Food, Values, and Brands

This past Friday I gave a talk on ethics & food at the University of Western Ontario. (The event was sponsored by the Rotman Institute of Science and Values and the Philosophy Department.)

The talk was essentially an exploration of a cluster of issues related to the large (and growing) number of value dimensions along which consumers currently evaluate food products. People want food that is tasty and nutritious, but at least some of them also want food that is organic, cruelty-free, non-GMO, fairly traded, low-carbon, local, shade-grown, hand-harvested, dolphin-friendly, and so on.

Many of those characteristics are associated with the term “ethical food.” But of course no one characteristic is likely to be sufficient to warrant calling a particular food product “ethical.” And if we want to evaluate which of two food products is more ethical, we quickly find that it’s very hard (indeed, impossible) simply to “sum up” the ethical qualities of any given food product to arrive at some sort of “bottom line” for purposes of comparison. Another problem is that some of the values we might care about can come into direct conflict. If you want your salmon to be wild (as opposed to farmed) that’s fine, unless you also want it organic. If it’s wild, its diet can’t be controlled, and hence it can’t be organic. You have to choose one of those things or the other. Consider also the conflict between wanting your food locally grown, on one hand, and wanting it grown in an ecologically sensitive manner: you can’t have it both ways if, for example, you live in a place not naturally suited to growing produce (e.g., Arizona).

The other thing I talked about was the role that brands play in consumer food choices. Branding is most typically thought of as a means of product differentiation, and as a mechanism for fostering trust. But brands can also be thought of as clusters of values. Different brands mean different things to consumers, and consumers may become devoted to a particular food brand because the values they see that brand as representing fit well with their own values. This means that brands can be an important mechanism for simplifying the choices consumers face, and helping consumers buy just what it is that they really want most — i.e., food products that embody their preferred cluster of values. Finally, it means that brands are likely to be expected to bear a lot of weight — weight they may or may not be capable of bearing. It also means that brands, taken as a means of communication between producer and consumer, represent an important opportunity for either ethical or unethical communication.

p.s. thanks again to the faculty and students at UWO for their kind invitation and for being such a great audience!

1 comment so far

  1. […] of “meta-labels”, single descriptors that bundle together a ranger of characteristics. Brands are one way of doing that. So are well-recognized methods of agriculture, as represented by words […]

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