Success at Selling Less

A few months ago, I posted about Pepsi promising to stop selling its sugary drinks to kids at school (see The Ethics of Selling Less.) I pointed out that there’s a significant problem for a company that sells a product that, when consumed in moderation, is totally harmless, but which when over-consumed is dangerous. It’s hard to know what counts as success. Moderation is a nice word, but it’s a hard corporate goal.

I’m interested in the general idea, so I’m curious to find examples from other industries. So, my questions:

1) What other products or services are there that we want or need in some quantity, but that, socially, we want to use less of?

Some obvious examples:

  • sugary beverages;
  • legal advice;
  • healthcare;
  • electricity;
  • gasoline.

In each case, we need (or want) to have access; but we wish that overal usage were lower. We’re glad the companies supplying these things exist, but we don’t necessarily want maximum consumption of their products. Of course, the reasons are different in different cases. We need gas, but we want reduced consumption because burning gas causes pollution. For healthcare, on the other hand, we want the right amount (rather than the maximum) because we don’t want people to need much healthcare, and we don’t want to provide unnecessary care (and face unnecessary side effects).

Now, the 2nd question:
2) Are there cases in which the providers of those products or services have been successful at acting socially responsible, by finding ways to remain in business while also actively finding ways to reduce sales? Small examples are relatively easy. Good and ethical lawyers, for example, will help their clients find ways to stay out of court (even though going to court is lucrative for lawyers). And there have been programmes launched by various electrical and water utilities to reduce consumption (e.g., by promoting use of energy-efficient appliances or water-efficient shower heads).

Can you think of other cases in which:
a) we’re glad the company exists (or at least neutral about it);
b) it’s bad (socially or individually) if too much of their product is consumed; and
c) the company has made non-trivial efforts to limit sales in some way.

4 comments so far

  1. Will Buschert on

    Three (debatable) general examples readily come to mind, prompted by the name of the U.S. enforcement organization: 1) alcohol, 2) tobacco, 3) firearms.

    Many people, I suspect, would want to argue that 2 fails condition a — arguing that tobacco ideally ought to be zero. Others, of course, might disagree (even if they acknowledge that consumption ought to be very close to zero).

    Ditto for 2, though perhaps with fewer zealots.

    Very likely many would argue that companies in the business of selling 1, 2 and 3 are, at best, insincere in their efforts at meeting condition c. Then again, these each of these industries is already highly regulated. Their efforts at limiting sales might have more conviction in less regulated markets.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Will:

      Good examples. If we’re looking for signs of success (or at least effort) I suppose we could look to the alcohol industry’s ad campaigns aimed at 1) getting people not to buy booze for minors, and 2) getting people not to drink-and-drive (which indirectly means reducing sales).

      And you’re certainly right about the key role played by regulation for those 3 industries. I’m also curious about the conditions under which companies (or industries) achieve some level of restraint voluntarily.

      Chris.

  2. […] A few months ago, I posted about Pepsi promising to stop selling its sugary drinks to kids at school (see The Ethics of Selling Less.) I pointed out that there's a significant problem for a company that sells a product that, when consumed in moderation, is totally harmless, but which when over-consumed is dangerous. It's hard to know what counts as success. Moderation is a nice word, but it's a hard corporate goal. I'm interested in the general i … Read More […]

  3. Tom Herrnstein on

    I’ve been thinking about this and trying to come up with other examples but it has been difficult. The obvious consumer products to add to Will’s ATF list is pornography and gambling, as these industries like alcohol and tobacco appear to try to keep their product from being used by minors. I have a clear example of an entity making strong commitments to limit sales but it is cheating because it is not a company with profits as its central mission: national parks limit access by handing out small amounts of permits to certain parts of the park. This fits your description of b) as it would be a social ill to not conserve the unspoiled character of parts of the park (and bad for individuals who in the future want to experience the unspoiled character). But this is cheating because the burden to stay in business while reducing sales doesn’t apply.


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