April 19, 2011

Greedy Capitalism? - A Little Econ Discussion in the OM Cafe

Capitalism has taken a bad rap lately. The idea that competitive conditions will create the best product in the end has suffered a bit of a blow because of what I call "mutual-market-player greed". Let's be honest. Greed isn't a character trait solely exhibited by the "big bad corporations". Corporations aren't some giant brain that makes decisions like a big "Borg". People who work for corporations must make individual choices daily about whether they'll use integrity in their approach to business. And these employees respond to customers who choose either to buy or not to buy their products.

A perfect example of supply and demand capitalism is the real estate market fiasco of recent years. While there was definitely some red tape involved that might have fooled less educated consumers, nearly everyone in the loan process was complicit in the resulting disaster. The employees of those loan companies, Wall Street and the consumers involved exercised greed resulting in a huge bubble and then the monstrous POP! 

What if consumers had just exercised restraint? The same greed that drove corporate employees to offer bad products to consumers might have driven them to offer good product had consumers demanded it.

The best guide of good capitalism is the dictate of a wise consumer conscience.

Far more powerfully than government regulation, consumers have the ability to send a mass message about purchasing values by refusing to financially support companies who fail to deliver according to demand. This is where the breakdown occurs between idealism and reality. When Rob and I shopped for a house loan, banks offered us significantly more than we could realistically afford monthly. We could have chosen to buy a product we couldn't really afford. Instead, we used two magic words some of us have forgotten along the line.

"No, thanks."

As consumers, we often fail to send that message simply because we don't want to change our habits. We won't stop shopping that big box store even if they use questionable labor practices. We don't say no because we'd rather have more "stuff" even if it's cheap and will just end up in a landfill at the end of the summer. We don't really want to know what's in that sunblock we're smearing all over our kids. We confuse needs with wants. Sometimes, we think we just cannot afford to shop elsewhere.

That little voice in our head that justifies our decision to keep buying without regard for consequences by saying, "It doesn't really matter. One person's not buying it doesn't make a difference."

But is that true?

I don't believe it is.

Demand can change or destroy a business model. Take for instance the failure of American car manufacturers to move toward the cost-effective, gas-conserving manufacturing standards of companies like Toyota. Americans who cared about their pocketbooks stopped spending money on gigantic cars still manufactured to guzzle gas like water even as the price of oil soared. U.S. car makers' sluggish response to market demand would have caused failure if they'd not been saved by a government bailout.

So why is this a subject I'm even discussing at the OM Cafe?

Supply and demand applies to every part of our world, including the food we eat and the products we slather all over our bodies. I am passionate about leaving to my children a world where plants aren't all genetically modified and animal products aren't altered by hormones. For years, my family and I have spent the extra tine and money to seek out local producers and buy organic food. For a long time, friends and family members thought we were crazy hippies for doing it. That's never really bothered me.

The funny thing is that after all these years, many of those friends are starting to realize that what they put into and on their bodies really does make a difference in their overall health. They are now choosing to purchase organically and/or locally grown or raised food. And, those foods are far more available than they were ten years ago when Rob and I first made the switch. The market is slowly changing in response to demand as consumers are becoming more educated.

Recognizing their bottom lines will suffer till business practices truly change is a powerful motivator for most companies. Money talks when you choose whether or not to spend it.

We need to recognize our power to make the change for safer food practices in the U.S. widespread. But the price to pay for changing the way we do food business in the good ole U.S.A. is a sacrifice of time and the death of old habits.

We as consumers need to take a little time to think about our food and what's in it. It's not hard. Here's how I choose mine. How close is it to it's original form? Fresh fruits and veggies - grown without pesticides? Check. Organic milk unsullied by growth hormones? Check. Meat raised and finished on grass. Check. The easiest way to confirm that this is really the way my food was produced and raised? Knowing my supplier personally.

Is it possible? Of course!

But isn't it hard? Not really. The options for buying either organic or local are far more available now than they ever were. And, every person who chooses to make that change will send yet another message to companies who supply food to the U.S. market. The same companies that provide junk to us offer different options in other parts of the world because those markets demand it. We need to create the same demand here.

Are you willing to help drive that change?

Can we afford not to?

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