Friday, December 30, 2011

Ethical Consumerism

So it's time to do the group blog posts again and the topic of choosing this time is “Ethical Consumerism” chosen by Swati. Sounds straight out of an MBA course? In a way it is, because Swati’s also working on this as part of her MBA and it helps to hear other’s views on it. To me it sounds familiar as well, because a few months back I had a discussion on the very same topic with my husband who’s doing his MBA.

So there we were on a beautiful Saturday morning, with warm rays of sunshine filtering down through the blue clouds. There had been a fresh sprinkling of snow the night before and our patio was covered in the sheer veneer of it, it was a beautiful sight. So, armed with hot cups of coffee, we sat down – to discuss Ethical Consumerism and Corporate Social Responsibility! Interesting topics, don’t you think? At that point of time, I certainly didn’t think so!

Even though Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR would entail other aspects too, like contributing to charities, doing your part for eradicating poverty, giving to the unfortunate etc, at some level it is also linked to how ethical their practices are. Swati’s specific questions were:

As consumers of products (any product is fine) - do you give preference to those that are ethically produced? I.e. do you put a thought into what you buy, how it is made, is it tested on animals or such. How is the company doing in terms of social causes and environment friendliness?

When I was growing up in India, I never used to pay special attention to how products were made, their testing practices, the company’s contributions towards the environment and social causes, but lately, I have been reading up a lot on such. In addition to reaping profits, keeping their books transparent and aiding in the overall economic development, it's required that every company now also play their part in taking responsibility for their actions and adhere to required norms in ethical, moral ways for the environment, consumers and the community as such. As an aspect of CSR, most organizations dabble in philanthropy, donating to charities for the disabled, those less fortunate, providing for education, yet others donate to foundations that are geared towards protecting the environment - planting saplings, cleaning up beaches, volunteering at schools and so on.

I will be honest, my decisions on buying products have not been so influenced with the organization’s views on CSR, but buying food has. A while ago, I dabbled in eating non-vegetarian food, trying different kinds of meat/seafood and even with that, I would be careful to buy stuff only from places where they boasted of ethical treatment of animals, not pumping them with hormones and such. However, it was possibly more due to my guilt than the "ethics" – due to the feeling that I was taking a life having been a vegetarian so long. I have moved back to the vegetarian side now, but even when I browse the grocery stores and wander into the meat section accidently, my eyes do wander towards the stickers that state something to that effect. I am a big fan of Bath and Body Works which clearly states that the finished product has not been tested on animals.

However, in the world of drugs and pharmaceuticals, it is still important to go in for animal testing, so it cannot be avoided entirely. For the advancement of science, for the greater good – in research to find the cure for cancer or AIDs or the next serious disorder, there will be situations where animal testing would be a must before they can go in for human testing and we cannot but condone it.

As far as social responsibility goes, I like to read about/promote organizations that, rather than donate to charities, have their employees do their part for the environment or the community. Recently, I read an article where the employees of Infosys had taken to the streets cleaning up the mess and painting over walls streaked with graffiti. It’s a win-win situation – the company doesn’t need to spend too much money and the employees feel good about themselves having contributed to the environment. In all honesty, I am skeptical of foundations that accept donations, because I don’t know where the money actually ends up. Having known/experienced phony charities, I prefer to work with or encourage foundations that roll up their sleeves, get into the deep and then truly work at the grass root level.

One major turn-off for me while buying products is, if the organization has been linked in racism or child labor. I do not buy fireworks from the Sivakasi fireworks anymore, having read all about the disgusting conditions in which children work in the factory, with the organization not paying attention to their safety or health. I recently had stopped buying the “Tommy Hilfiger” brand after I read an article in which the designer Tommy Hilfiger allegedly announced on Oprah Winfrey’s show that “If I knew that blacks and Asians were going to wear my clothes, I would have never designed them”. It was later confirmed, that this was a rumor and Tommy had not even been on Oprah’s until a couple of years after this statement was supposedly made. In today’s age, one cannot afford to make racist statements. The world is moving at an astounding pace, scary in fact, with every country going nuclear, a single spark could ignite a war. So yes, I condemn racism majorly and hence, products by organizations linked to it in any way are a major no-no for me.

Our company, iGate-Patni, on every New Years, sends New Year’s greetings to the top leadership at every client’s and then plants a sapling in their name in Madhya Pradesh. I do not know how much these get cared for, but do I like the thought of going green. The organization where my sister works, gave every single employee a ‘Tulsi’ sapling to take home and nurture, on their “Foundation Day”. With global warming threatening ice caps and melting glaciers, with the weather getting truly messed up around the world, I appreciate the fact that these organizations are trying to do what they can for the environment.

So while I might not specifically have the “good” in mind, while I go shopping, I know I will not condone the “bad” part. Miniscule as my purchase may be, knowing that my not buying something would hardly make a dent in their profits; at least I can have the mental satisfaction that I wouldn’t be adding to it.


I would love to hear your views!

3 comments:

  1. I feel the same ... we might not be able to move the masses but atleast we did our bit !!

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  2. Ethical consumerism is a fluid concept. Too many free-thinking people will draw their own lines on ethics. You're right that animal testing in biomedical research is a must. I concur as someone who works with animals!
    IMHO we have every right as consumers to base our decisions on literally any criterion. If finding out that a software company for instance has a green policy makes you warm and fuzzy about buying their product/service, more power to you.
    I particularly agree with your assertion that it's risky to just sign a check to some charity. The closer you are to the true beneficiaries of the charity, the likelier it is that you have full knowledge of how your money is spent.
    The kids in Sivakasi are working in horrible conditions, and if enough people stop buying those crackers, they will just stop working. And then their families will starve. Child labor is ugly, but banning it is a worse solution than the problem itself. Honest, dignified labor might prevent even more deplorable things like child-trafficking or child-slave-trade. Those kids are working in such danger because they have no alternative.
    Genetically modified food and pesticides save lives. If all farming went organic, we'd probably feed 2/3 of the world. As far as hormones are concerned, even the most organic milk has hormones. The 99¢ cheeseburger exists because we are doing everything we can to make food cheap, and sometimes that means less-than-perfect treatment of animals. But there are people who are staying alive because of that cheap food.
    In spite of all this, I believe that people should vote with their wallets. Just in a more nuanced way. :)

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    Replies
    1. LiberalCynic - Well laid out comments on each topic :)
      On the whole Sivakasi thing. I guess, an emotional decision made in the heat of the moment. I just wish working conditions improve and safety standards are enforced. Value of human life needs to scale up considerably not just related to child labor but everywhere in India. But then the same argument would apply to beggar kids on the streets. How do you know which of them are genuine and which of them are in the "profession" of begging. How do you decide whether to help them or not?

      Agreed, its not easy switching to complete organic. Its expensive and not something everything can afford. Oh well, there's going to be options everywhere - and arguments both in favor and against too :)

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