Ethical Shopping: Spending Money, Making Change

My neighbor and I recently paid a visit to a new distillery that has just opened up in Sudbury. The distillery, called Crosscut, is located in a very industrial part of an already industrial city and has tried to capture this industrial element in its tasting room: the floor is polished cement, the chairs wrought iron and the room itself has the feel of a (very clean) auto repair shop or small factory.

Bacon vodka from Sudbury's Crosscut Distillery. (Source: Crosscut web site)

Bacon vodka from Sudbury’s Crosscut Distillery. (Source: Crosscut web site)

Crosscut distillery, since it is so new, offers only a small range of products: a gin flavored with botanicals from Northern Ontario, several kinds of whiskey and a pleasingly smoky bacon-flavored vodka (which, apparently, is flavored with real bacon). We happily bought a bottle of the vodka and a bottle of the gin, not so much because we are heavy spirit drinkers (indeed, although I found the idea of bacon-flavored vodka intriguing, I’m not quite sure what to mix it with, since I do not intend to drink it straight) or because they were cheaper than similar products we could find at the liquor store (they weren’t), but because we were happy to see a craft distillery open up in Sudbury, and we wanted to support it.

I was thinking about our visit, and what our buying choices might mean, in the context of the looming trade war between the United States and many other parts of the world, including Canada. On 1 July 2018, Canada imposed tariffs on certain goods from the United States, in response to tariffs imposed on Canadian goods by the Trump administration. Trump’s criticism of Canada, and of our Prime Minister, seems to have created a rare moment of solidarity, uniting politicians from all parties, and among Canadians more generally. Many Canadians have publicly stated they will make it a priority not to buy goods produced in the United States, and that they are now paying much more attention than they used to to where their food, clothing and other purchases come from. I confess that I am among them: when I was buying eggs this week, I noticed that the first box I picked up contained eggs produced in the US. I put it back on the shelf and replaced it with a container of eggs produced in Canada.

All of this has got me thinking, as well, about the ethical dimensions of our buying choices. While we often choose what to buy on the basis of how much things cost (for most of us, this means buying items which are the cheapest, although luxury brand name items seem to operate according to a different rule, one that makes a high price a selling feature), we can also make purchasing decisions on the basis of our ethical commitments. In this column, I want to make the case that, not only can we choose to think about what’s ethical when we shop, but that we ought to do so. One of the most positive things about capitalism is that consumers – you and me – actually have a certain degree of power: if many of us pay attention to the ethical dimensions of our shopping habits, we can actually have an effect on which products – and which companies – are successful, and which are not.

 

With this in mind, I want to propose four general rules to help guide us when we shop:

Rule Number One: We should ask ourselves where something is made or produced before we buy it, and we should choose not to purchase goods or products from certain countries. As noted above, many Canadians are now starting to ask this question, to avoid purchasing goods from the United States. We can extend this thinking more broadly, and choose to buy things from countries with a good track record of human rights, that demonstrate concern for the environment and so-on.

 

Rule Number Two: We should ask who made or produced this product. Was it made by child laborers? Was it produced by workers who are paid a pittance for their labor, or who work in unsafe conditions? Was it produced by a company that is known to exploit its workers? Or known to be a bad corporate citizen? Surprisingly, the corporations that have a bad track record with respect to some of these issues are not just the ones that immediately spring to mind, like Monsanto or BP (although these companies are ethically problematic indeed), but also ones with a much more benign public image.

One way to protest Monsanto. (Washington DC, 2013. Photo by By Sarah Stierch [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons)

One way to protest Monsanto. (Washington DC, 2013. Photo by By Sarah Stierch, CC BY 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons)

Several years ago, for example, Starbucks made the news because it was accused by Oxfam of depriving Ethiopian farmers of about $90 million a year by fighting the Ethiopian government’s attempt to trademark several types of Ethiopian coffee beans. Ever since reading about this controversy, I have done my best to limit my purchases from Starbucks. Likewise, our beloved Tim Hortons (now owned by a multinational holding company) got in trouble recently because some franchisees, in a protest against the minimum wage increase in Ontario, docked benefits and other perks from their employees. (I no longer patronize Tim Hortons, either.)

 

Rule Number Three: We should ask, when purchasing products made by multinational corporations, what other companies they own, and whether those other companies are ones we want to support. There are few things as innocuous Kraft Dinner or comforting as Kraft peanut butter, for example, but Kraft is owned by tobacco maker Philip Morris. When we buy Kraft products we are quite literally supporting Big Tobacco.

Kraft Dinner. Made with love, by...Big Tobacco?

Kraft Dinner. Made with love by…Big Tobacco?

Likewise, anyone who is concerned about Monsanto and what it is doing to the planet (and to us) can easily find a list of companies or brands it owns, or which use its genetically-modified seeds in their products. These companies include everything from Aunt Jemima to Cadbury, Hellman’s to Kellogs. (See: “68 Monsanto-Owned Companies To Boycott.”) In our attempts to live by this — and the preceding rules — the internet is our friend, providing us with easy access to information about companies and their practices.

 

Rule Number Four: We should buy local produce and products, and support local producers, wherever and whenever we can. Will this mean that we will pay higher prices, at least on occasion? Yes, almost certainly. But the extra money we spend will stay in our community, help support our neighbors and perhaps even provide jobs for us or for people in our families.

If we have the choice between spending our coffee money at Starbucks or at a small, locally-owned coffee shop, it is worth supporting the latter rather than the former; if we can buy apples produced in Nova Scotia, we should choose them rather than apples grown in the United States or China. Moreover, when we buy local, many of the questions required by the first three rules are easy to answer – we can visit the places where our food, drink or other consumer goods are being produced, and we can talk to the people who make them.

Local coffee shop: Big Wave Café, Main A Dieu. (Source: Facebook)

Local coffee shop: Big Wave Café, Main A Dieu. (Source: Facebook)

When my neighbor and I went to the distillery, for example, we heard stories about their efforts to find the right mix of botanicals to flavor the gin, and met the owner, who told us that he was getting a load of rhubarb from a local farmer, and was going to experiment with it to see if he could produce a nice, rhubarb-flavored spirit. We left feeling good about our purchases, not only because they included the intriguing bacon-flavored vodka, but also because we had supported a local business which, in turn, was supporting other local producers. Buying a bottle of industrial gin produced by a multinational corporation from the liquor store never feels as good.

Featured image: Woman shopping for baby formula in Singapore by ProjectManhattan. CC0, from Wikimedia Commons)

Rachel Haliburton

 

Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.

 

 

 

 

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