Customizing Ethical Products

So-called “ethical” products are in the news again. This time, the controversy is over whether the fairtrade movement should expand to include certification of large farms.

A controversy like this serves to highlight the complexity of the notion of an “ethical” product. After all, any product has many different characteristics, and hence many different dimensions of ethical concern. Just for starters, two food products of the same kind (say, two different brands of coffee) might vary in terms of whether they are FairTrade certified or not, whether they are organic or not, whether they are from countries with bad human-rights records, and so on. So the choice we face isn’t just between the ethical brand and the “other” brand; it might well be between two brands with different combinations of more, or less, ethical characteristics.

So here’s a thought experiment. Imagine a world in which mass customization technology make it possible for you, by purchasing online, to hyper-customize the products you buy, according to various ethical characteristics. Imagine you could choose, with a click of your mouse, any or all of a range of characteristics. And to make things more interesting (and likely more realistic) let’s say that each additional characteristic you ask for implies some additional cost. After all, some “ethical” production processes are costly, and some certification schemes are costly. So let’s imagine, say, that each additional ethical characteristic you opt for results in a modest 2% increase in the price of the product.

Given the opportunity to buy such customized products, which ethical characteristics would you choose to pay for?

Consider, for example, what you would choose faced with a website that let you order coffee and gave you the following options:


Or imagine being able to buy beef and to select from among the following characteristics:

Or again, imagine being offered the following choice with regard to the cotton from which your newly-tailored shirt is to be made:

This thought experiment raises several questions. For you, the consumer, it raises the question of which combination of ethical values you really want — and would be willing to pay for — in your purchases. For purveyors of “ethical” consumer products, it first raises doubts about the term itself, and about how confident companies can be that they’ve already identified “the” characteristics that make up an ethical product. Consider the light this sheds on the case of so-called “ethical veal,” as discussed in a recent story from the Guardian. Sure, the veal referred to in that story is ethically better in at least one way. But have the people selling it cognizant of the range of characteristics that different people regard as essential to making a food product truly ethical?

Of course, the shopping scenario imagined above is science fiction for now. You can buy customized shoes online, and customized chocolate bars, but as far as I know foods customized ethically are not yet on sale. If they were, would that make the choice faced by ethical consumers easier, or harder?

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