Ethical sales, selling ethics

NPR’s Natalie Jacewicz asks whether Millennials are hypocrites when it comes to chocolate:

In a survey of participants ages 18 to 35, millennials reported caring about ethical issues like environmental sustainability and social responsibility in chocolate production. But when choosing chocolate privately, these self-proclaimed ethical shoppers were all chocolate bark and no bite. (Sorry.) Most showed little preference for labels advertising ethical sourcing and instead preferred labels with ingredients they recognized — items like “chocolate” and “butter,” rather than “tertiary butylhydroquinone.”

When talking in general terms, participants in the study (which, it bears mentioning, was funded by Hershey) said they favored ethically sourced chocolate, but when presented with unbranded chocolate bars and asked to choose, ethics took a back seat.

Most participants consistently paid attention to whether or not they could pronounce the ingredients in a bar, but only a small, socially conscious group — representing 14 percent of participants — showed strong preference for ethical labels.

A “corporate sustainability specialist” quoted in the story says this goes to show that young people “tend to be quite aware of social issues and environmental issues. But if you push a bit harder, it’s a lot of talk, but not always action.” In other words, corporations can just ignore that ethics stuff, because people don’t really care about it anyway. Hershey doesn’t have to worry about enslaved eleven year-olds in its supply chain. Nothing to see here.

But Jacewicz notes that young people are more likely to buy organic milk, eggs, and meat — so what’s going on? The psychologist who led the study suggests that because chocolate is an indulgence rather than a staple, people aren’t thinking about ethical issues when they buy it — they are, by implication, thinking about themselves. I’ll buy that, but I don’t think it’s limited to chocolate. Note that participants in the study wanted only ingredients they could pronounce; they were quite concerned about the quality of what they put in their bodies, not only about “indulgent” qualities like flavor. But I’d suggest that’s also true of people buying organic staples. The USDA’s organic standards say little about animal welfare and next to nothing about workers, and though organic agriculture is supposed to be about process, most of the marketing of organic produce has always been about the product — the suggestion that organic food is better for you, that it’s more nutritious or contains fewer carcinogens, or just that it tastes better. Marketing has encouraged people to buy organic food out of concern for themselves and their families, not out of concern for workers, animals, or the planet.

So there’s nothing necessarily inconsistent about buying organically certified milk but looking for “natural” ingredients rather than ethical sourcing certifications on a chocolate bar. The food movement hasn’t succeeded in establishing an ethic; for the most part, it’s only given people new ways to think more deeply about their own welfare. Organic food might be branded as ethical, so people can feel good about themselves when buying it, but that isn’t the same as genuine concern; it’s just another form of “me first.” That’s what sells, and until we stop judging success by what sells, it will keep right on selling.

Cornbread and the color line

A friend asked for my recipe for cornbread, and a blog craves content, and so I thought I would post it here. But the recipe requires a bit of explanation. You see, over the years my standard cornbread, which I bake every week or two, has evolved from a lightly sweetened cakey thing with half white flour to an all-corn, unsweetened cornbread. That means that I’ve had to change the cornmeal I use, from a medium-ground all-purpose yellow meal to a fine ground white meal. I’m not sure whether white is better than yellow, but fine-ground definitely is. I consider it an absolute necessity for all-cornmeal cornbread, in fact; coarse-ground meal never fully cooks, and without some flour to smooth it out, the bread is crumbly and gritty.

But that simple, pragmatic choice of ingredient appears to be fraught with Deeper Meaning. White cornmeal isn’t just cornmeal that happens to be white. Continue reading “Cornbread and the color line”

Standards and Stewards

I wrote this essay in 2003 and for various reasons am only now (January 2009) publishing it. Much has changed in six years: The market for organic food has grown tremendously, and alongside it the idea of “eating local.” Much also has been written, and some of the ideas here are more commonly discussed now than then. I would frame the essay differently today, and may one day reframe it in another context. But much else has not changed, and I believe the argument still sound.

You may find this too long to read online, and I’ve made a PDF available. Whichever version you read, I’d appreciate your comments.


Last spring my wife and I began raising ducks. We bought seven Khaki Campbell ducklings, set up a brooder in a spare room, raised them to adulthood, watch them take their first wobbly flight across the yard, and now each day collect their eggs for our table. When we have extra eggs — which is most of the time, for our ducks lay prodigiously — we give, sell, or barter them to friends. On one occasion, accepting a dozen eggs from me, a friend asked, “Are they organic?”

Well, I thought, it depends on what you mean. By a commonsense, dictionary definition, the eggs are organic; they are laid by ducks who are raised outdoors, who eat a diet that includes the bugs and tender greens that ducks naturally eat, and who are integrated into the life of our household. They are, I could have answered, part of an organic whole that includes my family, my local ecosystem, and now my friends and community.

But that isn’t what my friend meant, and so I answered as he expected. The eggs were not produced in accordance with the USDA’s organic standards, I explained, because the commercial feed that is the basis of their diet in winter and supplements it in summer was not mixed from organically grown grain. Organic duck feed is not widely available — as far as I can tell, it is not available at all. So no, they are not “organic” after all.

But, I told him, I can tell you anything you want to know about the ducks and how they were raised. You can come visit, if you want, and see how they are raised. Continue reading “Standards and Stewards”