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Personably Responsible

The other day, I posted about personal responsibility.  One area in which I think we Americans need to be more responsible for our own actions is that of ethics in business.  We liberals often like to criticize big businesses for doing unethical things (or things we perceive as unethical, or at least questionable).  We criticize them for paying CEOs big bucks while only offering minimum wage to their workers--for maximizing returns to shareholders rather than increasing salaries to the little guys, for moving jobs to other countries where labor is cheaper, etc.

So this is a topic I have thought about a lot over the last few years.  One thing that always comes to my mind is "Am I engaging in the same behavior?  Am I dirtying my own hands?"  I can blog about how Walmart needs to pay its employees more or how restaurant servers should be paid at least minimum wage, etc.  But I have found that the loudest form of communication in our society is monetary in nature.  In other words, put your money where your mouth is.

I have not always been in a financial position to be picky about the kinds of products I buy or the services I pay for.  For much of my earlier years I've been forced to always pick the cheapest option available to me.  However, I am now at a position in my life where I can make more selective choices, which I have been trying to do.  Let's create a simple example to demonstrate what I mean.  Suppose that Burger King pays its workers minimum wage but McDonald's starts its workers at $10/hr.  Perhaps Big Macs cost more than Woppers.  I have the choice to patronize the cheaper option (BK) or the one which treats its employees better (McD).  I am essentially sending a message to both corporations by voting with my money.  I am only one person, so I won't make a big difference by myself, but the more people who do this the sooner corporations will get the picture.

So I have plenty of options available to me.  I still need to be frugal.  I need to be conservative with how I spend my money because my salary is by no means a handsome one.  But there are choices I can make which are better than the cheapest possible option, and I'd like to discuss some of them.

My husband is an animal lover.  He has watched several documentaries concerning the horrific things that happen on factory farms.  Some of it is nothing more than pure torture to the poor animals.  Most people don't know and many who do know don't care--clearly the perpetrators feel no remorse for their actions.  His choice has been to avoid eating animal products--not as a strict vegan, but merely to help decrease the market for such suffering.  I have switched from conventional milk to a brand called Fair Life.  If the company is to be trusted, their cows are treated much better than cows on other factory farms.  I hope that this is in fact the case, although I admit I have not looked into it myself.

I purchase less meat from the regular supermarkets and try to buy more of it either from Whole Foods (where the meat is rated on a scale from 1-5 on how ethically the animals are treated) or from a local butcher called the Spotted Trotter, where the animals sold as meat there are also treated well while living.  It is more expensive, but I believe it is a good thing.

I consider my options.  I can continue to buy the cheaper meat from the supermarket, which may be made on a factory farm where the animals are kept in crowded spaces, unhappy, and perhaps even tortured by the farmhands.  I can buy that meat and complain about how the animals are treated and ask the farms to stop it.  Or I can simply spend my money elsewhere.  I can buy the meat from the farms where the animals are allowed to live in pastures and have a full and happy life.  I personally believe that voting with my money is more effective than the former method (although, I don't believe people should stop speaking up about it and pushing for change).

Consider the matter of moving jobs to foreign countries.  A publicly traded company is under pressure from its shareholders to maximize its profits.  It essentially is competing with other businesses for highest returns to investors.  Since profit is revenue minus cost, the two ways to increase profits are to increase revenue or to decrease costs.  Increasing revenue by increasing retail prices is not always a viable option, so decreasing costs is often prioritized.  Thus, rather than paying American workers $7.50/hr or more, they hire Chinese workers at $.30/hr and ship the products over here.  This is a significant decrease in cost of production.

So where do I come into this?  What is my personal responsibility?  The simple fact of the matter that I believe many people (liberal and conservative alike) overlook is that society is made up of people.  That is, the way we as human act is what shapes society.  So there are two clear and obvious choices I can make to help make corporations more ethical.  The first choice I have is to choose where I spend my money.  I can buy the cheap shoes which were made in India or I can buy the more expensive (but perhaps higher quality) shoes made in the USA.  I can buy lettuce picked by undocumented immigrants on a large factory farm or I can buy lettuce from a local farmer at a farmer's market.

The second choice I have is where I invest my money.  I can be greedy like most people and choose to invest my money in whichever company looks like will give me the highest returns.  Or I can invest in companies which exhibit the morals that I admire.  I can buy stock in a business which produces massive amounts of pollution in China and employs slave labor or I can buy stock in a business which promotes clean energy and worker satisfaction.  I may get a smaller return on my money--it is often more costly to treat employees better and be more mindful of the environment.  However, when I invest money in a company I am voting for that company's actions just the same as when I purchase a product from that company.  I don't really have much money to invest at this point, and some of my money I don't have much control over (such as my employer-sponsored retirement plan).  But I would like to invest my money wisely as I get money to invest, and I would hope that my tiny contribution is going toward making the world a better place.

So, I would encourage other people to do the same thing.  If you want to see less oppression of employees, patronize the companies who oppress their employees less often and patronize those who treat their employees better more often.  If you're planning your investment strategy, consider taking into account the ethical implications of your investments.  Are you promoting slave labor in foreign countries or are you promoting fair labor and satisfied workers?  Be the change you want to see in the world.  Your contribution may be minute, just as mine is, but we are stronger together.  The more of us who behave this way, the more mindful and compassionate our society will be.

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