Can one person make a difference simply by choosing where to shop and what to buy?
These days, many global consumers seem to feel that way. Just type, “ethical shopping” into your search box and see what comes up.
Who knew there were so many websites devoted to telling you where you should spend your money in order to do the most good?
I wish I could say a search like this yields clear-cut instructions for patronizing socially- and environmentally-responsible businesses—but, to be honest, that just isn’t the case.
Instead, you can expect to be confronted with site after site promising clarity on what qualifies as “good/sustainable”—and delivering confusing or contradictory information instead.
One thing you won’t see on most of these websites is an explanation of just how they arrived at their ratings.
[Before we go any further, I should make it clear I don’t have any personal, professional, or financial interest in any of the companies I make reference to below. Nor am I some kind of ethical shopping expert. I’m just a public affairs specialist with a fair amount of food policy and marketing in my background.]
But the question remains: Who gets to decide what constitutes a company with a good conscious? What are the criteria, anyway? And why should L.L. Bean shoppers get to feel good about themselves while Gap patrons have to reconcile their t-shirt purchases with the knowledge that their preferred vendor is on the “almost, not quite” list?
I’m not here to poke fun at what these sites are trying to do.
We should all work hard to make informed decisions and support companies we believe in. But, as consumers, we also need to understand just how subjective some of these rating systems truly are.
For example, the same site that favors Amazon as a retailer thinks personal care company Tom’s of Maine has some work to do. If you bought some of Tom’s Silly Strawberry flavored Anti-Cavity Children’s Fluoride Toothpaste ($6.99 for 4.2 ounces) from Amazon would that ease your conscious in any way (and Tom’s)?
What is a caring shopper to do?
And when it comes to food manufacturers—the subject of consumer responsibility gets even more sensitive.
One thing I know a little bit about is food; how it’s grown, harvested, processed, sold in stores and restaurants, and how it’s disposed of.
In the course of my public affairs career I have witnessed the amazing revolution in global food production up close. I have seen how consumers play an active, ongoing role in determining what types of foods are grown and sold.
That’s right: Consumers—not legislators, agencies, or other organs of governments—dictated what types of foods were available on the market.
Even in developing countries, consumers make purchasing decisions that ultimately dictate what crops are planted and what types of products end up for sale on the shelves.
Let me pause for a moment and set your mind at ease by assuring you that I don’t plan to launch into yet another pro- or anti-GMO opinion piece.
I think it is safe to say that a lot of people on all sides of the GMO debate understand that it is a complex issue that gives well-meaning people some pause.
Instead, I want to talk about something easier for most people to embrace: The benefits of supporting organically grown products. And this is where we circle back to ethical shopping.
It turns out that simply buying organic may not be an optimal way to save the planet.
Don’t take my word for it: Powerhouse U.S. grocer, Whole Foods Market, though ranked among consumers’ greenest brands, has recently and dramatically shifted its promotional efforts away from an emphasis on promoting organic produce to a new, ”Responsibly Grown” rating system. Using their own methods, Whole Foods now rates and displays fresh produce and flowers as “Good,” “Better,” and “Best.”
The company says they analyze a number of factors in deciding their product rankings including soil health, waste reduction, farmworker welfare and pest management.
That last category is interesting because it appears to give farmers that use some pesticides a chance to rank higher than organic farmers depending on how they perform in other categories.
On the Whole Foods website, the company maintains a strong commitment to organic produce but now “gives organic growers the opportunity to document achievement in additional areas.”
Wait, so the grocery store that so many well-intentioned people rely on for guidance in all areas related to global stewardship is now telling their customers that some pesticides are okay after all?
This move probably smells like some sort of corporate sell-out to a lot of people.
After all, organics are better than conventional foods, right?
Well, not exactly.
Most reputable studies continue to show that there is little difference between organic and conventionally farmed produce when it comes to health and nutrition.
As for impacts on Earth, a comprehensive 2012 study by McGill University and the University of Minnesotafound that organic farming produced 25 percent less food than the same amount of land devoted to conventional farming methods. That is a pretty big global environmental footprint.
Corporate sell-outs or not, Whole Foods Market may be onto something here.
From a public affairs/advocacy standpoint, it would appear the Whole Foods is trying to drive a conversation with their customers about perceptions vs. reality when it comes to purchasing decisions based on criteria other than price alone.
Let’s face it: The typical Whole Foods shopper is probably more than willing to engage (and engage and engage) on a topic like this.
As someone who looks for ways to bridge gaps between environment, production, and consumers, this is a conversation I would like to see happen.
No government is forcing Whole Foods to start this conversation. The company is letting the marketplace determine its strategy and marketing.
Look, if you still really want to keep buying organic products, nothing should stand in your way.
There has been such a dramatic growth in demand for these items that you can now find them in just about any produce outlet—be it a local farmers market, independent grocer, or even Costco (now the world’s largest seller of organic foods). Or you can skip the membership fees and head over to Walmart, another very large seller of organic foods.
But today, thanks to changing tastes and new demands, individuals are now having to ask themselves: Are all organics created equal? Why does it matter? And most importantly: Where do our ideas about what makes something socially and environmentally responsible originate in the first place?
If you ask me that’s an exciting development.
Dan Colegrove is Senior Advisor to Goddard Gunster and President of ACME Public Affairs.