ABOUT THE BLOG
Many people want to incorporate ethical practices into their daily consumption habits – but this can be an overwhelming undertaking. It is often not easy to find and understand the information that would help us to align our consumption choices with our values, whatever they are. I started Pullback to connect consumers to accessible information on the products that we commonly buy. Each blog post will focus on a product or consumer issue and will provide practical information, backed by evidence.
I grew up in Alberta and moved to Toronto for grad school three years ago. I’m now a PhD student in Political Science in Toronto. My studies have given me the opportunity to learn about corporate social responsibility, as well as advocacy campaigns and new initiatives on consumer rights.
PULLBACK’S LONG TERM VISION
Although Pullback was created as a blog, I have a broader long-term ambition for this site. Eventually, I hope to build an online tool that will be able to identify easy changes in consumer behaviour that will accord with each individual’s particular consumer habits and values. This tool is still just an idea, but it is driven by a clear vision about the obstacles that consumers face in trying to buy ethically.
I believe that we, as consumers, want to act ethically but often feel unable to do so because we do not have access to the information that we would need in order to match our personal moral priorities to particular consumption choices. There are three main causes of this problem:
1. The information that we would need to make moral decisions simply isn’t out there: the process of producing a good has been “networked” to such an extent that it’s difficult to know what is happening and who to hold accountable for abuses that do occur.
On this front, I’m cautiously optimistic about the emerging transparency movement that asks companies to take responsibility for, and provide information about, their supply chains. Of course, significant blind spots and challenges remain. As one example, Bill C-486, proposed by NDP MP Paul Dewar last year, would have required companies to report on their “due diligence” efforts – what, if any, actions they had taken to ensure that their products were not made using conflict minerals. Unfortunately, as so many private members’ bills before it, Bill C-486 died in the House of Commons.
2. The information that does exist is limited, often difficult to interpret or understand, and is disaggregated across thousands of company websites.
At times, the information is deliberately vague, convoluted or obscure. No individual could possibly be expected to read, understand, and scrutinize the information on every ethical issue for every consumer choice.
So, consumers have both too much and too little information: too much, in the sense that we are inundated by inconsistent reporting standards, competing consumer labels, and biased corporate communiqués; too little, because we don’t have the right information about what companies are doing and the impacts of these actions. Ultimately, global government action is probably the only way to resolve this issue in its entirety. In the absence of this, though, a number of academics, journalists and organizations are trying to solve this problem within their own issue-areas by analyzing this cacophonous mass of incomplete information and independently investigating corporate activities. One such example is the Enough Project’s Company Rankings on Conflict Minerals.
Clearly, these first two problems pose an immense challenge. But I think another barrier to conscious consumption is in how information about company behavior is presented to people:
3. Consumption choices are typically treated as isolated choices and framed in absolute terms.
Consumer choices are presented as ‘isolated’ in the sense that communications about company behavior often fail to engage in comparison. To meet our daily needs, oftentimes individuals need to find the best available option, which is made difficult because there is often not information available on the benefits and tradeoffs of one item, as it relates to comparable products.
By ‘absolute’, I am referring to the values that are engaged when advocacy groups speak to consumers. Boycott campaigns (and softer efforts, such as company rankings) nearly always target a single moral issue, even though this bears almost no relation to how consumers must actually make decisions. Consider the recent dueling #boycottTims campaigns: both the initial pro-environment and the responding pro-industry boycotts have focused only on the issue of an ad that was shown on ‘Tim Hortons TV’. But our decision to buy that double-double (or, if you’re me, a vanilla dip donut) or head over to another coffee chain is so much more complicated than that. Assuming that your moral decision-making framework involves more than the single dictate “thou shalt not refrain from advertising in favor of the oil sands, for the oil sands are the lifeblood of the Canadian economy” – as I suspect is the case for all of us, including Ezra Levant – you would need to balance this moral issue with considerations of how Tim Horton’s employees are treated relative to employees in competitor chains, where and how items are sourced, and the extent to which the cost or taste benefits of sticking with Tim Horton’s might outweigh these moral considerations. After all, no one makes perfectly moral decisions all the time. My point? Morality in consumption is complicated, relative, personal, and involves trade-offs.
To belabor the point a bit, let’s consider consumption choices a bit more broadly. In any consumption decision that we might make, there are any number of intersecting values that we may want to balance. For example: should we prioritize working conditions for laborers or the environmental impact of a production process? What if a company that is better on LGBTQI issues has a worse track record on animal cruelty? Is it moral to buy a product that might reduce one’s environmental footprint if that product is produced in a region that you think is illegitimately controlled by a particular government? Should one refrain from buying a product because a company has prevented its workers from unionizing, even if is the only company offering that product that is both affordable and does not test on animals?
To answer these questions, we must consider what moral issues are the most important to us, and which trade-offs are acceptable. Yet advocacy organizations, understandably, frame boycotts as though they were all-or-nothing choices. “To be moral, stop buying from x”: this narrative is a good way to raise awareness about an issue, but it is too simplistic to be helpful to consumers in making our everyday choices.
This is the crux of the third problem: the information that is currently out there is not set up to help us navigate the value-laden questions of ethical consumption because consumer choices are framed, unrealistically, as an all-or-nothing problem.
You might be thinking: if moral choices are personal, how can we possibly expect advocacy organizations to take all of these factors into account? While there is no single “correct” moral choice in any given consumption decision, there should be tools out there that can help us to navigate the information that is out there, given our moral values. We should be able to get advice that is tailored to what we consume and our values. Eventually I hope to create a tool that does just that.