The Ethical Buyer's Quandary

I recently read an article about quinoa by the Guardian that highlighted an “unpalatable truth” about the new Western grain du jour: first-world consumption has caused prices in Peru and Bolivia to increase, putting financial pressure on families that depend on the grain as a staple in their diets.

We might be tempted to generalize this to other “essential” goods--food, wood, metal, textiles, and the like--and assume that increasing how much of these goods we buy is going to be bad for the local populations of the exporting countries. We may also believe that this leaves us in a precarious moral position: when we buy quinoa, we’re potentially contributing to the suffering of impoverished Bolivian and Peruvian people.

But here’s something to consider: let’s say that first-world buyers became aware of the moral precariousness of purchasing quinoa and stopped buying it. The price of quinoa would drop, perhaps putting farms out of business until the supply fell to meet the demand. This would mean farmers losing their jobs and also struggling to feed their families.

So the ethical buyer--that is, someone trying to ensure that their purchasing does not negatively affect others--is in a quandary: if one buys an imported good, one may be making that good harder to purchase for locals. If one doesn’t buy an imported good, one may be contributing to the elimination of much-needed jobs.

Can a socially-conscious buyer get out of this dilemma? Join the conversation in the forum or leave a comment below with your thoughts!

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Erik Fogg

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