Going Green, Seeing Red

Published on: 14:20PM Jul 20, 2010

This posting is going to be a logical bookend to my most recent one, from earlier this month, when I posed the question about whether supporting “local” farm production is truly a reasonable, sustainable choice for most consumers, given that locally-grown produce and farm goods often aren’t what a family wants, needs or really eats.

So here is another stanza in that song, courtesy of this past Sunday’s Washington Post, which presented a lengthy analysis of so-called “green” consumer behavior that, far from being altruistic or sustainable, is downright selfish.  The essence of the article is drawn from psychological research which demonstrates that while people may wish to conserve energy, save the planet and help others, after doing so – or even after just thinking about doing so – they take steps that are completely contradictory to those more conscientious behaviors.  As the Post’s Michael Rosenwald reports:

University of Toronto behavioral marketing professor Nina Mazar showed in a recent study that people who bought green products were more likely to cheat and steal than those who bought conventional products. One of Mazar's experiments invited participants to shop either at online stores that carry mainly green products or mainly conventional products. Then they played a game that allowed them to cheat to make more money. The shoppers from the green store were more dishonest than those at the conventional store, which brought them higher earnings in the game.

The name for this practice is moral licensing:  at least some of us feel morally entitled to engage in dubious, if not downright sinful behaviors, if they are preceded by or coupled with morally-virtuous behaviors.  Like the Tahoes and Range Rovers parked at the Whole Foods.  Or the people who likewise burn plenty of fossil fuels to drive several times a week to the farmer’s market.  Or the ones who leave their CFL bulbs burning for hours in an empty room.

Similar things happen in eating:  we’ve all seen the person getting a Diet Coke with the super-size fries and double burger.  It turns out that from a moral license perspective, such an apparent paradox is typical.

So the moral license concept raises an interesting point about the politics of food production, and why the grip of the Food Inc. movement is so powerful.  It appears that in order to balance their less virtuous consumptive behaviors, at least some people have a powerful need to have food, with all its contemporary iterations (i.e. organic, local, grass-fed, family-farmed, raw, sustainable, antibiotic-free, and so forth), be especially upright and respectable.  It may not be about the food product in question, but the shadier behavior it has to atone for, that matters most.