Ethical sales, selling ethics

NPR’s Natalie Jacewicz asks whether Millennials are hypocrites when it comes to chocolate:

In a survey of participants ages 18 to 35, millennials reported caring about ethical issues like environmental sustainability and social responsibility in chocolate production. But when choosing chocolate privately, these self-proclaimed ethical shoppers were all chocolate bark and no bite. (Sorry.) Most showed little preference for labels advertising ethical sourcing and instead preferred labels with ingredients they recognized — items like “chocolate” and “butter,” rather than “tertiary butylhydroquinone.”

When talking in general terms, participants in the study (which, it bears mentioning, was funded by Hershey) said they favored ethically sourced chocolate, but when presented with unbranded chocolate bars and asked to choose, ethics took a back seat.

Most participants consistently paid attention to whether or not they could pronounce the ingredients in a bar, but only a small, socially conscious group — representing 14 percent of participants — showed strong preference for ethical labels.

A “corporate sustainability specialist” quoted in the story says this goes to show that young people “tend to be quite aware of social issues and environmental issues. But if you push a bit harder, it’s a lot of talk, but not always action.” In other words, corporations can just ignore that ethics stuff, because people don’t really care about it anyway. Hershey doesn’t have to worry about enslaved eleven year-olds in its supply chain. Nothing to see here.

But Jacewicz notes that young people are more likely to buy organic milk, eggs, and meat — so what’s going on? The psychologist who led the study suggests that because chocolate is an indulgence rather than a staple, people aren’t thinking about ethical issues when they buy it — they are, by implication, thinking about themselves. I’ll buy that, but I don’t think it’s limited to chocolate. Note that participants in the study wanted only ingredients they could pronounce; they were quite concerned about the quality of what they put in their bodies, not only about “indulgent” qualities like flavor. But I’d suggest that’s also true of people buying organic staples. The USDA’s organic standards say little about animal welfare and next to nothing about workers, and though organic agriculture is supposed to be about process, most of the marketing of organic produce has always been about the product — the suggestion that organic food is better for you, that it’s more nutritious or contains fewer carcinogens, or just that it tastes better. Marketing has encouraged people to buy organic food out of concern for themselves and their families, not out of concern for workers, animals, or the planet.

So there’s nothing necessarily inconsistent about buying organically certified milk but looking for “natural” ingredients rather than ethical sourcing certifications on a chocolate bar. The food movement hasn’t succeeded in establishing an ethic; for the most part, it’s only given people new ways to think more deeply about their own welfare. Organic food might be branded as ethical, so people can feel good about themselves when buying it, but that isn’t the same as genuine concern; it’s just another form of “me first.” That’s what sells, and until we stop judging success by what sells, it will keep right on selling.

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