Organic Foods and Bad Behaviour

Is labelling foods as “organic” a positive thing or not? The Environmental Working Group certainly thinks so. To support this notion, the EWG has just released its annual “dirty dozen” list, consisting of fruits and veggies that are especially high in pesticide residue.

But check out this recent study, which suggests that seeing and thinking about organic foods can make people less ethical. The researchers report that test subjects asked to look at and rank (basically, to focus on) either a bunch of organic-labelled foods or to look at and rank either comfort foods (e.g., ice cream) or a more neutral food (e.g., mustard). Following this, the test subjects were given tests to evaluate a) their willingness to help a needy stranger, and b) the harshness of their evaluation of various apparent moral transgressions. The result: people exposed to organic foods were both less likely to help others, and more likely to be harshly moralistic.

This is an interesting result in its own right, but it has particular implications for marketing. Very roughly, the study suggests that marketing produce as organic can have negative effects on consumers’ attitudes and behaviour. That is, the study says nothing negative about organic food itself, or about consuming it. The implication is specifically for labelling it and promoting it as organic.

Of course, we can’t immediately condemn such marketing based on this kind of evidence. It may well be that the net effect of selling lots of organic food outweighs the effect such marketing has on people’s attitudes and behaviour. But at very least, this should make us stop and think.

Now, it’s highly unlikely that this effect is specific to organic foods. Presumably, labelling food as organic here is relevant because for many people that label implies something virtuous. So the implication is that promoting foods (or presumably other products) in terms of virtue could be a mistake.

In general, labels that indicate a product’s characteristics help consumers get what they’re looking for. This is especially important with regard to characteristics that can’t be seen with the naked eye, including key characteristics of most so-called ethical products. You can’t tell by looking at an apple, for instance, whether it’s been sprayed with pesticides — unless, of course, you see the “Certified Organic” label on it. Labels of various kinds help people get what they value, and in that way help achieve the promise of a free market.

The alternative to using labels to help people find products that match their own values is to rely on government regulation and industry “best practices.” If there were widespread agreement that organic foods really were better, ethically, they there would be some justification for having government use legislation to drive non-organic foods from the market. We rely on labels and third-party certifications precisely because there isn’t sufficient consensus to warrant a general standard. But the study described above highlights one of the costs of the path we’ve chosen. By moralizing the marketplace we may, ironically enough, be encouraging immoral behaviour.

Thanks to Andrew Potter for pointing me to the study discussed here.

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