Monday, November 27, 2006

"Ethical" Consumption -- The usual attitude/behaviour gap

The attitude/behaviour gap has been known to psychologists since the work of La Piere in the 1930s. What people say and what they do can be very different. Cheap food will almost always trump "ethical" (whatever that means) food depite claims to the contrary

Recently, the celebrity gossip blog, DMZ, took a swipe at celebrities "who claim they're green, but guzzle gas". George Clooney, among others, was mocked for his `I drive an electric car so I'm environmentally conscious-except when I'm flying to Tokyo in my private jet' hypocrisy. But besides delivering a smacking to self-righteous celebrities, such an expose illustrates the sizable gap that exists between the attitude and behavior of "ethical" consumers.

Conscientious or ethical consumption is the new frame through which we are asked to view our economic decisions. For instance, the New York Times suggests asking "How Green is My Conscience?" while the Washington Post argues that it is [liberal] guilt that leads us to worry about the ethical content of our purchasing decisions in the first place. So it seems that finding a low-priced, good quality product is not enough, you should "feel good" about your purchase, in a Good Samaritan-type of way. But do we really?

We can certainly pose beside our electric car and feel good about ourselves as Mr. Clooney does so well. But even though we claim to want to do our part to save the planet by buying the organic lettuce for $4.80 at supermarket X instead of the regular lettuce for $1.80 at supermarket Y, we don't even do this.

Studies of ethical consumers often are little more than opinion surveys that ask `would you be willing to pay a little more to help save the rainforests?' And of course you would, because you're a good person who wants to walk away from the survey with a green conscience. But this tells us nothing useful because it only measures attitudes and not actual behavior as revealed by consumers' willingness to pay. Furthermore, one also needs to take into account factors such as brand preference, other values ("buy American", for example), socio-demographic characteristics, price and various measures of quality.

A group of Belgian business professors published a study last year that attempts to do all of this. The authors' idea was to use the FairTrade coffee label as a proxy for `ethical consumption' and then to estimate consumers' willingness to pay for it. Initially, the study finds that, as expected, coffee drinkers claim that whether the coffee is FairTrade or not-that is, whether a given coffee product is "ethical"-matters. But upon further investigation, it turns out that coffee drinkers actually place a higher value on both the brand name of coffee as well as on coffee taste (a measure of product quality). Finally, only 10 percent of coffee drinkers were willing to pay a premium of 27 percent above the average coffee price for FairTrade coffee. In the authors' words, "the appreciation for the fair-trade attribute was not strong enough to support the actual price premium."

The point of this is not to argue that one should only look at the price when making a purchasing decision. On the contrary, people buy things for many different reasons. But just because someone asserts that he makes a consumption decision based on ethical or environmental concerns doesn't make it so. And, in fact, there is evidence to suggest it is not so.

Moreover, we have not even begun to examine whether "ethical" consumption offers any measurable benefits to anyone. Nor have we even questioned the implication of this discussion that "normal" consumption -consumption that doesn't contain a contrived moral/political assessment- is somehow unethical.

Yes. What is ethical depends on your ethics and there can be very large differences over what is ethical even when the basic ethical principles are agreed on -- which they are often not. So calling a purchase ethical is simply an arrogant assumption that your ideas and priorities are superior to those of other people. Humility seems to be a rare virtue in the ethical systems of the self-proclaimed ethical brigade. And note that cheap food will usually have used fewer resources (land, labour etc.) in its production -- and is not a reduced use of resources just about the top imperative of Greenie ethics? Dilemma!


Australian Prime Minister hoses down the fast food hatred

Parents have to take responsibility for Australia's child obesity crisis, Prime Minister John Howard says. Rejecting calls for "heavy-handed" bans on junk food ads, Mr Howard called for parents to show - and teach - some self-discipline. The reasons for Australia's soaring numbers of overweight and obese people were obvious - lack of exercise and bad diet. "Fundamentally, I believe that obesity . . . the response to it does lie very much in changing lifestyle," Mr Howard said in a speech to the Heart Research Institute.

A study released by Diabetes Australia this month revealed 3.2 million people are obese and predicted the numbers would more than double by 2025. "We appear to be struggling as a nation with the challenge of obesity, something that's come upon us with alarming speed and something that is affecting all age groups," said Mr Howard. "The Government can do a lot but I do hope the community doesn't see obesity as a problem that can simply be solved by government regulation. "I think that rather misses the point that a certain degree of individual responsibility and individual self-discipline (is needed) and, particularly, an assumption again of parental responsibility and parental surveillance of the activities of children - what they eat, how much exercise they get, the balance between playing sport and other physical activity and time spent in front of the television set and on computer games."

But Mr Howard said the Government did have a role in changing attitudes through hard-hitting public health campaigns like those which targeted smoking and HIV-Aids. "Because it's only been with us for a short period of time, if we tackle it in the right fashion, there's no reason why we can't overcome it within a relatively short period of time as well."



Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike. (It is also typical of Leftist thinking: Scorning the individual and capable of dealing with large groups only).

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.

8). And when are we going to ban cheese? Cheese is a concentrated calorie bomb and has lots of that wicked animal fat in it too. Wouldn't we all be better off without it? And what about butter? It is just about pure fat. Surely it should be treated as contraband in kids' lunchboxes! [/sarcasm].

9). For a summary of the weak science behind the "trans-fat" hysteria, see here. Trans fats have only a temporary effect on blood chemistry and no lasting harm from them has ever been shown.


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