Writing is a passion. Publishing is a business.


Interview with ELLIS JONES

Since receiving his doctoral degree in sociology from the University of Colorado, Boulder, Ellis Jones has focused all of his energies on bridging the gap between academics, activists, and the average citizen. A scholar of social responsibility, global citizenshi,p and everyday activism, Dr. Jones continues to teach and give presentations across the country on how to turn lofty ideals into practical actions.


Originally, in graduate school, I got together with a couple of my colleagues and, instead of working on our dissertations, we started working on a better world handbook. We wanted this to be a comprehensive resource about “What can I do to make a difference in the world?” for individuals to act on a wide range of issues and use in their every day lives. Two of the pages in that four hundred page book were dedicated to rating corporations when you go shopping. “Which ice cream do you buy when you want to shop more ethically?” etc. Those two pages got more feedback from readers than any of the others, so I decided this mini handbook might be worth pursuing. When the first edition came out I started creating a larger database to get at this question of who are the good guys and the bad guys and how can we make the world a better place. I took publically available data and pulled it together and tried to translate it into A to F grades.

Why did you decide to use a grade system for evaluating products and companies? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of the grade system?

I decided to use a grade system because I’m a professor and I’ve been an educator for so long that I think of everything in terms of grades. It’s a nice intuitive system that everyone knows: a C is mediocre and a F is terrible I was tired of seeing these complicated systems out there that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. When somebody hears B or D they have a sense of what that means. I needed something that could give consumers a very quick idea of what they’re looking for. I also envisioned it as a color scale, which only worked out the website. Now the disadvantages are that there are only 13 slots when you go from A+ to F and some companies literally would get a J, but nobody knows what that means. The grade system does limit it somewhat, but I think it’s worth that limitation because consumers need something quick and thoughtful and practical.

What does the website offer that the book doesn’t?

The website offers connections to my other work. It also offers the ability to access five or six industries to see the raw data, like chocolate. Readers can click and look at the actual data points that made a B company a B company or D company a D company. They also get the visual, the color.

Part of why I created the shopping app was so that the website can always be in your pocket, right there all the time. I can’t keep all this information in my head. I made the book pocket size on purpose so people are more likely to carry it around. Even then I find myself without the guide often enough that it’s nice to have the app.

Do you suggest readers do their own research into companies in addition to using THE BETTER WORLD SHOPPING GUIDE?

I want them to double-check my work for sure. I want to encourage people to go out and dig in on their own, but (and this is a big but) I’ve always been frustrated when I hear other people suggest it’s important to be an ethical shopper like “Oh, just go do your homework.” I have a PhD and this is my area of research and this is difficult, time consuming work. I can’t imagine trying to navigate this as the average consumer. The idea of “Oh, just go do your homework.” makes me wonder “Why is this all on the shoulders of consumers?” This information should all be provided. There’s no way that consumers can do enough research or enough homework to wrap their heads around this particular challenge. This is massive. This is not some kind of clean slate that we’re working off where we don’t know anything, we come in and do homework, and get some information. Some big companies have huge budgets to create images that are a combination of fact and fiction to persuade consumers that they’re more ethical than they are. Consumers are bombarded with information that points them in a thousand different directions. When people make it sound like “Oh, just go do your homework” like this is doing a crossword puzzle and you’re done, that’s wrong. I want to say, “Yes, always do your homework, always follow up with your own research.” In the book I provide a list of 50 websites for researching, but the idea that a consumer could - even with something as simple as Coke versus Pepsi - that they could go home and Google that on their own and then have a firm understanding after a few hours is ludicrous. It’s very daunting. I feel a lot of sympathy for the average person and that’s part of why I’m as dedicated to this work as I am. I think we should have this homework done for us and we should go into shopping already wielding these tools.

In the BETTER WORLD SHOPPING GUIDE, there’s a list of the top 10 things for shoppers to change to have the most positive impact. Bank is number 1. Why is which bank we choose so important?

