Empowering the consumer through the power of stories.
When we go to the supermarket, very often you only have a vague idea of where the product comes from, what the chain of production involved or how the product got to the stands. Most of us happen to be incredibly ignorant consumers, blind to what goes on in the production side. As a consumer, we are exposed to a huge world of products and we have an incredible amount of choices to make. But how much do we really control and know about what goes on with what we buy? The supply chains have gotten incredibly complicated and so intricate, that many companies are not completely aware of what really goes on with the goods they produce.
A few years ago I was startled to see a powerful video by Greenpeace: an employee eating the finger of an orangutan. It shocked me, not because of its morbidity, but because I would have never imagined that to eat a Kit Kat would somehow be related to orangutans’ death. It is only after research that you can understand how. Orangutans and Kit Kats have a complex relationship: to produce a Kit Kat you need palm oil -it is mixed with the chocolate to give it texture and durability. The palm oil that goes into the production of Kit Kats comes from deforested land, the same land that works as a habitat of the orangutans. Therefore, because Nestlé buys oil palm that is grown in deforested areas, you are killing orangutans by eating a Kit Kat. It is not an evident link that the average consumer of Kit Kats can make, and it made me think about all the other products who’s origins we don´t know.
When we buy, we have access to a good or to a service. But what is the story behind them? We have a right to have access to the story of the products. Understanding what we buy may be one of the most important issues in our globalized society because our impact as consumers has become more and more important.
In an attempt to inform the consumer, many companies and organizations give certain certification and labels to the products (e.g Rainforest Alliance, fair trade, USDA organic); they provide a third party quality control. But still, it is often the case that these certifications are corrupted (very often the only thing required to meet a certification is to pay a fee), biased, or incomplete. That is often the case of “organic” food or other “bio” products (see detailed explanation here).
There is another big obstacle. Because the supply and production chains are so complex nowadays that very often it is really difficult to evaluate what is truly fair trade, organic, recycled; even more so because the notions vary a lot between countries and corporations. Plus, they often involve abstract measurements and superfluous definitions (like energy consumption and carbon emissions).
What about the products that don’t have any certification? They still represent the vast majority of the products that we buy, and we constantly have to choose between certified and not certified. The consumer has to become aware of this “lack of certifications”. We have to ask ourselves: if the fair trade certification doesn’t exist, why is that so? We have to know our product better.
In order to better know your product a good idea would be to narrate the stages of the production chain. The consumer can then decide on the quality of the supply chain and judge how ethical and socially responsible the product is. For example, the brand Patagonia has added on their website a mini-site called “the footprint chronicles”, where you can actually track and look into each stage of the production process. This is a really good initiative that some brands are taking but it should be enforced and enlarged to the rest of the products. Each product that comes into the market has a long history of how it got to be there. They impact different environments and people. Knowing their stories is a social responsibility because when we buy, we become part of their story too; we become responsible of their impacts and their consequences. If I buy a Kit Kat, I have the right to know who and what it is impacting.
Of course, companies will have incentives to hide or neglect the practices that are not socially responsible or environmentally friendly. Patagonia make want to make the story of a socially responsible shirt public, but it can still decide what part of the story will come out- and hide others. That is why it would be best if independent researchers start gathering the stories of the products and making them public. There are already great project like this taking place (see “The Story of Stuff” below). If enough research is gathered, we could easily create a website or a mobile app where we could scan a bar code and know all about the product’s origins.Julia Naime is a research intern at the SISGI Group. She is a senior at New York University majoring in Economics. During her internship, she will research on rural and international development, environmental policies. To learn more about the Sisgi Group, please visit www.sisgigroup.org