... and by "greenies," I mean green consumers, not leprechauns.
That's what two assistant professors at the University of Toronto suggest based on their experiments with students. I'm not so sure.
You can read the details in this post from Green Inc., but here's the gist: a group of students instructed in one phase of an experiment to purchase goods from an eco-themed website was less likely to be generous and more likely to cheat and steal in subsequent phases than a second group of students told to shop on a conventional online store.
Meanwhile, students who were asked merely to rate green products were more generous than their conventional counterparts.
To summarize the Canadian researchers' conclusions, being exposed to green products makes
you more altruistic, but actually putting your money where your mouth
is may turn you into a stingy pilferer. Or, as the Guardian put it, "People who wear ... the 'halo of green consumerism' are less
likely to be kind to others, and more likely to cheat and steal."
My first reaction to this story was, I don't buy it. For one thing, the subjects in the experiment who bought green products didn't necessarily identify as ethical consumers; they were simply students told to buy stuff from a green website. How about some data on "real" socially conscious shoppers—including non-student ones?
However, maybe leaving self-identified greenies out of the experiment was part of its point. After all, "green-ness" is a continuum, and hard-core conscious consumers—people who have embraced environmentalism on numerous levels of their lives—still represent a minority of all shoppers. Given that, it's useful to see how "average" consumers behave when confronted with the multitude of eco-friendlier products currently bombarding the marketplace.
Also, I have to admit that the researchers' contention that "virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behaviours" (quoted in the Guardian)—so-called moral balancing or compensatory ethics—does ring true to me.
But that doesn't mean our new strategy to save the world is to stop buying from companies that do the right thing.
What do you think? Please leave a comment below.
In the meantime, I'm off to go pick some pockets!
[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr users Herbrm, top, and steev-o.]
Perhaps I should have read Joel Makower's post on Wal-Mart's new green labeling system before blogging about it last week, as he knows far more about it than the Wall Street Journal does, having seen early versions of it and talked to many parties involved with the effort.
The two big letdowns for me are (1) that the labels will address only product manufacturers, not specific products, and (2) that Wal-Mart isn't actually rating anyone (companies or
products), because it hasn't set any performance benchmarks.
Which is not to say that the whole thing is crap, but... You can read his post in full here.
Thanks to SmartBrief for giving me the heads-up on this one:
America's retailasaurus rex today told its suppliers to start providing it with the full environmental costs associated with making their products, so that Wal-Mart can start putting "Nutrition Facts"–style labels that give sustainability ratings on all of the products it sells. (Read the full story in the Wall Street Journalhere.)
The company says it will take about five years to construct the ratings system and distill all the information from companies into a format consumers will find useful.
I've talked to many individuals who have had this idea and even taken a stab at it (but are often stymied by a lack of financial resources). A multitude of certifications and eco-labels exist, and there are companies such as Patagonia that have come up with their own labels, but this is by far the largest effort in the green labeling arena that I've heard of, and it has the potential to set the template for how future such labels emerge, at least in the U.S.
The devil will be in the details, of course. Standards makers are the new diplomats in today's globalized world. How trustworthy will the data be? Will there be an auditing process to ensure that suppliers are honest?
I will be watching this development with great interest!
This article in the “Business of Green” special section in today’s New York Times describes a study by two Dartmouth professors that shows stock performance suffering after companies announced that they had joined a group dedicated to combating climate change.
It reminded me of something I read about in a special report on corporate social responsibility in The Economist a couple months back: the contention that responsible practices may not actually add value to business. The article, titled “The Next Question: Does CSR Work?,” pointed out that two of the best-known sustainability indexes—the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes and the FTSE4Good—tend to underperform the market.
I don’t buy the contention—I think it’s simply a question of timescale.
And indeed, the Economist article went on to refer to a recent academic review of 167 studies over the past 35 years that concluded “there is in fact a positive link between companies’ social and financial performance” (albeit a weak one). It also pointed to Goldman Sachs’s GS SUSTAIN model, which considers responsible environmental, social, and corporate-governance practices to be “‘a good overall proxy for the management of companies relative to their peers’, hence indicative of their chances of long-term success.”
That’s reassuring. As our planet starts having to pay the bills for its dwindling resources, responsible practices will undoubtedly enhance value. The time to act is now.
I’m not saying you should run out and buy a pair of sneakers to celebrate—after all, labor abuses are still rampant in sportswear manufacturing, as various Oxfam reports and analyses relate (check out these links to learn more). But it’s a far cry from the days when these companies refused to reveal their factory locations because of competitiveness concerns. (Of course, that’s still the case with many businesses, including über-greeny online store Gaiam.)
Any move toward greater corporate transparency concerning supply chains deserves kudos, in my book.
