Shea: Ethical consumerism requires research, big-picture thinking

Bailey Reynolds, second-year biology major, compares peanut butter brands at Cascadia Market. Resources available to measure products’ impacts are located on the packaging.

Delaney Shea, Columnist

Altering food-purchasing habits can have positive effects, conscious choices.

For many people, college students especially, the power of a dollar can be a burden. Students want to have not only plenty of clothes and food, but also quality products. Some also want to have ethically produced and sustainable clothes and food. Every dollar counts. Companies should not be allowed to get away with such behavior as bottling water from multiple drought-prone regions and selling it at a raised price, as Nestle has been doing. However, attempting to make purchases in line with one’s morals is a difficult situation when looking for the cheapest meal. I like to buy pasture-raised and certified humane eggs, because “cage-free” does not mean that the chickens are being given much space, and “free-range” does not mean that the chickens actually get to go outside; it just means that it is possible for them to do so. However, these eggs are significantly more expensive than non-pasture-raised eggs. So what can be done? How can students get healthy, humane food? 

It is crucial to both think about the big picture and to do your research before purchasing.

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College of Business Associate Professor Keith Leavitt believes it is a common trap that leads people to believe that the cheapest product is the best way we value our goods. 

“In the U.S., we’ve become accustomed to thinking about value exclusively in terms of price. I think this is a mistake, and is why we frequently choose less sustainable products,” Leavitt said via email.

According to Leavitt, ethically-produced products have extra steps in their processes, causing a price increase. However, it is important to note that if more people shopped responsibly, the prices would come down, and that there are long-term costs that come with initially cheaper products.

“For example, when people buy inexpensive and ‘factory-farmed’ pork, they’re ingesting antibiotics that will increase the chance of drug-resistant superbugs (with a tremendous risk/cost to public health),” Leavitt said via email. “Similarly, when they buy a cheap article of clothing from a ‘fast-fashion’ company like H&M at half the price of a better-made product, they’re spending half as much for a product they’ll get 10 percent of the life out of. So, responsible products are more likely to be more expensive at the point of sale, but this ignores the broader concept of value.”

Leavitt is hopeful that companies are increasingly taking it upon themselves to do the right things. 

“Increasingly, companies realize that in a world with a 24-hour news cycle and the influence of social media, they have a lot more to worry about than government fines when they get caught doing something wrong—I honestly believe that most companies are trying to stay on the right side of the law, because the old model of weighing the risk of detection against the potential for profits doesn’t hold up—you simply can’t predict the cost of outrage when your company ends up in hot water,” Leavitt said via email.

Exploitative companies are still very much present in stores. If we are interested in speaking with our money and supporting ethical businesses, how can we tell?

Although it is difficult to quantify morality in any simple way, there are many resources that can help make choosing between brands easier.

“Some players (the Global Reporting Initiative; Socially Responsible Investing) and standards (ISO 26000, 14000 series) have started to form around these ideas, which will make it easier to directly compare products by category,” Leavitt said via email. “For example, the EPA has resources for comparing the environmental impact of a lot of consumer goods and projects such as Seafood Watch have even developed free apps to help make better choices. Somewhat surprisingly, Wal-Mart has built a sustainability consortium and is actually working on a simple index that would allow consumers to make better choices at the point of sale (e.g., this toothpaste gets an 8 for environmental impact, but only a 6 for employee/people issues).”

According to Assistant Director of Nutrition and Sustainability for University Housing and Dining Services Tara Sanders, measuring a company’s ethical standards is complex. She suggests paying attention to third-party verifications, despite some caveats. 

“Third-party verifications like Certified Organic, or Fair Trade Certified (and several others outlined in this guide) can serve as a guide for those interested in supporting ethically sourced foods,” Sanders said via email. “Often times third-party verification results in a higher cost of goods to compensate for economies of scale and the cost of the certification. There are many farmers, ranchers and manufactures who practice environmental and ethical practices, but lack third party certification.”

Another great way to learn about where your food is coming from is going to farmers markets and food hubs and getting to know farmers personally. 

According to Sanders, learning to eat healthily and partaking in more natural options requires learning to cook.

“Whole foods like fresh produce and whole grains are less expensive and healthier than processed foods, but take planning and skill to prepare,” Sanders said via email.

If cost is a stumbling block, try eating less meat protein and more plant protein to save money, choosing foods lower on the glycemic index to stay fuller longer and taking advantage of on-campus support.

“Utilize campus resources like the Human Services Resource Center Food Pantry and learn if you are eligible for other resources like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that support food insecure students,” Sanders said via email.

According to Kerry Paterson, Director for Residential Dining and Catering for University Housing and Dining Services, UHDS staff works to make sure they are meeting a broad range of dietary needs when they decide which brands to purchase and offer to students. 

“We strive to meet the needs of all our customers, which heavily influences what we sell and serve,” Paterson said via email. “Price considerations also influence what we serve. For instance, we have a demand for organic options, so we address this need by serving all organic produce at Five Four One in McNary Dining. We understand that currently it would be cost prohibitive to serve organic options at all locations.”

This means, however, that it is up to the students to make conscious choices with their limited dollars. Chobani, an organization that consistently supports refugees, can be found at Cascadia Market and at local supermarkets. If you support this, make a point to purchase Chobani instead of Yoplait or other brands offered. Back up companies that make socially responsible choices. 

It is so easy to hide behind false promises like “cage-free eggs” and separate oneself from responsible consumerism. Most people never see tangible effects of irresponsible farming or production. But do not let this dupe you. Hold companies accountable, and do not let them slink around behind the scenes. The world and its people will be so much healthier for it.