Economic and Ethical Conflicts Confront the Green Industry

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With increasing popularity of organic/green products, there has been a rapid expansion in the number and variety of green companies. In terms of consumer sales, the most appealing merchandise is produced from pesticide-free organic agriculture.

The organic farming industry must follow regulations established by the Organic Foods Production Act. Not only are there restrictions for synthetic pesticides but also synthetic fertilizers. With restricted use of these chemicals that control pests and promote plant growth, increasing crop production is limited to a variety of traditional farming practices. These include crop rotation, the use of natural predators and pesticides and natural fertilizers. Many of us use these methods in our home gardens. But when organic farming becomes a business, crop yield is a critical economic factor.

In organic agriculture, the farming system works well but crop production or net product yield has some limitations in comparison to inorganic agribusiness. Today, with rising costs including salaries and benefits to workers, profits are dropping in organic farming.

Of course, organic agriculture has provided the foundation for the emergent organic food and clothing industries. Organic food sales have been growing about 20% per year and organic fiber or clothing at about 15% per year (Organic Trade Association). However, limited crop yields are making it more expensive to produce organic food and fiber. Some of these costs are being passed on to related organic companies that are now facing similar financial concerns. “Green compromises” are now being considered to reduce this economic burden.

The preceding discussion illustrates the difficult ethical and economic conflicts for organic companies who by definition have ethical goals. Lobbying congress to review the Organic Foods Production Act and redefine the chemical requirements of “organic” is an option for the agriculture industry. But lowering standards would deface the value of the organic label. Similar economic and ethical conflicts are confounding the commerce of the organic food and clothing industries.

Organic apparel has no legislative restrictions as compared to organic agriculture or food. Essentially, everything is based on voluntary compliance with industry standards set by industry/consumer organizations.

Without legal guidelines, organic clothing companies have described their products as ethical fashion, conscientious clothing or simply eco-friendly. Many of these businesses call their apparel eco-friendly based on their use of low impact dyes and inks. They also have used the term “sweatshop free” guaranteeing safe working conditions and fair salaries for their workers. Sadly, these conditions are not always present overseas.

Profits are being reduced with more expensive organic cotton, hemp, bamboo etc. In order to maintain eco-friendly standards these expenses might be passed on to the consumer. However, higher retail prices in a slumping economy could still reduce sales and profits. In that case clothing companies could turn to organic agriculture overseas with uncertain working conditions and questionable product standards. Each clothing company must resolve their own ethical economic conflicts and select what they believe is the “best” course of action.

Even if organic clothing production is kept in the US, there are sad economic alternatives to consider along with their related ethical concerns. Some apparel corporations might consider less expensive dyeing and printing methods that may prevent the use of low impact dyes and inks.

It’s apparent that reducing chemical standards in organic agriculture, purchasing and manufacturing organic apparel abroad, or using less expensive toxic dyes and inks can destroy everything the organic label stands for in the organic food and clothing industry.

When economic pressures confront responsible ethical commitments, how do green companies resolve or compromise their goals in such conflicts? How do they choose between alternatives that have negative consequences no matter what they decide?

Should the federal government intervene and support the popular green industry when Congress already has many higher priorities? Today, these priorities range from energy independence, to health care, to social security, to defense spending, to bailing out financial institutions and major corporations. In comparison, the green industry seems small and not a high priority.

However, depending on how you define green, green commerce in the US is very substantial, quite diversified and growing rapidly despite economic concerns. Yet the industry still addresses a common goal and top federal priorities.The definition of a green product doesn’t require it to be organic. There are many companies that provide inorganic products but are still considered green. These businesses are green because they all support a common goal of preserving our environment by diminishing energy demands and carbon consumption. In general they help reduce our “carbon footprint” (consumption of carbon based natural resources).

For example, the green energy industry provides us with environmentally sound alternatives to using fossil fuels. Consumption of carbon based fossil fuels results in environmental degradation, release of greenhouse gases, and a huge increase in our carbon footprint. The alternative energy industry includes wind, geothermal, and solar energy. Certainly they address two of the highest priorities for the United States …protecting the environment and achieving energy independence.

Resolving economic and ethical conflicts for any corporation is a challenging task. This is especially true for the green industry due to their ethical commitment to the environment and the public. The long term prognosis for resolving this problem and maintaining the integrity of the organic label is unclear and depends in part on the course of our economy

However, some organic apparel companies have set a new standard for initiative by searching for an additional no cost approach to promote rather than compromise their ethical standards. Working independently, these companies actually came up with the same innovative method to sustain their green missions. They use their organic clothing to address ethical principles and environmental responsibility.

Live Life Organics, a Baltimore green company, is an online retailer of organic cotton apparel. They provide an easy example of how this method is implemented by their design and production team. They simply display inspirational messages on all their clothing designs. They trust their positive messages will encourage positive thinking and an ethical lifestyle of responsibility to our planet and fellow man.

When confronted with economic or political problems we can’t control, we all need to think about alternative approaches to achieve our goals. All of us can think of different alternatives to reduce our carbon footprint. We can also persuade our elected representatives to follow an ethical path toward just legislation in the face of economic and political pressure.

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