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Wednesday, November 9,2011

More Information means smarter decisions

by Terry Link

Coffee, toilet paper, what could
possibly follow? The intent of these pieces is to shed light on how the
choices we make in the marketplace affirm our values. Some of us buy
Fair Trade-certified coffee because it is more likely to be grown in
environmentally sensitive ways and supports the grower and workers with
a fair price for their product and work. If we value the use of
recycled content in our paper products and cleaner production practices
we may be willing to pay a little extra. We don’t all hold the exact
same ranking of values, so while I may find income inequality high on
my list of no-no’s, others may put maltreatment of animals on theirs. 


But as the Nobel Prize-winning economist
Joseph Stiglitz notes, the market can only work effectively when there
is full and honest information available to the consumer.  Thus,
as we make choices in the marketplace we need information, like the
nutrition labels on the back of food packages that let us know what’s
in it. Most products come with very little information and usually only
what the marketing folks conclude will tempt us to buy them. Some
powerful interests want to keep it that way — see the fights over the
labeling of GMO’s (genetically modified organisms in food), country of
origin, and so forth. To try and ameliorate this diminishment of market
effectiveness, organizations have devised many labels or certification
programs that add potentially useful information for the consumer,
e.g., Fair Trade, Energy Star, Underwriters Laboratory, etc.


These labels add some measure of
information otherwise unavailable. For a long list of existing labels,
who runs them, and what their criteria are, visit
www.ecolablesindex.com, which now lists more than 240 labels from 26
countries and 25 industries. For those who want to dig deeper yet, a
2010 survey of 340 ecolabels from 42 countries was created that you can
find at their site.


This clearly doesn’t show all labels or
certification schemes. For instance, it doesn’t list Michigan’s Green
Lodging program (www.michigan.gov/greenlodging/). Created by the
Michigan Energy Office and DEQ about a decade ago, it assesses
performance along a list of environmental practices for hotels,
B&B’s and other lodging businesses. The website includes a few
local listings: Partner Level ratings (more than 25 points) given to
Cozy Koi B&B and Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center; and Steward
Level (more than 50 points) to Comfort Inn and Suites in Dimondale and
Lansing, and Quality Suites in Lansing.


These lists also don’t include the
certifications from the International Standards Organization (ISO) that
encompass quality management (ISO 9000), environmental management (ISO
14000) and, more recently, social responsibility (ISO 26000). These are
fairly rigorous standards used by businesses to help them select
suppliers and partners. For example, much of Europe expects firms to be
ISO 14000 certified if they want to do business there.


The point in all this, I think, is that
when you go to the polls on election day you wouldn’t arrive without
doing a little homework on the candidates so that you pick the one who
most closely aligns with your values. If you’re a single issue voter
this might be easier, unless the candidates are the same on that issue.
Untangling whom we vote for in the marketplace every day is equally
important to how society develops. If our single issue is price, we are
externalizing all other costs to poorly paid workers, polluted
communities, and to future generations. 


There is no perfect information to make
decisions that involve a myriad of values. The objective of this column
is to offer some things to consider, some tools to help identify those
products and services in the marketplace that most closely align with
YOUR values so that your consumption choices consciously  shape  the
future in ways that are more sustainable and thereby bequeath to those
who follow more opportunities for a just, peaceful, flourishing
existence. Questions or suggestions for topics to cover are welcome.


Next semester, MSU Professor Phil Howard
will teach a graduate course on the Political Ecology of Beverages that
looks at the impacts of coffee, tea, soda, beer, wine, orange juice and
water. We hope their study and research will produce nuggets we can
share with you.

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