In a recent post, I mentioned a green-minded shopper butting heads with Macy’s over being given an unwanted plastic bag. Now comes an interesting paradigm reversal: I never thought I’d see the day when the Middle Kingdom out-greened the U.S., but China just banned plastic shopping bags. (Although, to be fair, I must mention that San Francisco recently beat it on that front with its own ban.) Starting in June, the production of totes less than 0.025 mm thick will be illegal in China. What do you say to that, Macy’s? (And when are you going to respond to my email?)
It’s great to hear about the plastic-bag prohibition, but my smile fades when I read stories like this one from the New York Times, which reminds us that worker abuse in China is still common, despite the fact that many businesses are starting to get a clue about CSR (corporate social responsibility) and take such issues seriously. Indeed, a number of big companies now hire auditors to inspect their supplying factories.
I’ve discussed problems in the social auditing industry before, and they reappear in this article: factories being warned about audits beforehand, managers bribing inspectors, etc. I’d like to think that China’s new labor law, which just went into effect at the beginning of the month, will help, but I have my doubts (though I applaud it as a first step). In a country where corruption is so rampant, the enforcement of laws is so fickle, and independent unions remain prohibited, it’s hard to be overly optimistic about labor.
Pumpkins are sprouting up on front steps, and synthetic spiderwebs are spreading throughout windows and doorways in my neighborhood. In a week, trick-or-treaters will blanket the area to collect all manner of sugary confections. But just as Halloween has a dark side (from its origins in warding off evil spirits to such present-day irritants as oversexualized kids’ costumes), so do all those sweets.
Top candy manufacturers such as Hershey’s, Mars, and Nestlé—the makers of most of the treats that will fill those bags on All Hallow’s Eve—have long been criticized for sourcing their cocoa from West African producers with unsavory labor practices. Chocolate isn’t the only culprit, of course; social and environmental injustices can lurk behind other ingredients and in other parts of the supply chain as well.
Then there’s the health aspect of the annual feeding frenzy; the statistics on childhood obesity today are nothing if not worrying.
In response, some forward-thinking people and organizations have come up with a couple of interesting twists on Halloween. Corey Colwell-Lipson, a mother who was inspired by the households in her Seattle-area neighborhood that gave out non-candy items last year, founded Green Halloween, an initiative that encourages parents hand out healthier edibles (like organic juice boxes) and keepsakes instead of confections. It also advocates for focusing more on costumes and the social aspects of the holiday than the caloric ones. (Thanks to Lonnie for turning me on to this one.)
Meanwhile, Global Exchange is publicizing reverse trick-or-treating, in which costumed kids give fair-trade sweets and informational postcards to the households they’re supposedly hitting up. I tend to share World Changing’s skepticism of just how fun this would actually be for the little tykes, but hey, it’s worth a try.
In any case, I like the fact that so many people are “thinking outside of the candy box” (to quote Green Halloween) this year. Hmm, Mr. Wallet Mouth and I have a bunch of leftover blinky dice we had made as gifts to hand out at Burning Man; perhaps those would make good treats (not for compulsive swallowers, though). At the very least, we’ll have to scare up some fair-trade chocolate. Mmmm!
To Mr. Wallet Mouth’s general relief (if occasional chagrin), I’ve never much gone in for haute couture. That said, I do wish I could teleport to Paris for the Ethical Fashion Show, which starts today. Now in its fourth year, the conference touts itself as a “unifying event” that fosters dialogue between industry players and promotes responsible designers.
And of course, it promises to be quite a spectacle, with exhibitors bringing the latest in catwalk fare from such far-flung locales as Chile, Indonesia, and Azerbaijan.
The 100-odd participating designers were invited only after meeting demanding criteria. They must comply with International Labour Organization rules concerning wages, health care, and the right to unionize. Dyes or other fabric treatments used must not be harmful to the environment. A portion of profits must be reinvested into local communities. Working with local craftspeople and making frequent use recycled materials is encouraged. And so on.
The show also features lectures examining ethical fashion entrepreneurship, responsible fashion in education, and the market for ethical fashion.
The latter topic is the one I find most interesting. As is the case with so many “sustainable” products, ethical clothes often come with a high price tag that puts them out of reach for many consumers. Apparel that doesn’t harm people or the environment shouldn’t be a luxury, but all too often it is.
The flip side is that events like this expose more companies to the idea of ethical threads and generate ever more demand for them. This should lead to economies of scale and to wider availability of nonexploitative fashion.
But in the meantime, many of us slumming at the bottom end of the market can rest easy shopping in an already-ubiquitous low-impact way—at the local secondhand shop.
Yesterday I attended a Tom’s of Maine press briefing on the company’s new Rivers Awareness Partnership, in which it will donate $1 million over five years to two nonprofits focusing on riparian issues.
It was a small, feel-good affair that gave American Rivers and the River Network a chance to talk about their laudable work, and it let Tom Chappell, a friendly fellow who resembles a more approachable John Kerry, describe how the grant is the outgrowth of his company’s long-held commitment to social and environmental responsibility: “Better values build better value,” etc.
