars or pounds or guilders for corporate environmentalism, for progressive personnel practices, and for better treatment of third-world suppliers.

Ethical consumption has received a particular boost in Britain recently, says Richard Adams, director of New Consumer in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The Greens, who did surprisingly well in June's Europarliamentary elections and have just held their party conference, have raised environmental consciousness generally. And as activists scrutinize companies for their environmental policies, they are beginning to consider their records on social issues as well.

Mr. Adams's organization has just launched a new publication, also called New Consumer, intended to help people shop their social conscience. He hopes to emulate on the ethical-consumption front the success that more traditional consumer groups have had in putting out the facts about product price and quality.

``Shopping for a Better World,'' published by the Council on Economic Priorities in New York, has sold 350,000 copies since December, says Alice Tepper Marlin, CEP's director. Eighty percent of those who have bought the book have switched brands on the basis of its information, she adds.

New Consumer - the organization, not the magazine - is also working on establishing ``development-friendly'' brands of foodstuffs and perhaps clothing items, to be marketed under a recognizable trademark, something like the familiar ``woolmark.'' The seal of approval would mark goods produced without exploiting third-world suppliers.

Ethical consumption may be regarded as a subset of a larger realm of activism: campaigns to buy union (or buy nonunion), buy domestic, or to boycott the products of this or that multinational. Harvard University economist Richard Freeman observes that no one has really studied the role of social-issue consumerism in the economy, but estimates, ``If it's 2 percent, that's big.''

Some of these campaigns clearly fly in the face of shoppers' self-interest. Patriotism may be the last refuge of makers of noncompetitive goods, as well as of scoundrels. In a marketplace where ownership can be hard to track, would-be activists may find their efforts hampered by misinformation.

But dissemination of information ``fits into the traditional idea of the marketplace,'' says Adams. ``For the perfect market, you need perfect information.'' Perfectly informed consumers will know to shun polluting products and save in the long run by avoiding cleanup costs.

In some ways, activist consumers will simply be cheering business along the path it is already following: Humane employment practices, for instance, often justify themselves in clear bottom-line terms no less than in terms of ``image.''

But an instance of ``pure'' consumer idealism must be mentioned: Max Havelaar coffee. This brand, named after a 19th-century novel about coffee-plantation workers in the Dutch East Indies, was introduced into retail outlets in the Netherlands last November.

The coffee is marketed by a consortium committed to paying the small suppliers from which it buys a price above the world market price. This price is passed along to consumers, who are paying an even steeper premium now - some 15 to 25 percent - for their socially conscious brew than before the world coffee price agreement collapsed over the summer. But Max Havelaar has clung to its 2 percent share of the competitive Dutch coffee market.

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