There was an interesting post on the Project Syndicate blog recently about a new Oxfam effort to provide consumers transparency into how global food producers create their products. “Oxfam,” notes the author Peter Singer, “launched a campaign called “Behind the Brands.” The goal is to assess the transparency of the world’s ten biggest food and beverage companies concerning how their goods are produced, and to rate their performance on sensitive issues like the treatment of small-scale farmers, sustainable water and land use, climate change, and exploitation of women.”

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Singer goes on to claim that “Consumers have an ethical responsibility to be aware of how their food is produced, and the big brands have a corresponding obligation to be more transparent about their suppliers, so that their customers can make informed choices about what they are eating.” Now, this is an interesting and novel argument, whose implication is that if I, as a consumer, don’t really care about how a product is made then I am guilty of an ethical failure. This is a startling claim, and I wonder if even Singer really believes it. After all, where doe you draw the line in this ethical maxim? Is it only food that produces this “ethical” obligation? What about clothing? What about energy? iPhones? Why should food along create such a moral debt but not other things we put on or near our body?

The reality is that it is impossible for every consumer to understand not just what a product (do you know what is in an iPhone?) is but how it’s made. It is therefore a bit of a stretch for Singer or Oxfam that I have a moral obligation to understand not just product but process. That said, while this idea is one that is hard to defend under logical scrutiny, it is clear that this trend toward rating and labeling a company’s product creation process, has some serious implications, whether you agree with it or not. For what Oxfam is trying to do is to split a brand such as Nestle into two constituent elements. Historically, consumers were told about the product but rarely about the process. If the “Process Branding” idea continues to evolve, companies will be forced to spend as much time – or even more– branding how they do things as much as what they create. It’s not too hard to envision a future where, at least in some case, process is even more important than product. A good example of this, heretofore isolated, phenomenon is a Swatch watch. The watch itself is an inexpensive product but what built the brand was the idea that it was “Swiss-made” and so desirable.

There are other examples that come to mind, and luxury goods manufacturers often trade on the images of artisan craftsmanship in building their brands. For brand strategists and consumers, the question is how long before Oxfam’s efforts, and other like it, being to elevate process over product, insisting that how something is made is actually more important that the end-product itself. For now, product > greater than process, but for how long?

Read the full article here: http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/the-top-ten-food-companies–ethical-performance-by-peter-singer

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Posted by Carlos Alvarenga

Carlos Alvarenga is the Executive Director of World 50 ThinkLabs and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business.

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