Consumers choose the direction of ethical business

By Mike Bowerman

The world has become such an exercise in specialization that much of what goes on in business and politics skims over or under our awareness without making a ripple in the Lake Give-a-Damn of our consciousness. It isn’t so much that we don’t care what goes on in the world as there isn’t time to learn about it, have a life and feel we are making a difference. But the small "p" protest of ethical consumption is helping to change that. There is considerable criticism of the free market, and though we can debate the merits and problems of the current system until the Klein’s come home, there is one thing that cannot be denied: the consensus of today’s consumer votes has given us exactly what we are prepared to pay for. If we want a cleaner environment and living wages paid to third-world workers we can have it; we just have to bear the cost.

Conventional foods grown with pesticides might seem less expensive than organic, but they are in fact subsidized through environmental degradation and the illness and death of the developing world’s workers. While agri-business tries to fool consumers into believing that genetically engineered foods are good for people and the planet, the organic food industry is being buoyed by growing consumer awareness and the dissatisfaction that makes people willing to pay a little more for what they value. Consequently, the organic industry is predicted to grow to a 10 percent share of the grocery market in the next 10 years. That figure represents a fivefold increase and growth that would make some high-tech companies envious. Such shifts are signs of an increasing and positive wave of consumer consciousness.

Massive industries like the automobile and petroleum consortium are not stimulating the innovation the free market promised us, but are holding it back. Rather than investing heavily in the alternative fuel technologies and mass transit that could actually reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses, they are following the market to its dead end, stimulating demand for the second-best options that they offer through million dollar advertising campaigns and cigarette-science type studies that deny the significance of global warming. By investing in those companies that are pursuing the future of technology in alternative fuel and spending more money on gasoline-hybrids and less on SUVs, consumers can pull the marketplace out of the fossil-fuel tar pit.

It is a simple act to deprive the anti-environment, anti-progress industries of the dollars they crave and instead give the true entrepreneurs of our society those funds. We vote twice with every dollar, for something and against something else. We can vote "No" to old thinking and entrenched institutions and then vote "Yes" by giving our money to the scientists, businessmen, farmers and thinkers who are trying to create the infrastructure and ideas that we need to make tomorrow better than today.

This isn’t just theory. Starbucks is an example of a company who, objectionable to many people for many reasons, has started to try to adapt to the new consumerism by offering coffee produced with organic and other earth-friendly techniques from farmers who are given decent wages and some degree of stability in the marketplace. The jury may still be out on Starbucks and the sincerity of their efforts, but it is a sign of the times when a major multinational begins investigating ways to attract the ethical consumer into their shop. Such corporate interests are not just being friendly, they are following profits in a changing marketplace. Those who don’t respond to changes will become obsolete.

If you feel like picketing the latest human rights or environmental abusers won’t change the world, you still have the power to make decisions you can feel good about. Each of us casts our vote for the world we want to live in every day when we endorse superstar sports salaries, Nike shoes or McDonalds’. Environmental, human rights and all other significant issues of our day must be approached and understood on a variety of levels if we are going to change the way things are done. Business is no more exploitive than we let it be. The most significant thing we can do as citizens of one of the planet’s wealthiest and most consumptive nations is to change our spending habits.