Boston Review: Brand Aid

By Lisa Ann Richey and Stefano Ponte
Boston Review

richey_brand coverDara O’Rourke asks whether consumers can transform global production. We answer, “yes,” but not alone. While we agree with many of the points that O’Rourke raises, we challenge three.

First, consumers are not citizens without a state. Regulation and state intervention are still key factors in shaping the boundaries within which consumers make their “ethical” choices. For example, without subsidies and government mandates in the United States and the European Union, there would be less renewable energy for transport, perhaps none. Today consumers can choose whether to fill up their cars with straight gasoline or a 5–10 percent ethanol blend, or they can buy electric cars. And recent changes in renewable energy regulation have encouraged the development of sustainable biofuels, made from forest and crop residues and even algae, not food stocks.

Second, while O’Rourke correctly observes that a large majority of consumers do not walk the walk, an increasing number do. In the early 2000s, critics dismissed the ethical coffee market as a small niche. As it grew they declared that it would hit a ceiling. And when the economic crisis hit, a dramatic slowdown was expected. Yet consumption of fair trade, organic, and other sustainable coffee keeps growing—it’s now more than 8 percent of the market. Another example: ten years ago there were no wild-caught sustainable fish on supermarket shelves. Now thousands of products in more than 40 countries are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a nonprofit eco-labeling organization.

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