Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Does ethical consumption have to cost so much?

[This was not a forum page letter. But it is silly enough to get my dander up. So here it is and here I go.]

TODAY

VAIDEHI SHAH

MAY 13, 2016

Eat organic food. Drive an electric car, not a gas-guzzler. Buy clothes made by fairly paid workers: Such calls have grown louder and more frequent in recent years.

While responsible consumption advocates mean well, they often overlook the fact that not everyone can afford these sustainable goods, which are usually more expensive than mass-market products.

The poor are being priced out of sustainable and ethical consumer options, and this is wrong for many reasons.
[But not as wrong as your inability to see that arguing for the right of the poor to drive electric cars instead of gas guzzlers, presumably to reduce carbon emission, in order to save the planet, is the WRONG solution to saving the planet. We should move towards aggregated transport, i.e. public transport. But a great start to a blinkered, ill-informed, unthinking essay.]
First, it is a fundamental injustice that pesticide-free food and non-toxic household items are a privilege only for the wealthy.
[No, it's not.]
Second, some may assume that those who do not buy ethical options are ignorant or apathetic. This moral burden is misplaced, as many people simply cannot afford them.
[Well, if people are prone to make highly judgmental and pejorative assumptions about people based on a single, irrelevant, and incorrect factor, I believe the problem is not the people being judged, but the people making the smug and wrong assumptions. And also the person seemingly concerned about these smug bigots.]
Third, a responsible consumer society will never be a reality if sustainable goods remain out of reach for an entire cross-section of the population.
[Well, if your definition of "responsible consumer society" is one where everyone is a pretentious hipster shopping at Whole Foods (and its ilk). then, yeah, it will never be a reality. ]
Many ground-up movements such as food cooperatives and do-it-yourself websites are working to bring healthy and safe essentials to people in an affordable way, but it is not possible to forgo buying from stores altogether.

Do sustainable products in supermarkets have to be so much costlier than their mass-market counterparts? And how can companies and policymakers help make these products affordable for mainstream consumers?
[Why? Their customers are not mainstream. They know their market: affluent, pretentious hipster type. Who are willing to pay UD$6 for Asparagus Water. In other words, "idiots".]
Closer scrutiny is needed over the price mark-ups on sustainable goods.

In Singapore, for example, an online search reveals that organic apples cost four times as much as non-certified ones. Meanwhile, eco-friendly detergent from a speciality brand costs twice as much as those from a housebrand manufacturer.

Yes, responsible manufacturing is not cheap. Obtaining environmental certifications is resource-intensive, as is following industry guidelines on fair labour practices and reporting.

But the lack of data makes it difficult to determine whether the high cost of sustainable products is justified or simply opportunistic marketing targeted at affluent customers, and the only way to get this information is for companies to report it.
[Hmm.. my guess is... "targeted at affluent customers". Of course if we were to bring reality in to the picture, part of the high costs is also scarcity. Food grown the organic way tends to have a lower yield since they have to be grown without modern technology and recent advances. This means there are a limited number of organic produce, and they are more expensive because the yield is lower. And assuming it is a free market, since the goods are scarce, buyers (supermarkets) trying to acquire these goods will bid up the price. And how high they will bid the price up will depend on how much they think their customers are willing to pay. And they know their customers are affluent. So... the question is kinda circular. And the answer to "how high a price will the market bear" is "a lot".]
One manufacturer which does this is the American clothing company Everlane. The firm, which prides itself on “radical transparency”, breaks down the price of each product into materials, labour, transport, and other expenses, as well as its own cut.

Companies have traditionally been tight-lipped about their finances, arguing that revealing such information would undermine their competitiveness. But Everlane’s continuing growth shows that transparency does not have to mean commercial suicide.
[Okay. So in your previous paragraph, you say that they ONLY way to get data on costs is for companies to report it. And this "Everlane" has reported their cost breakdown. And you believe them? And there is no independent verification of their cost breakdown? We should just believe them because... they are good people? Because they said so? Because their advertisement on your publication "Eco-Business" explained everything? Okay. Good point!]
Determining whether a mark-up is fair is bound to be subjective. But if prices are several times higher than the cost of goods sold, then consumers should ask if making goods for only an exclusive segment is truly ethical or just hollow marketing.
[Why do you keep asking these questions with obvious answers? Hollow Marketing! It's obvious innit?]
Here, governments can help defray costs for companies by providing grants for innovating cost-effective, sustainable technologies or subsidising environmental certifications. They can also introduce legislation on minimum sustainability standards for products.
[Short emphatic answer: NO!
Medium emphatic answer: NO FUCKING WAY! 
Answering with a question: You want the govt to fund businesses who are exploiting catering to affluent pretentious hipsters? Why? Oh, because you are one?]
Singapore already has some schemes in place, such as the National Environment Agency’s Environment Technology Research Programme, which provides seed funding for clean technology development.

