One of the classes I am taking at the moment is all about marketing environmentally and socially responsible behavior of firms to consumers, and promoting sustainable products in general. One case study that came up which I found thought-provoking was about choice-editing – how much choice should we give consumers, really?
We know that consumers can only purchase what is on offer, and I have often lamented the insufficient offers of organic and/or “green” products in my grocery store. My friend living in Budapest can’t find organic eggs and milk anywhere around her, which limits her purchasing behavior even when she wants to change it. On the other hand, when one actually enters a grocery retailer, one is bombarded with advertisements and marketing strategies that have made some even “break up” with their supermarkets and attempt to only buy from local and independent stores. You could thus say that at the moment, we are to a certain extent at the mercy of the retailers around us, and dependent either on their product selection or on the presence of alternative stores such as all-organic shops, small independent bakeries, butchers and the like, and farmers’ markets if choosing to opt out from multinationals.
At the same time, our choices have expanded exponentially. We can literally buy strawberries in December and asparagus in Fall, can find French cookie butter on American shelves and marshmallow fluff on Parisian ones, and have tens of types of mustard, cereal or knäckebröd (here in Sweden) to choose from. At the same time, some of these choices have very real consequences attached to their production methods, making them unsustainable and sometimes one could argue even unethical alternatives.
Can we give consumers the responsibility to know about these consequences and to make informed decisions on whether to buy or not to buy these products? Or, asked differently, should we help them along and make the decision for them in the most dire of cases?
Our case study concerned the sale of tiger shrimp, which are farmed in South-East Asia (mainly Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Bangladesh) in vastly unsustainable ways. A short and incomplete list of the concerns regarding sustainability – the land used for the ponds is often grabbed from former subsistence farmers, flooded with seawater and thus made unusable for agriculture (because of salinification of the soil); setting up farms often involves the cutting down of mangrove forests, natural flood regulators; the farmers catching the shrimp larvae in natural streams also catch small fish and toss them out, endangering the livelihood of local fishermen; many farmers (over-) use chemicals and antibiotics to keep the shrimp alive in such an intensive production system; and the land disputes have often flared up in local altercations and violence between residents and shrimp farmers.
Our question – knowing about these concerns, should the supermarket in question stop selling tiger shrimp? Sales are great; profit margins expansive; people obviously love the product. Do they know about the environmental consequences? We don’t know, probably not. It is well-known in consumer research that individuals are generally overwhelmed by the information they receive and tend to make ‘habitual’ or ‘spontaneous’ purchasing decisions, aka either they buy what they have always bought or they let themselves be influenced by special offers either before they go shopping (through flyers or vouchers) or in-store.
Yet, one of the proposed solutions was to continue selling tiger shrimp, but to provide more information at the point-of-purchase (e.g. the cooler where the shrimp are actually stored) about the production methods. This would let the consumers make their own personal trade-off decisions on whether it’s worthwhile to buy shrimp or not. However, as one of my colleagues argued, this approach seemed quite hypocritical – once the shrimp are in the store, of course the retailer wants to sell them; dissuading consumers from purchasing them while they are already on offer feels counterintuitive.
This brings us to the other option – the decision to discontinue the sale of tiger shrimp, at least until more sustainable production methods can be found (we argued about whether that was possible). This approach is called ‘choice editing’ – we purposefully restrict consumers’ choices in order to keep them from making wrong purchases.
In fields other than sustainability, this is being done quite often – think of the phasing out of particular drugs due to the possibility of misuse (This American Life just had an interesting story on painkillers in that respect), or the phasing out of old computers when they are replaced by new technologies – my prof has a program that only runs on computers up to Windows 2003 and collects old computers to keep his program running (true story). And to a certain extent, consumers are restricted in their purchasing possibilities through the offers on the shelf every day, as evidenced by my exasperated searching for (and finally finding) crunchy natural organic peanut butter in Sweden (I know, I know, first world problems).
But didn’t I just complain about the restriction of consumers’ choices regarding sustainable options? Is it two-faced to demand more options in one sector, but less in another? The more I thought about this question, the more I came to the conclusion that it comes down to ethics and value judgments, which makes the issue so much more intractable.
I am strongly convinced that there are ethical responsibilities we have as consumers, including the fact that our purchasing decisions should not have detrimental impacts on the livelihoods of others. If I am honest to myself, I am not prepared to say that such ethical issues can be decided by individual choice – personally, I would not be able to accept the fact that some consumers value their own pleasurable eating experience over the health and food security of others in another part of the world as a reason that gives these people the right to continue their consumption behavior. Thus, I personally favor a (moderate) measure of choice editing on the basis of human rights and ethics. Yet, I realize this approach is contestable; it is certainly not one that is prevalent in today’s society.
Furthermore, it leads to practical issues – who can be given the role to make the decisions of which products are acceptable and which ones aren’t? If we are deciding on ethical grounds, it is certain that there will be different opinions and interpretations. Even in our tiger shrimp example, some counter-opinions were voiced that highlighted the jobs created in the shrimp industry that would be lost if they were no longer sold in the West; furthermore, few retailers have enough reach to make a significant impact on the production conditions as such. The retailer in question, ICA, actually did phase out tiger shrimps in reality and simply watched their competitors take over their market shares; Swedish tiger shrimp consumption stayed at the same level as before. Maybe consumer education would have been more effective after all?
And yet, and yet… Education measures exist. Information is at the fingertips of anybody in reach of a computer or simply a public library. If consumers can’t care enough to think about the consequences of their purchases, do retailers have an implicit responsibility to care? Would ICA be morally complicit in the exploitation and environmental destruction prevalent in the industry if it continued to act as a purchaser after finding out about these problems? And would choice editing be the fastest way to actually bring about sustainable consumption practices?
What do you think as a consumer? And as a citizen of this world? Can you always wear both hats at the same time? Would it be helpful to just be able to go in a store and not worry about what you are buying, not even having to check for eco-labels, because somebody else has checked that for you?