December 18, 2005
CSR at the Grocery Store
Posted by Gordon Smith

I am a skeptic of attempts to introduce matters of "social responsibility" into corporate boardrooms, but what about social responsibility through consumer activism? I often hear people proclaim their willingness to pay more for products that are produced responsibly, however defined. Frances Stead Sellers refers to this as "guilt-charged spending." Does it make the world a better place or are consumers being duped?

Fairtrade_1According to Philip Oppenheim, writing in The Spectator last month, the "fair trade consumer guarantee" in Europe offers only minimal benefits to its pretended beneficiaries:

[H]ave you ever wondered how much of the almost £1 extra you might pay for a bag of Fairtrade bananas gets back to the farmer? The answer is 4p. How about a 99p bar of Fairtrade chocolate? Just under 2p extra gets back to the grower. Most of the rest gets sucked up by a sticky web of middlemen — the Fairtrade Fat Cats — some of whom have grown very rich on Fairtrade products.

The problem with CSR at the grocery store, according to Sellers, is that most consumers have neither the time nor the inclination to become fair trade experts:

I want to do the right thing, but I'm not prepared to make a career of it. It's not hard to find criticisms online about the Body Shop, for example; it's much harder to verify them. And I'm much less interested in checking out the story behind the bananas I buy than I am in the origin of those origami ornaments. What's more, despite efforts by nonprofits like TransFair and the International Fair Trade Association or IFAT ... , there's a lot of room for misleading labeling in our ethical shopping baskets. So when it comes to my food shopping in particular, I'm left wondering whether I would be doing just as much good if I simply bought the best bargain and sent the money I had saved to a development charity (as Oppenheim would have me do).

Food for thought.

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