Ethics of Inefficiency

The current way of thinking seems to imply that small-scale production is the way to go. Of course, for much of the 20th century, small-scale production was a sign of affluence: only the wealthy could afford to have a craftsman dedicate hours, perhaps days, to the task of custom-making an item just for them. Today, everyone from yuppies to hippies is clamoring for just that, in their rush to grab for things perceived as local and green and anti-commercial. We don’t want multinationals to get between us and the skilled hands that make our loafers, and we want no agrifood giants mediating our relationship with the farmer who lovingly raised the goats that gave the milk that made the cheese. We want our business small, and indie. We want our consumer goods “bespoke,” and “artisanal.”

And the reason for this seems to be some vague impression that those kinds of businesses, and those kinds of products, are somehow more ethical. And in some cases, along some ethical dimensions, that may be true. But if anyone thinks that products produced by a small, local artisan are likely to be environmentally superior, well excuse me for being just a tiny bit skeptical.

This vague association of the small with the ethical misses the fundamental truth that, when it comes to production methods, size brings efficiency. Mass production tends to be efficient in its use of energy, materials, and labour. There are of course tradeoffs and exceptions: it’s entirely possible for a factory mass-producing something to be highly efficient in the use of labour, but to be highly inefficient in the use of, say, water — especially if water is had at no cost. But generally, mass production is efficient; that’s its raison d’etre. Consider: a local tailor spending an entire day hand-stitching a jacket has to use, to begin with, an entire day’s worth of energy to light and heat his workshop. Alternatively, the same jacket could be made in a garment factory in a matter of minutes, using a few minutes’ worth, rather than an entire day’s worth, of energy.

Now that’s not a blanket endorsement of all mass production. It’s entirely possible for production processes to be set up so that they are highly efficient in their use of whatever resource is particularly costly, and highly inefficient in its use of whatever happens to be cheap, regardless of the ethics of doing so. Note also that mass-produced goods tend to cater to the lowest common denominator. It should also be noted that assembly lines may tend to result in repetitive strain injuries among workers — and, if you believe some critics, in feelings of alienation as the worker whose job is reduced to some trivial aspect of production is effectively cut off from any connection with the product as a whole.

But (generally) efficiency is good. Certainly no one is in favour of inefficiency, with the possible exception of those of us who revel in a well-earned “inefficient” weekend. At any rate, the very reason we engage in mass production is that it is efficient: it produces the most output per unit of input. And that’s a good thing. So while there may be reason to value the small, the local, the artisanal, we ought at least to be aware that such goods are liable, at least in general, to be the product of highly inefficient — and hence environmentally unfriendly — production methods.

13 comments so far

  1. Darron Spohn on

    What consumer goods are you talking about? Automobiles? Computers? Televisions? Cell phones?

    Of course efficiency is good. But some things do not translate as well to production lines as others. I have a hand-crafted 8-inch Newtonian telescope in transit to me. I could have purchased an 8-inch mass-produced telescope of the same design for one-fourth the money, but having used both hand-crafted and mass-produced telescopes I find the mass-produced versions poorly designed and frustrating to use. The views through hand-crafted telescopes, on good nights, put to shame the views through mass-produced telescopes. Another key differentiator is quality control. Mass-produced telescopes are wildly variable.

    This essay is nothing more than a straw man argument. You have built something that is not relevant to the real world and then torn it down to prove your point. Problem is, that point was irrelevant to begin with. My telescope is not any less environmentally friendly than a mass-produced telescope. And it will be useable long after the mass-produced junk is either recycled or sitting in a landfill.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      I acknowledge in the blog entry that assembly lines are not excellent at producing everything. As I put it, “mass-produced goods tend to cater to the lowest common denominator.” So, of course you’re right that for specialized technical instruments, you’re going to get higher quality from a process of hand crafting. I never implied otherwise.

      But what on earth makes you think your “telescope is not any less environmentally friendly than a mass-produced telescope.” That seems implausible on the face of it, for just the reasons I mention above.

      • Chris MacDonald on

        …but, to answer your original question, picture almost any simple consumer item, from a shoe to a stainless-steel pot to a scarf to a stick of butter.

  2. Scott E. on

    I take it you’re making an argument specifically about the environmental benefits of efficiency. I see the general point when it comes to energy and materials, but not when it comes to labour. What’s the environmental benefit of requiring fewer people to produce a widget? (I’m assuming (maybe wrongly?) that you don;t want to count the carbon footprint of, e.g., artisanal widget-makers’ diets as part of the environmental costs of making widgets, since when those artisans get replaced with widget-making machines the artisans don’t stop eating, they just go into the service industry.)

