This blog post originally appeared at Rachel Ann Hanley.
Since receiving his doctoral degree in sociology from the University of Colorado, Boulder, Ellis Jones has focused all of his energies on bridging the gap between academics, activists, and the average citizen. A scholar of social responsibility, global citizenshi,p and everyday activism, Dr. Jones continues to teach and give presentations across the country on how to turn lofty ideals into practical actions
RH: How was The Better World Shopping Guide born?
EJ: Originally, in graduate school, I got together with a couple of my colleagues and, instead of working on our dissertations, we started working on a better world handbook. We wanted this to be a comprehensive resource about “What can I do to make a difference in the world?” for individuals to act on a wide range of issues and use in their every day lives. Two of the pages in that four hundred page book were dedicated to rating corporations when you go shopping. “Which ice cream do you buy when you want to shop more ethically?” etc. Those two pages got more feedback from readers than any of the others, so I decided this mini handbook might be worth pursuing. When the first edition came out I started creating a larger database to get at this question of who are the good guys and the bad guys and how can we make the world a better place. I took publically available data and pulled it together and tried to translate it into A to F grades.
RH: Do you suggest readers do their own research into companies in addition to using The Better World Shopping Guide?
EJ: I want them to double-check my work for sure. I want to encourage people to go out and dig in on their own, but (and this is a big but) I’ve always been frustrated when I hear other people suggest it’s important to be an ethical shopper like “Oh, just go do your homework.” I have a PhD and this is my area of research and this is difficult, time consuming work. I can’t imagine trying to navigate this as the average consumer. The idea of “Oh, just go do your homework.” makes me wonder “Why is this all on the shoulders of consumers?” This information should all be provided. There’s no way that consumers can do enough research or enough homework to wrap their heads around this particular challenge. This is massive. This is not some kind of clean slate that we’re working off where we don’t know anything, we come in and do homework, and get some information. Some big companies have huge budgets to create images that are a combination of fact and fiction to persuade consumers that they’re more ethical than they are. Consumers are bombarded with information that points them in a thousand different directions. When people make it sound like “Oh, just go do your homework” like this is doing a crossword puzzle and you’re done, that’s wrong. I want to say, “Yes, always do your homework, always follow up with your own research.” In the book I provide a list of 50 websites for researching, but the idea that a consumer could - even with something as simple as Coke versus Pepsi - that they could go home and Google that on their own and then have a firm understanding after a few hours is ludicrous. It’s very daunting. I feel a lot of sympathy for the average person and that’s part of why I’m as dedicated to this work as I am. I think we should have this homework done for us and we should go into shopping already wielding these tools.
RH: In The Better World Shopping Guide, there’s a list of the top 10 things for shoppers to change to have the most positive impact. Bank is number 1. Why is which bank we choose so important?
EJ: If you go back to the original edition, that list hasn’t really changed. Bank as always been number 1. When I did my original investigation into this research, the financial institution is the one I found most obscure, most cloaked in secrecy. Most major banks are graded between C and F. They’re institutions that aren’t very accountable or transparent and often can’t answer fairly simple questions about where the money is invested. When you don’t have accountability it creates a space for very irresponsible behavior. There’s this incredible correlation between the most socially and environmentally irresponsible banks and those that receive the most bailout money. This is the ultimate illustration about why we need to be responsible as consumers, because if we don’t hold these institutions accountable they will come back and bite us.
Recently, I heard that since the bailouts have happened the system has not changed significantly and that if this crisis were to happen again we would do the exact same thing. The banks know we will bail them out, because we don’t have a lot of choices. When you have a bank, that bank basically has access to your dollars and they may look like they’re sitting in your account, but they’re actually being invested all around the world; while you’re eating and sleeping, that money is going out to change the world. If the money is being used for some problematic activity, that’s your money that’s causing havoc in the world. If you invest in a responsible bank, that money’s being used to make the world a better place. It doesn’t get more black and white than that. We’re constantly earning money and spending it and the bank is just the place we hold it. It is a pain to change your bank, but if you do it once you more or less don’t have to think about it afterwards and now that money’s being used for better. Those ripple effects will take place for the rest of your life.
RH: I read an article once that suggested people don’t change their habits even when they learn indisputable proof about a company’s human rights or environmental transgressions, because to make a positive change shoppers first must accept the guilt that they’ve been, by extension, supporting such practices by shopping there. The article went on to advise: Don’t feel guilty for, in the past, supporting a business with unethical practices of which you were unaware, but do feel guilty if you continue shopping there even after learning this new information. What are your thoughts on this?
EJ: I don’t agree with the advice, but I agree with the study. Everything I see shows that if people find out about a company, they won’t necessarily switch to a better company or boycott the bad company. It’s not that people are lazy, but that people are complicated. Consumers never buy based on a single factor. They’re always trying to balance a number of factors. They’re trying to consider price and quality and a wide range of other things such as taste and their needs. Socially responsible shopping or ethical consumption is just one other factor strung into the equation. In some ways these studies are far too primitive. It’s too simplistic. People might not buy from a good company, because the products are too expensive or they’re still not convinced a company is really as bad as they hear or they don’t know how it relates to companies in the same category.
To be honest, I don’t think people should feel guilty. It brings up cognitive dissonance. If we realize we haven’t been the best father or daughter or partner or shopper, suddenly we have to struggle with that and we don’t like to do that. I don’t think it’s about guilt or that it’s black and white. Here’s what I do and recommend: I recommend people think about improving their overall ethical profile. I like to call it your shopping GPA. If you take all the items you bought in a particular year and average the grades, what would your grade be? You’re not going to go from a C student for the last x number of years to an A student tomorrow. It doesn’t work that way. You work your way up. If you’re a C student, you challenge yourself to be a B student. My goal is to be a B+ shopper and I don’t think I make that goal all the time. I don’t think we should be unrealistic here. No one is an A shopper. So it’s not about being perfect; it’s about being better. For me that’s not as much about grappling with guilt as thinking about trying to do more good in the world. Sometimes the option is between a C and an F company and you buy a C. Or sometimes you’re in a Walmart with your family, because your family loves Walmart and even within Walmart there’s a spectrum of better or worse products. It’s still not optimal, but we try to make the best choice available. We take in account our budget, tastes and needs, and our ethical stance. It’s about putting those things together and coming up with the best choices available.
To read it in its entirety, click here.