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Review: Ethical Chic – the inside story of the companies we think we love

ethical chicThis review was first published in the May 21 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love

By Fran Hawthorne

Beacon Press

$19

You shop local and never set foot in a big box store.

The only coffee you drink is fair trade, shade grown and organic.

You only eat what’s grown within 160 kilometres from home and follow a farm to fork philosophy.

Nothing you wear was made in a sweatshop or tested on animals.

You’re loyal to businesses that pay living wages and let workers do community work on company time.

You’re happy to pay a premium for the privilege of looking good, feeling good and doing good.

You’re an ethically hip consumer and coveted by companies large and small, new and old. And if you’re in your teens to thirties with disposable income and no kids, there are businesses that will pull out all the stops to win your wallet.

Those companies have a lot to live up, says Fran Hawthorne, an award-winning journalist and author of Ethical Chic.

“In this age of consumer activism, pinpoint marketing and unlimited and immediate information, we want the impossible,” says Hawthorne. “Products and producers that will assure us that we are fashionable, and that don’t pollute, harm animals, or contain weird chemicals, that run on alternative energy, pay their workers good salaries, recycle their scraps, use natural ingredients, buy from local suppliers, donate generously to charity, donate in particular to their neighbourhoods, and don’t throw their weight around by lobbying.”

As more businesses adopt corporate social responsibility (CSR) principles, it gets harder to know what’s real and what’s greenwashing, marketing hype and public relations spin. By one count, there are more than 350 environmental seals and certifications. There’s no shortage of best employer lists for every category imaginable.

“The more that businesses incorporate the image of socially responsible hipness, the harder it is for consumers. How can they tell whether the picture of happy cows grazing in a meadow is a marketing mirage?

“The best way to judge whether to trust a corporate image is to remember that these companies are out to make a buck, and they will be most likely to go green, humane and squishy if it makes business sense,” says Hawthorne.

To put CRS claims to the test, Hawthorne looks at six companies currently blessed with the double halo of being loved and trusted as ethical and cool: Tom’s of Main, Timberland, Starbucks, Apple, Trader’s Joe and American Apparel.

Hawthorne goes shopping. talks to experts, weighs the data and gives these companies a mix of high marks, average scores and failing grades for how they treat people and the planet.

Take Starbuck’s coffee sourcing policies. “The image is and isn’t true,” says Hawthorne.  Yes, the company is the world’s biggest buyer of fair trade coffee. But Hawthorne says in 2009, it bought 40 million pounds of fair trade coffee which represented about one-ninth of the company total.

Environmental consultant Fred Pearce talked with farmers in Tanzania who were getting a premium price of $1.46 per pound for fair trade coffee or about 20 cents above average. Yet the buyers then sold the same beans for $12 retail.

“Even if it’s only image, CSR has become an integral part of many companies’ brands,” says Hawthorne. “Timberland would just be a bunch of sturdy boots without it. American Apparel would have no protection against accusations of sleaze. Starbucks would be another chain selling gourmet coffee, perhaps no better than Dunkin’ Donuts, certainly less cool than a neighbourhood café. Trader Joe’s would still be a cute alternative grocer but it wouldn’t be a cuter version of Whole Foods. Tom’s wouldn’t exist.”

Hawthorne also raises an uncomfortable question for us to ponder while sipping our $4 fair trade coffee, cracking open our $12 organic craft beer, grilling a $30 steak and feeling virtuous and a little smug and superior to big box shoppers chasing after the lowest prices guaranteed.

“To be socially responsible is to care about the welfare of low-income and working-class people who can’t afford $5.92-per-pound grass-fed, pasture-raised, no-antibiotic, no-added hormones ground beef,” says Hawthorne.  “Being socially responsible in terms of the environment, working conditions, animal rights, organic and natural ingredients, and other typical standards by definition requires a company to be socially irresponsible in terms of bias against working-class and low-income consumers.”

And for the companies that say well-heeled shoppers buying expensive, socially responsible products help subsidize projects for the poor, Hawthorne’s less than impressed by these acts of organic Robin Hood.

“There’s something grating and patronizing about this explanation. The poor can’t use Tom’s healthful toothpaste but they should be grateful that Tom’s staffers might hand them mashed potatoes at a soup kitchen?”

So when it comes to companies projecting a progressive image with a CSR patina, what you see and pay for may not be what you get. Caveat emptor.

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