Sunday, September 28, 2008

More than "made in china"

My weekly emails from always bring a bit of information and hope to my Friday afternoons.  This week, they introduced me to an effort that I want to applaud by Patagonia, the clothing company. 

It's called The Footprint Chronicles, a website created by Patagonia that explores the origins of various products made by the company.  Click on a product (ranging from backpacks to shoes to strappy dresses) and the site brings you to an interactive map of the world, highlighting the origins of the product's materials and source of labor used to compile the materials and manufacture the product.  The full article from worldchanging admits that the site, and even Patagonia as a responsible company, are not perfect.  There are gaps and limits to how detailed you can get.  But it's a start, and I'm really happy to see the effort being made.  

Imagine if every company offered this service for every product.  Imagine if consumers cared enough to demand it.  Imagine if it were required by law.  The accountability and transparency this sort of thing brings would do wonders to address the externalities that are so easily ignored today.  It was only recently that food products sold in the US were required to have nutrition facts and ingredients listed.  And since these requirements took effect, it has taken a bit of time for consumers to really take advantage of it, but now you can see how listing these ingredients has affected consumer markets.  

At the grocery store I recently saw a loaf of bread that advertised on the front of its packaging that it didn't contain high fructose corn syrup.  I also saw an ad in a magazine recently that asked consumers to check their facts about the high fructose corn syrup, arguing that it was no worse than sugar or other sweeteners.  This kind of dialogue is important, and healthy.  Consumers have more information, and while industries can do their best to persuade consumers the positive or negative implications of those facts, it is still empowering for the consumer to be able to make these more informed decisions, and to hear that a debate exists about the ingredients of their food.  I'd like to see the same type of exchange for all products.

I'd like to see information made easily available about the source of the materials, the location of the labor, and the social and environmental costs of the ingredients and manufacturing methods.  Patagonia's Footprint Chronicles gives us a glimpse of what this information could look like.  I hope that other industries follow suit. As a consumer, I will support those who do. 

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Economic Theory

So the economy is still crummy.  Unemployment is up.  Gas prices are a little lower than they were but still higher than a year ago.  The government-issued stimulus checks helped stir up some hot consumer action for a little while early this summer, but didn't create any lasting results (who's surprised?) and now people are freaking out because the back-to-school shopping was a disappointment for anyone who was counting on new sales.  They are expecting equally sour results for holiday shopping. 

I like to think that the poor economy has not lead to a society full of hesitant consumers, but rather that the slowdown in consumption came first, and then the economic slowdown followed as a result.  This chicken and egg theory of mine, if true, would make a huge difference, no matter what reason consumers had to change their habits, as long as there is a conscious decision behind it.  

Possible reasons (besides a bad economy) to consciously decide to stop shopping:  
  • consuming a lot of material goods is bad for the environment. Consuming less is better.
  • the 80s and 90s were a time of overabundance, and maybe people are just sick of it.
  • the sharp realization that there is a difference between want and need.
  • the realization that what you already have is good enough. 
  • the desire to save money.
  • pure rebellion.
Any combination of these reasons (and countless others I haven't thought of) that result in a  slower consumer-driven economy would make me happy.  It means that people made the choice to consume less, rather than being forced to do so by higher prices and a bad economy.  That choice means that these changes are lasting, and that the economy had better adjust. The possibility of this economic theory having any truth makes me hopeful for society...  something today's economists are having a tough time feeling.