The Singapore Government’s recent move to buy only paper that carries the Singapore Green Label environmental certification also shows that the public sector can support sustainable companies by aggregating demand for their products.

The other issue that needs to be addressed is the wide spectrum of standards. While there are regulations governing minimum safety and environmental standards for products, these do not always ensure important outcomes such as avoiding deforestation or exploitation.
[So... you do not see the contradiction in your two assertions above I have highlighted? I presume the "Green Label" means the company meets some environment standards? But you point out that meeting these standards does not ensure outcomes. So all this is being done for...? Hollow marketing, perhaps?]
Governments are constantly tightening criteria, but bureaucratic progress can be slow. Firms should not passively wait for policies when they can take the lead on improving sustainability across their products — not just for altruistic reasons, but also because of a strong business case for doing so.

For instance, the Norwegian pension fund’s recent decision to drop 11 companies from its portfolio over links to deforestation and the fossil fuel divestment movement shows that businesses must be sustainable to stay afloat.
[Nope. Based on your citation, it shows NO SUCH THING. Your "facts" only show that a pension fund had stopped investing in 11 companies. Whether those companies are still profitable or not is not dependent on what ONE investor does. What might bolster your argument would be if you showed that when the pension fund had invested in those 11 companies, the companies were doing well, and turning a profit. However, when the pension fund divested its investment in these 11 companies, these companies immediately fell into a death spiral and went bankrupt. Otherwise, all your example shows is that some organisation or investors (the pension fund) are now making investment decision based on factors other than profitability and returns on investment. That's like deciding NOT to invest in tobacco companies. Many people and institutions have made the deliberate decision NOT to invest in tobacco companies. Surprisingly, tobacco companies have not closed down. Most disturbing.]
To some extent, companies like Unilever and Nestle have made it a company-wide policy to source only certified sustainable agricultural raw materials as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water use, among other things.

Yet, even so-called leaders in corporate environmental stewardship make products with varying safety and environmental credentials.

Unilever, for example, makes St Ives, a line of all-natural personal care products that are free of parabens, a preservative with suspected but unconfirmed links to cancer. But it also freely admits to using parabens for its Simple brand of toiletries, saying they are safe. This inconsistency is disturbing. Should companies not apply the same standards to all their products?

[So... you have discovered a truth about companies. They are in it to make money. Why are they inconsistent? Is parabens safe or not? Why do they have one product line that is parabens-free and another where parabens is freely used without concern? 
And that is the second truth about consumer product companies. They exists to sell you products that you want. Not to educate you. You think parabens are carcinogenic? You want parabens-free products? Oh, you can PAY for such products even if they are a little pricier? Let me get back to you. 
Because, the truth is parabens is probably safe. But if you want to believe it is not, go ahead. If you can afford to pay for non-parabens product at a premium, someone will sell it to you. The companies are not here to debate or discuss or otherwise educate you or change your mind. If every producer produces products with parabens, and there is a market for parabens-free product, the first company to come up with one can exploit this advantage. As a consumer product company, they simply want to sell you things you want, and are willing to pay for. It does not profit them to spend time and effort to educate those who think that they are already educated.] 

Would it not be more cost effective for companies to stop spending on developing, designing and marketing multiple unsustainable brands, and instead put their resources behind fewer, sustainable ones? The savings from canning the former could fund certifications or higher wages for the latter.
[And here you show your fundamental ignorance of human behaviour, and marketing. And you do no understand R&D. The "Simple" line of products do not need R&D. They are conventionally produced, using existing formulations that are generally regarded as safe. Marketing is also kept low. The affordability (low cost) of these products are their chief selling point. The spending on developing (new alternatives to parabens for example), designing (attractive labels and packaging, or rustic packaging to evoke natural processes, to attract the afore-mentioned affluent pretentious hipsters), and marketing (to APH) are mainly incurred to cater to the differentiated and pretentious needs of the affluent hipsters. And no, because the market is differentiated, the lower income would like to have lower costs, unpretentious, and generally regarded as safe basic products. ]
These are just some ways companies can ensure their products help the rich and poor alike.

We should all keep up the pressure on companies to do this. But while we wait for change, those of us who can afford ethical options should continue to buy them, to signal that there is demand for these products.

