by Kevin Healey
A recent headline at Jezebel made a startling claim: “Study Suggests that Eating Organic Foods Contributes to Moral Depravity.” It sounds counter-intuitive, given that many who eat organic do so for ethical reasons. Yet it conjures the love-to-hate-her stereotype of the wealthy and obnoxious Whole Foods mom. Psychology professor Kendall Eskine had unwittingly published a study ripe for sensationalist coverage. In the bitter commentary that followed, a broader issue was lost: the tension between consumerism and ethics that plagues every contemporary value system, from the religious to the secular.
Despite Jezebel's misleading headline, Eskine's study does not measure the effect of eating organic foods. Rather, it suggests that exposure to organic food labels can make people more judgmental and less altruistic. The argument: When we identify with a “good” product we feel that we have a credit in the bank, morally speaking, and therefore are less likely to help others. Similar research suggests the same effect for “green” products.
Given adverse reaction to crass consumerism in the recent film version of The Lorax—which transformed the story's central figure from a prophetic social critic into a sales mascot for laundry detergent—one might expect that organic food and environmental advocates would appreciate the implications of Eskine's study. In fact, Eskine insists that “organic products are indubitably environmentally sound and ethical choices,” and suggests that marketers should modify ad campaigns so consumers don't perceive their purchases as a moral license. That way individuals can become healthier—and economies more sustainable—without the psychological pitfalls he describes.
In other words, the problem is not organic food itself, but rather the commodification of ethics. Arguably, that problem is epitomized by the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church. But it continues today in the form of “cause-related marketing” such as Bono's product-driven RED campaign, which benefits AIDS research. As Mara Einstein argues in Compassion, Inc., “[T]he ultimate consequence of merging profits and purpose is further desensitization to those less fortunate, while doing little to engage people in meaningful altruism.”
Of course, the sale of indulgences led not to the wholesale rejection of Christianity but rather the attempt—by Protestants and Catholics alike—to recover its integrity. Likewise, the issues raised by the RED campaign, as well as organic and “green” marketing, should prompt a re-examination of the notion of the “citizen-consumer,” not a rejection of cause-related activism.
Unfortunately, media coverage of Eskine's study eschews these nuances in favor of sensationalism. An MSN headline reads, “Does organic food turn people into jerks?” A Huffington Post headline suggests that “Organic eaters might be meaner than their counterparts.” At Fox News and Psychology Today, psychologist Dale Archer argues that organic shoppers are not actually any smarter or “greener” than their “McDonald's chomping neighbors,” but are simply overcome by a “moral superiority syndrome.” In fact, Archer claims that “the behavior of an organic shopper”—along with anti-fur advocates and hybrid car owners—is “comparable to that of a cult member.”
The message: If organic shoppers are simply “jerks,” we needn't address the broader question of whether organic food is, in fact, healthier and more environmentally sustainable. But to dismiss questions of food ethics based on the ill-effects of their appropriation by the marketing industry is like dismissing AIDS activism because of the distasteful consumerism of the RED campaign.
No religious tradition has escaped the problems of consumerism. One can find religiously branded products to suit any niche interest, from Buddha key chains to Jesus T-shirts. And while today's organic shoppers are too ethnically and economically diverse to qualify as a cult (notwithstanding the origins of the health food movement), marketers suggest they are nevertheless driven by “common values and principles.” The numerous “denominations” within the organic movement have different practices and sites of worship—backyard gardens, corner bodegas, food coops and, yes, large-scale retailers. Not surprisingly, then, mass retailers who target this diverse group may resemble churches of sorts. Headed by CEO John Mackey—a Buddhist—Whole Foods appears in CNN's list of “10 Religious Companies.”
With regard to the problems of consumerism, traditional religions may find forgiveness more easily since they can appeal to a “golden age”— real or imagined—that preceded the onset of mass commercialization. By contrast, the relative youth and diversity of the organic movement, and its lack of a coherent “grand narrative,” make it more susceptible to quick dismissals. In fact, emergent ethical systems may have a harder time achieving cultural legitimacy because their authenticity is compromised from the get-go.
Eskine's findings are no reason to dismiss issues of food ethics out of hand. But his call for more effective marketing also falls short. Rather, the study should prompt far more sweeping questions (for journalists as well as consumers): If Whole Foods is selling indulgences, who is nailing theses to its doors, and what would be the foodie equivalent of a Protestant Reformation?
Kevin Healey currently holds a Postdoctoral Fellowship through the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Kevin's research on media and religion appears in Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies, and Symbolic Interaction. His co-edited volume on the “prophetic” critique of popular media is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2012.