Future Tense

Hey, Big Fair-Trade Spender

Apps promote ethical purchases, but do they inspire deeper learning?

A member of the Lisu hill tribe picks Thai arabica coffee beans at the Thai High coffee farm on December 8, 2012 in Phrao, northern Thailand.
A member of the Lisu hill tribe picks Thai arabica coffee beans at the Thai High coffee farm on Dec. 8, 2012, in Phrao, Thailand. Would you buy fair-trade coffee because your phone told you to?

Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

For much of its short-lived existence, “ethical consumption”—the idea that we can do good and mitigate some of the worst excesses of globalization simply by shopping differently—has enjoyed its share of controversy. Some claim that it does nothing to address structural problems of the global economy, leaving the global supply chains as they are. Others argue that ethical consumption might give some citizens the license to behave even less virtuously when faced with other decisions: After all, they feel they’ve purchased their indulgences. Others fear that the extra profits generated via ethical consumption won’t go to the people they intend to benefit but will instead be channeled into advertising budgets for ethical-consumption campaigns themselves.

But even assuming that some of the above criticisms are valid, it’s not immediately obvious why we should exclude questions of politics and ethics from our consumption decisions. Won’t we get better outcomes if consumers act like citizens, instead of, well, just consumers?

When our shopping decisions are intricately linked to problems like climate change and the future of democracy around the globe (it probably has something to do with energy politics, which, in turn, is connected to our consumption habits), we might value consumers who can think politically for their own sake—even if it does little to address specific problems pursued by particular ethical-consumption initiatives.

This is all by way of saying that, while we are still debating whether ethical consumption is worth it, we might at least figure out how to get it right. Some early empirical research has suggested two possibilities. One is the assumption that providing shoppers with more information about goods they are about to purchase will lead to more ethical consumption. Another is the assumption that considerations of social status play an important role in choosing whether to engage in ethical consumption. We don’t just want to do good—we want to be seen as doing good. If only there were a way to broadcast our purchases to the outside world!

Given these two assumptions, it’s easy to see why some feel that information technology could be a useful ally in saving the world through shopping. By now, this should be a familiar refrain: The future of ethical consumption lies in smartphones, Google Glass, and any other portable device that can scan the items we are buying, inform us of all the benefits of buying this particular product—perhaps even show us the workers or farmers who stand to benefit from our decision—and announce our heroic act of consumption to all our friends!

Some such apps already exist: For example, GoodGuide—its humble tagline reads “Shop your values. Anytime. Anywhere. For free!”—allows you to scan a product’s bar code and access health, environmental, and social performance ratings for more than 120,000 products. And if you want to be really ethical, you can install that app on your Fairphone—a new smartphone that brands itself as “conflict-free” and that only uses “sourcing raw materials that don’t fund armed forces or violent conflicts, from mines that treat people like the human beings they are.”

A new article in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology considerably complicates this picture, while also shedding some light on why the iPhone may not be the future of ethical consumption. The authors report the results of a recent study, in which they gave $20 each to students at their home university in Canada and asked them to choose between buying an unbranded and nondescript bag of coffee that retailed for $5 or a similar-looking bag—but with a label “fair trade” attached to it—that retailed for $7. The students could pocket the savings.

The participants were split into four groups. The first was given no further information, and each of its members made their purchase in private. The second group watched a three-minute video telling them about the hardships of coffee production in Guatemala and explaining how fair trade aims to improve the farmers’ condition; they too bought their coffee in private. Members of the third group didn’t watch the video but had each participant make their purchase in front of other members, while announcing their decision as to which coffee to buy to the rest of the group. Members of the fourth group watched the video and, like the third group, announced their decision to their peers.

While 64 percent of all participants did choose to buy fair-trade coffee, it turns out that neither more information nor more publicity made much of a difference to their decision. Neither, for that matter, did their income: Despite a $2 variation in the price of coffee—a difference of 40 percent—the question of what coffee to buy didn’t boil down to the rich vs. the poor.

What did make a difference? Some prior familiarity with the goals and activities of fair-trade campaigns as well as broader understanding of national and global political issues that are only peripherally related to fair trade. (To measure this variable, the researchers asked participants about the causes of the greenhouse effect, which organizations are responsible for making loans to developing countries for stabilization and/or development purposes, and the current balance of power within the Canadian House of Commons.) One of the helpful conclusions drawn by the authors is that long-term educational campaigns—the ones that seek to go beyond just pop-up information provision at the point of purchase—are likely to be far more effective at stimulating ethical consumption.

What’s remarkable about this study is that it confirms what some of us have suspected all along: We might not be the automatons that the homo economicus model assumes us to be. Thus, some of the critiques of ethical consumption—at least those that have to do with status—might be based on faulty theories of human behavior. If “ethical consumption” is not just a self-serving act of status enhancement, it might be that we actually genuinely care about improving the state of the world and whatever little contribution we ourselves might make to it.

And what of the little impact that extra information has at purchase point? Well, while latest technologies allow us to do plenty of easy things on the cheap, those easy things are not necessarily the ones that matter. Perhaps it’s not even technology that is at fault here. Rather, it’s a choice between stand-alone apps that seek to change our behavior on the fly and sophisticated, content-rich apps—integrated into a broader educational strategy—that might deepen our knowledge about a given subject in the long term. And while there are plenty of news apps, having citizens actually engage with the long-form content that those apps provide—let alone understand the causes of the greenhouse effect or the intricacies of world trade—is a task that might require a different, app-free strategy.

Now, is there a fair-trade app to help promote the virtues of fair trade?

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.