Some companies may take this as a sign to continue with business as usual. But more visionary players can use this consumer support to make an affordable, mass-market solution.

This is what American electric automaker Tesla did when it launched the US$35,000 (S$48,000) Model 3 last month. The company’s chairman, Mr Elon Musk, noted that the Model 3’s development was supported by profits from earlier cars, which sold for about US$100,000 each.
[Aha! Thank you for understanding. These companies are obviously at Tesla's early stage of ripping... I mean being supported by the early adopters to generate excessive profits so that these companies can invest further in R&D and innovation to make "affordable, mass-market solutions". Unfortunately, this is taking longer than we thought, so the excessive profit stage may have to continue for some time.]
Making sustainable, ethical products the new normal should be a top priority for all companies today. As long as it is not their prime concern, this failure will always undermine their sustainability claims or, worse, their bottom line.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Vaidehi Shah is a correspondent for Eco-Business, an Asia-Pacific sustainable business online publication.

[You know, if I didn't know better, I would now have arrived at the sneaking suspicion that this correspondent and this essay is about exploring the same questions some of the Affluent Pretentious Hipsters have been asking themselves, (especially after the Whole Foods Asparagus Water fiasco) - why is saving the world so damn expensive, and why am I the idiot who is paying for it? It must be a freaking conspiracy man!

Actually, you know what? I don't know better. 

The writer is a correspondent for Eco-Business, "an Asia-Pacific sustainable business online publication". So... its readers are APH, and its advertisers are "eco-businesses"? So this article is to... address the concerns of the APH who may be getting suspicious and might start asking difficult question, and to tell "those who can afford ethical options... to continue to buy them" (his conclusion in the third from last paragraph).

So much sound and fury signifying so little concrete change. 

The ending is practically anti-climatic.

But say we take his naive questions and assumptions at face value and in good faith as legitimate questions.

Does he have a point? Is the real problem of the world making sustainable ethical consumption... sustainable in the main?

No. 

Firstly, so-called organic, sustainable techniques are NOT sustainable in the long term. There is a reason we had to invent or discover and use new technology, chemistry, and bio-engineering to improve crop yield, and produce more for less, and to use less resources to make more good more cheaply and affordably. We have a lot of people on this earth (and you may say, "aha! so the world is overpopulated! we should reduce the impact of humanity on this earth to save the earth!" That is another long discussion,  but the point is,
Since organic farming is at least 16 percent less efficient, maintaining the same output [for the US] would require devoting an additional 50 million acres to farmland -- an area larger than the state of California.
So organic farming is not sustainable. It would use up more land, which means converting nature to farmlands.

And sadly, organic food and farming is not more nutritious or better for the environment. 

Or safer (less pesticides).
Most consumers assume organic foods are grown without chemical pesticides, however this is not true. Rotenone is a potent neurotoxin, used by organic farmers that has long been used to kill fish and has been linked to Parkinson's Disease. Betarbet et. al. found that chronic exposure to Rotenone could reproduce the anatomical, neurochemical, behavioral and neuropathological features of PD.
Another pesticide used by Organic farmers is Pyrethrin, which is sometimes used the day of harvesting and can result in breathing difficulties when inhaled.
Other pesticides used in organic farming include hypochlorite, sodium hypochlorite, copper sulfate, boric acid, lime sulfur, elemental sulfur, and oils. Organic foods have been shown to have fewer pesticide residues than conventional foods. But do the higher levels found in conventional foods have a negative impact on human health?
"Organic farming" is more marketing than real. It assumes that what is natural is automatically good. But that is a myth.

Then there are all the other hipster fads.

Like Fairtrade coffee

And various health scares like BPA, Formaldehyde. And GMO foods.

And "Vaccination causes autism" and who knows what else.

Basically, the problem is anti-science, and bad science, and bad science reporting.


But I digress. Because it is so easy to.

The point is, the basic assumption of this essay - that "ethical consumption" is a thing (i.e. a reality) is simply an assumption. It is probably an autistic conspiracy of marketers and pretentious hipsters. 

In other words, Organic foods are not really better for you, or the environment. The choice of an electric car over a gas guzzler is a compromise because affluent, pretentious hipsters don't want to slum it with us MRT riders (Anton Casey anyone?). Caring about whether we can extend this compromise to the poor shows an appalling lack of understanding of what we need to do to "save the earth", and reminds me of that story of a poor family written by a privileged rich child - "Once upon a time, there was a poor family. The father was poor. The mother was poor. The children were poor. Even their servants were poor."

And this lack of understanding of what it means to be really poor, and what it means to save the earth leaves me to conclude that the writer is an APH.]




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