One reason I went to the event is that the company’s acquisition by Colgate-Palmolive in 2006 was one of the things that led me to start this blog. I’d already become interested in corporate parentage and buyouts, but when that purchase happened, it put a real bee in my bonnet—perhaps because Tom’s was the first green brand I ever encountered, thanks to a college roommate who used the toothpaste.
Why shouldn’t the label on my Cinnamint tube be required to say, “A Colgate-Palmolive brand”? It’s a disservice to consumers, who are understandably skeptical of multinational corporations, that companies are not (and are not coerced to be) completely open about such information.
This opacity is particularly irksome when it’s companies or brands that base their appeal on progressive values that fail to volunteer this information freely. Consider Odwalla, now owned by Coca-Cola: unlike Tom’s, its website contains no disclosure or acknowledgment of its acquisition—even in the homespun “Who We Are” and “History” sections.
I felt Chappell out—not about the labeling question specifically, since that was off-topic, but about the ownership issue. I asked him whether the ability to give the rivers grant came in part from being owned by Colgate-Palmolive, and what the negatives and positives of the arrangement had been so far in the context of the company’s mission.
“They respect our values,” he replied. “They’re our biggest supporters.” And no, the grant had nothing to do with the Colgate partnership, as Chappell put it—Tom’s level of charitable giving hasn’t changed. He characterized Colgate-Palmolive as having principles similar to those of his company, and added that “if we don’t bring our values to scale, we won’t succeed.”
I hadn’t done my homework on Colgate-Palmolive before the briefing, alas, but I can tell you now that the company has been criticized for its environmental reporting, its use of animal testing, and its role years ago in polluting the Chemsol Superfund site. It gets a middle-of-the-road rating of 40 from Climate Counts, which describes it as being “at an early stage of addressing climate change,” a “poor” score of 5 from Ethiscore, and a neutral-to-negative rating from Knowmore.org.
To be fair, that’s Colgate’s record, not Tom’s. The latter company has pretty unimpeachable green credentials; indeed, it has been a leader in the sustainable-business world, and it seems—so far, at least—to be operating autonomously from its corporate parent. I still use Tom’s toothpaste. But guilt by association is all it takes for some people to stop buying your product.
As my parents always told me, be careful of the company you keep.
December 2010 I haven't actually bought anything from Po-Zu yet, but I appreciate their awareness of the fact that many vegan shoes are made of petroleum products and aren't necessarily better for the environment than leather footwear. Po-Zu seems to set a high bar for itself when it comes to ingredients and supply chains.
March 2010 After running out of dish soap, I started using our good old bars of Sappo Hill out of necessity. But you know what? Our dishes are just as clean, and when I pick up the soap at our grocery store, the only packaging on the bars is the price tag. And did I mention the soap is awesome? We love the oatmeal bar.
February 2010 TMI alert: If you're a squeamish guy, read no further. I'm done with tampons! Instead, I'm using the DivaCup.
January 2010 Mr. Wallet Mouth and I both love Pact. Its underwear is made of organic cotton, and the company donates 10% of its sales to worthy environmental causes. Not only that, but the company is serious about eco-friendly packaging. Each pair of undies comes not in a plastic bag but in a little cloth pouch made from fabric remnants. I'm also impressed with how responsive Pact is over email; when I asked a packaging question, I got a nice reply from the CEO.
December 2009 After reading about Skoy Cloths, the biodegradable paper-towel alternative, on Fake Plastic Fish, I bought a bunch for stocking stuffers and my own kitchen, and I'm now a fan. They're lasting a long time, despite repeated washings in the laundry, and they arrive with minimal packaging.
October 2009 I was already of fan of Straus yogurt (see June 2007), but now I love it even more. According to Michael Straus, a son of the company's founder, Straus yogurt "is made, cooled, and set in stainless-steel vats, unlike most yogurts, which are poured while still hot into plastic cups to cool and set." As someone who's concerned about plastics and chemical safety, I'm happy to hear that!
July 2009 I'm using a lot more baking soda now that I'm making more of an effort to clean the house in a nontoxic way. But from now on I'll be buying Bob's Red Mill, since Arm & Hammer engages in animal testing.
July 2008 Started feeling extra-good about buying one of my fave meat substitutes, Tofurky, after learning that its maker, Turtle Island Foods, is an independent, family-owned company (Unlike Boca Foods, which is a subsidiary of Kraft, and Morningstar, which is owned by Kellogg).
April 2008 I'm going to start buying my canned beans from Eden Foods, for two reasons: it uses custom-made cans that don't contain bisphenol A, and it's an independent, family-operated company.
February 2008 From now on, whenever I order takeout or ask for a doggy bag, I’ll make sure to avoid #6 polystyrene containers (and, of course, Styrofoam).