During the month of October, did you buy products with pink packaging to support breast cancer research? Have you ever chosen to pay a little more for free-range eggs or chose one product over another because it was labeled as eco-friendly or fair trade?
If so, you have engaged in a practice known as ethical consumption.
It’s a subject that Nicole Hassoun, professor of philosophy at Binghamton University, knows quite well. In his second book, Impact on global health: expanding access to essential medicines, it examines the global health responsibilities of pharmaceutical companies and argues for a new kind of ethical investment in public health. A creative solution: a global public health label that pharmaceutical companies can affix to all of their over-the-counter products, reflecting their commitment to expanding access to lifesaving medicines in the poorest parts of the world.
“We have a certain obligation to fix the system, and sometimes we can fulfill that obligation by engaging in ethical consumption,” explained Hassoun, an ethicist and co-director of the Institute for Justice and Wellbeing.
While Hassoun’s book was released in the summer of 2020, a planned book tour was scuttled by the coronavirus pandemic. However, his ideas are still receiving attention and discussion, including a recent special issue in Public Health Ethics which covers topics such as ethical consumption and how to accurately measure global health. She also has an ongoing collaboration on pandemic preparedness with Kaushik Basu, the former chief economist of the World Bank and India, and Larry Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Law. health at Georgetown University.
While Hassoun focuses on global public health, ethical consumption extends to a wide range of issues, including sustainability, animal cruelty, fair trade concerns, and more. Essentially, it provides a moral impetus for buyers to do their part to address larger structural concerns.
“If we lack the institutions that are going to help us solve these problems – because obviously they haven’t all been solved and our governments often fail to solve them – then maybe we leave it to the consumers” , she said. “We have the burden of trying to push forward positive change.
The reverse of purchasing power
It sounds easy: choose the product with the right label and you are ethically clear. But it is not that simple.
Critics of ethical consumption argue that we should instead create systemic change through the political system or through protest.
And purchasing power can be used for nefarious purposes – refusing to buy products made by a marginalized group, for example – or lead to unintended consequences. Avoiding products made with child labor can potentially lead to unemployment and leave those same children hungry. Or, boycotting nuclear power because of toxic waste concerns could lead to greater reliance on coal or oil, products with a much broader impact on the climate.
Because ethical consumption has profound consequences, the decisions that guide it must be collaborative and democratic. Ideally, people should discuss their choices and the reason behind them, then come up with the fairest course of action, but that doesn’t happen often.
“When we make decisions about how to make our products, what to buy and who to buy them from, we have a real impact on people’s lives, and those people have no say in what happens to their life based on our decisions,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if we do it for convenience or fashion, if we suddenly change our purchases, people will lose their jobs.”
Consider, for example, the impact when the United States passed a law supporting ethanol production, to offset reliance on fossil fuels. This has reduced the amount of land available for food crops, driving up food prices and contributing to world hunger.
Make the difference
The “global public health” labeling system proposed by Hassoun for over-the-counter medicines bears some degree of similarity to other labeling systems, such as fair trade, organic or sustainable forestry. In some ethical consumption campaigns, a consortium of companies decides what steps they will take to support this larger issue, which Hassoun sees as problematic.
Having companies around the table can lend itself to abuse and manipulation, such as the phenomenon of “green-washing”, in which promises of sustainability are not kept, and “pink-washing”, which gives a varnish support for breast cancer research, although real. impact and actual dollars are far behind.
But despite its imperfections, ethical consumption is one of the tools we have to effect change.
“At the end of the day, we have to make decisions that will make things better. And it may be ironic that the best way to help people gain bargaining power is to exercise our own purchasing power,” Hassoun said.
The next step in its global public health initiative would be to partner with a pharmaceutical company wishing to use the labeling system and outlets wishing to sell these products for trial. She works there.
Hassoun doesn’t expect ethically produced over-the-counter drugs to corner much of the market; like fair trade or sustainable products, they will probably attract a few percent of consumers at most. But even 1 or 2% of consumer sales can be a significant sum.
“If you think in terms of drug development costs, it could get you a new drug a year for the poor – a new malaria vaccine or an AIDS vaccine,” she said. “It can have a huge effect on quality of life.”