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Good question. Yes, I’m talking specifically about environmental benefits. On the other hand, though I’m not sure how to calculate the environmental impact of labour, I’m not sure it’s entirely a zero-sum game. It seems to me there almost has to be something environmentally bad about having unnecessary bodies working on a given bit of production, even though (as you point out) eliminating workers doesn’t eliminate the environmental impact of those human beings.


  3. Tom Herrnstein on

    It’s interesting that this post comes within a week of your other post about ethically-significant consumer decisions. It seems that if we as consumers try to make purchases that have a real, concrete impact on the world, we run the risk of harming the environment by supporting inefficient ways of production. And vice-versa: if we purchase efficient, mass produced and thus environmentally-friendly products our actual ethical impact will be negligible.

    Anyway, aren’t there instances where smaller scale operations are more environmentally friendly is some ways, such as using manure as fertilizer in the fields as opposed to factory farms that just dump it? Food is a good example because imported foodstuffs can have a lower carbon footprint than regionally-grown items, but there are other tradeoffs.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Yes, certainly I think there are exceptions. If a small-scale maker of X happens to use environmentally-friendly paint while the large-scale maker of X uses something toxic, then the small-scale maker’s product may (may) be more environmentally friendly. So my point above is an “other things being equal” point.


  4. […] the original post here: Ethics of Inefficiency « The Business Ethics Blog Comments […]

  5. Jayaraman Rajah Iyer on


    The title is ethics of inefficiency and focusing on that would give an agenda for improvement. It is said even now every radiator of Rolls-Royce car is signed by the person who makes it. Mass produced items slowly and steadily over the last several decades have been brought within the parameters of ethical values. Buyers’ beware has been replaced by customer service. In individual cases like the telescope or tailor-made suit, a rapport is established between the buyer and the seller where the customer service is the very basis of establishing the rapport and the question of buyers’ beware never even arises. I go to the nearby farm to buy the vegetables that I am sure is produced on an environment friendly basis. When I go to the Sunday market where the farmer from nearby villages come with their produce I am pretty sure they do not follow any principles. Some of the salad you order in a good restaurant in even a big city like Mumbai one is not sure how poisonous the same and where these leaves are coming from. We have stopped buying these leaves in a place like Mumbai. Ethical inefficiency factor is very high in such cases. Why would Fisher-Price toys have to be recalled? Ethics of inefficiency, meaning one has no control over the producer who is not known to the consumer personally. In order to overcome the ethics of inefficiency although UN Global Compact had been trying with corporate for nearly 11 years, now we see Corporate Sustainability Leadership is being practiced by many Corporate globally. Ethics of Inefficiency can be looked into and corrective action be taken by following UNGC 10 Principles. About 9000 companies in 136 counties follow UNGC, but you can imagine how many who do not follow. However it is feasible to impose upon these principles only on Corporate and the individual producers will never be brought under this purview for whom ethics of inefficiency will ever remain. It is said, at least in India,every child taking mother’s milk is really intakes chemicals on account of years’ of chemical fertilizers usage by the mother. Ethics of Inefficiency need to be very seriously looked into.

  6. Veronique Luciani on

    I think part of the interest in buying “small” is the control one has over what went into production: what I mean by control is that when Nike produces a piece of clothing overseas it’s hard for me to know exactly what went into this production. Yes, they were certainly cost-efficient in producing the good: they went overseas where a number of costs are lower. Labour costs, energy costs, and even environmental costs are lower for them. They may not even have to internalise some costs, like pollution, if regulations are slack. If I buy a garment produced close-by however, by a small company, I have a good idea what went into production. Maybe it wasn’t produced as fast, and used somewhat more energy to be produced, as you explain in your tailor example. But, I know how the workers were treated (and I can judge whether or not it was ethical a lot more easily). Furthermore, less garments may have been produced, so less energy used altogether, though that may depend on scale. And finally, the carbon footprint left by the good travelling to me is much less, so that may make up, at least partly, for the marginally higher energy used per labour unit.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      All of that seems true: I just want people to be aware of the tradeoffs.

      (But note that you cannot generalize about carbon footprint: shipping something across an ocean by freighter may be more carbon-efficient than shipping something across town in a dirty diesel truck. It really depends.)


  7. […] in February, on my Business Ethics Blog, I wrote about The Ethics of Inefficiency. This vague association of the small with the ethical misses the fundamental truth that, when it […]

  8. […] As I’ve argued before, in at least some cases buying local also means opting for small-scale, inefficient production processes. And in other cases, it means an unhealthy kind of insulation from the outside […]

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