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Price and Convenience vs. Ethical Issues

By (view all posts by Allegra.Ringo)
at 7:56AM Wednesday April 27, 2011
under Newsworthy

Local 770, the union that represents many grocery store employees in Southern California, has voted to authorize a strike against Ralphs, Albertsons and Safeway. According to reports by Southern California Public Radio, "a work stoppage isn't a foregone conclusion," but it is a possibility.
Southern California residents may remember a similar situation in 2003 and 2004, when union members staged a strike against the same grocery chains that lasted for almost 5 months. During this time, many customers did their grocery shopping elsewhere, some to support of the workers, some to avoid confrontation, and some, presumably, for less interesting reasons ("If you ask me, Target brand tinfoil is at least 0.5 times stronger than Ralphs brand..."). The strike cost the chains approximately $2 billion in lost revenue.

Of course, there were still many people who crossed the picket lines and continued to shop at these stores, for a variety of reasons: disagreement with/lack of interest in the cause or, perhaps more commonly, price or convenience.

Mark recently wrote about socially responsible investing. Here, I thought I'd take a look at a couple of facets of socially responsible consumption.

Made in America vs. Made Overseas

This may come as a surprise to no one, but many American companies outsource labor to countries where employees will work more cheaply. This has a couple of objectionable consequences: 1) jobs are taken away from the American economy, and 2) work conditions for workers in these countries are more likely to be terrible. In poverty-stricken places, as you might imagine, people are more willing to work for cheaper--often barely livable--wages. Additionally, these countries tend to have workplace regulations that are less strict, leading to sweatshops and other poor working conditions.

For these reasons, some people try to buy as many American-made products as possible. Unfortunately, this is no small task, as one reporter learned when she tried to spend a day without using anything made in China. A huge percentage of the items we rely on every day: clothing, electronics, furniture - are manufactured overseas. What's more, "buying American" is usually considerably more expensive.

Fair Trade

Similarly, there are many trades worldwide in which people often work under highly objectionable conditions. For instance, the West African nation of Ivory Coast has frequently come under fire for using child slave labor in the harvesting of cocoa. Understandably, many consumers don't want to contribute to such practices. That's where fair trade comes in.

Fair trade is a movement that seeks to improve trading conditions for workers/ growers in developing countries, as well as improve sustainability practices. It largely applies to foods, such as bananas, honey, and chocolate. If a company wants to obtain the fair trade label, they must meet certain qualifications for wages, treatment of workers/ growers, and so forth. FLO-CERT inspects all fair trade companies to make sure they are in compliance with these standards.

Although the fair trade label does not directly monetarily benefit a company, it carries with it a certain prestige that appeals to a certain class of consumers. On the consumer side of things, fairly traded products are, as you've probably guessed, more expensive than "unfairly traded" products. Additionally,  there's not a fairly traded option for every food you'd normally buy at the grocery store.

Socially Responsible Consumption and Class Issues

Unfortunately, the solution isn't as easy as yelling at people to buy more ethically-made products. Socially responsible consumption is largely reserved for those who can afford it. Products that are American-made, fair trade, organic, local, and so forth generally come with a much higher price tag than their questionably-produced counterparts. That means it's simply not feasible for working-class families to purchase such products, when a cheaper alternative is available.  Additionally, these kinds of products are not available everywhere. They're easy to come by in affluent, white, generally liberal neighborhoods--but residents of rural West Virginia likely won't find an aisle of fair trade coffee in their local grocery store.

Do you try to buy products produced in ways you find ethical? How do you balance socially responsible consumption with price and convenience?