Paying More (or not) for “Ethical” Food

From Reuters: UK shoppers want ethical food without paying more

They want ethical food, but don’t want to pay more. My, that is news. I guess shoppers in the UK are unlike the rest of us, who prefer unethical food and want to pay more for it.

Anyway, here’s the first bit of the story:

Britons have an appetite for ethical food, but as the recession bites shoppers are anxious to spend less.

Sales of ethical food, such as organic produce grown without chemicals, and Fairtrade products for which farmers in poor countries are paid more to help improve living standards, are both slowing.

“There is a huge propensity for people wanting things to be done in an ethical manner,” said Jonathan Banks, U.K.-based business insight director with market research firm the Nielsen Company.

“But they are not going to make repeat purchases on something that is not good value for money,” he said…

OK, funny headline aside, there’s plenty of interesting stuff, here.

First, there’s the oddness of the term “ethical food.” The article gives examples: organic produce, fair trade products, etc. (Presumably the list would include things like low-carbon-footprint food, union-made food, shade-grown coffee, etc.) Is each of those characteristics, on its own, sufficient to call food “ethical?” (I’ve blogged about this problem before: “Organic:” Not Synonymous With “Ethical”.) What about food priced low enough that a working-class family can buy it and still afford health insurance? Is that “ethical” food, too?

Second, there’s the fact that — my joke aside — some people really do want to pay more. Purveyors of various fair-trade (not necessarily just FairTrade) products do their best to convince customers voluntarily to pay more for products (such as coffee). It’s not just that such customers are willing to pay more; they’re volunteering to. (See also this new book: Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, by Ellen Ruppel Shell, which I haven’t read yet.)

Finally, there’s the hard problem of how to translate even widespread concern for X into collective action on X. It’s relatively easy to get people to say they prefer to buy food with various ethical characteristics. But (even setting aside controversy over what counts as ethical food) it’s harder to get people to act on that preference. First, in many cases there’s the sense that individual choices don’t matter much; in others, there’s the sense that they don’t matter at all. It’s hard to motivate people under such circumstances, even if they want to do the right thing. Add onto that the issue of price, and it’s tempting for each of us to go for the cheap option, and let everyone else save the world. Of course, if enough of us think that way, the world just doesn’t get saved, even though we all want it to. (See also the “problem of collective action in the provision of public goods.”)

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