There’s an interesting editorial in the Kansas City Star written by somebody who was revolted by a front page photo of pigs in a modern factory farm. Instead of rallying her readers to implore government action on the matter, the author encouraged them to “vote with your wallet each time you eat.” She specifically mentioned the Kansas City Food Circle as a resource for finding “responsible” food; the group describes itself as “an all-volunteer, grassroots organization created to promote the development of a permanently sustainable local food system.”
The power of consumers to influence producers with their money is something we’ve discussedbefore on Show-Me Daily. It is not a pipe dream, either, considering that companies like McDonald’s are listening. Entire businesses (like Whole Foods) have sprung up around the environmentally-conscious consumer.
Last semester, as a final project for my research methods class, my group conducted a survey about people’s meat-buying habits and their knowledge of farm conditions. Although I can’t mention specific results — we conducted the project for educational purposes only — we generally observed that most people claimed price to be the biggest factor when they bought meat. After we showed them pictures and information about industrial farms, a significant percentage said that knowledge of farming practices and conditions would affect their future purchasing decisions.
If these sort of things are important to you, voting with your wallet — and encouraging your friends to do the same — is the best way for the market to select for companies that most closely align with societal norms. One common misperception about free markets is that profit is the only important factor, and that the only way for a company to survive is for it to offer the lowest prices — and cut quality accordingly. But that’s merely a straw man: Product quality and any number of social considerations, including “eco-consciousness,” can have value for consumers.
Price is a limiting factor for some people, and they may not be willing or able to pay a higher price in order to make purchases that satisfy whatever environmental concerns they may have — and that should be their prerogative. Many people say they want environmental concessions, but they may not be willing to pay the difference in price that those concessions would require. Government regulations can therefore harm some number people by increasing compliance costs and therefore raising the price of food. By using the market as a tool to affect change instead, people can make their own cost/environmental-consciousness trade-offs. Voting with money allows companies with successful business plans — for some, that will mean alternative production methods or types of food — to succeed. It is the most democratic of processes, because each person is able to decide where they wish to draw the line.