Food for Thought

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Every day Americans unknowingly purchase products that harm the environment, contain hazardous chemicals, or were produced in sweatshops. Graham Bullock, assistant professor of political science and environmental studies, has convened a group of Davidson students, faculty, and staff to test ways to become more informed consumers.

The Responsible Consumption Working Group encourages its members to research just one topic they are personally concerned about each month, come to an “action” decision about it, and share what they’ve learned in the group’s monthly meeting.

“Most people want to buy healthy, green, and socially just products, but don’t know where to start,” explained Bullock. “We are trying to find out whether short-term product research can help consumers overcome this problem.”

Some participants conduct research by visiting stores like Earth Fare, which describes itself as “the healthy supermarket.” Participants also use responsible consumption Web sites and mobile apps like GoodGuide, which Bullock co-founded in 2007.

“The most difficult part of responsible consumption is the research,” said participant Caitlin Allen ’12. “That’s where it helps to have a group to discuss strategies and challenges.”

But Allen said the outcome of the research justifies the work. “When you’re aware that some companies produce products unethically, it’s good to know that the information to make the right choice is out there.”

Allen’s research led her to discover some socially responsible, environmentally friendly, and affordable brands of food. She noted that other more commercially available brands are cheaper, but don’t adhere to high environmental standards. The group hopes that purchasing decisions based on such ethically informed research will persuade manufacturers to improve their production practices.

The topic of responsible consumption is closely related to Bullock’s academic research on environmental certifications and sustainability ratings. “One of my findings is that the credibility and trustworthiness of ethical product claims vary significantly, and consumers need to be able to differentiate among them,” he said. That’s what the working group is learning to do—working with one product, one month, one person at a time.

By Cathryn Westra

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