If you go back to the original edition, that list hasn’t really changed. Bank as always been number 1. When I did my original investigation into this research, the financial institution is the one I found most obscure, most cloaked in secrecy. Most major banks are graded between C and F. They’re institutions that aren’t very accountable or transparent and often can’t answer fairly simple questions about where the money is invested. When you don’t have accountability it creates a space for very irresponsible behavior. There’s this incredible correlation between the most socially and environmentally irresponsible banks and those that receive the most bailout money. This is the ultimate illustration about why we need to be responsible as consumers, because if we don’t hold these institutions accountable they will come back and bite us.

Recently, I heard that since the bailouts have happened the system has not changed significantly and that if this crisis were to happen again we would do the exact same thing. The banks know we will bail them out, because we don’t have a lot of choices. When you have a bank, that bank basically has access to your dollars and they may look like they’re sitting in your account, but they’re actually being invested all around the world; while you’re eating and sleeping, that money is going out to change the world. If the money is being used for some problematic activity, that’s your money that’s causing havoc in the world. If you invest in a responsible bank, that money’s being used to make the world a better place. It doesn’t get more black and white than that. We’re constantly earning money and spending it and the bank is just the place we hold it. It is a pain to change your bank, but if you do it once you more or less don’t have to think about it afterwards and now that money’s being used for better. Those ripple effects will take place for the rest of your life.

It’s not like readers can research their shopping habits once and understand their buying choices for life. Ethical companies can slip and unethical ones sometimes change their ways. How do you suggest shoppers keep up with a constantly shifting market?

In this latest edition I have put a couple of charts up: the biggest disappointments and the biggest success stories, so people get a sense that change is taking place. Those are all the most extreme examples, though. For the most part, companies are very slow to move from one grade to another, particularly with the large companies. These are enormous global operations. If you hear of a company that you thought was not that good and suddenly there are new stories that say it’s doing very well (or vice versa), you should be skeptical. It’s not that the news stories aren’t true, but they are also very susceptible to a combination of things, particularly the need to sell papers. It sets up a system in which stories that are surprising and unexpected are much more likely to show up in the news, which in turn creates an environment in which consumers are confused.

For the most part, companies shift very slowly. That’s why I put out this guide every couple of years. I could put it out every year, but I don’t think it’s that necessary. Companies don’t change that quickly. They promise to change quickly, but they don’t. It’s important to keep up on these things, but they aren’t things that change day to day. The only thing that does change quickly is ownership. One day a company will be it’s own company and the next day it merges with another and we have to ask, “What does that mean?” Even with mergers, though, company behavior doesn’t flip overnight. It still takes a while for mergers to affect company behavior.

I read an article once that suggested people don’t change their habits even when they learn indisputable proof about a company’s human rights or environmental transgressions, because to make a positive change shoppers first must accept the guilt that they’ve been, by extension, supporting such practices by shopping there. The article went on to advise: Don’t feel guilty for, in the past, supporting a business with unethical practices of which you were unaware, but do feel guilty if you continue shopping there even after learning this new information. What are your thoughts on this?

I don’t agree with the advice, but I agree with the study. Everything I see shows that if people find out about a company, they won’t necessarily switch to a better company or boycott the bad company. It’s not that people are lazy, but that people are complicated. Consumers never buy based on a single factor. They’re always trying to balance a number of factors. They’re trying to consider price and quality and a wide range of other things such as taste and their needs. Socially responsible shopping or ethical consumption is just one other factor strung into the equation. In some ways these studies are far too primitive. It’s too simplistic. People might not buy from a good company, because the products are too expensive or they’re still not convinced a company is really as bad as they hear or they don’t know how it relates to companies in the same category.

To be honest, I don’t thin people should feel guilty. It brings up cognitive dissonance. If we realize we haven’t been the best father or daughter or partner or shopper, suddenly we have to struggle with that and we don’t like to do that. I don’t think it’s about guilt or that it’s black and white. Here’s what I do and recommend: I recommend people think about improving their overall ethical profile. I like to call it your shopping GPA. If you take all the items you bought in a particular year and average the grades, what would your grade be? You’re not going to go from a C student for the last x number of years to an A student tomorrow. It doesn’t work that way. You work your way up. If you’re a C student, you challenge yourself to be a B student. My goal is to be a B+ shopper and I don’t think I make that goal all the time. I don’t think we should be unrealistic here. No one is an A shopper. So it’s not about being perfect; it’s about being better. For me that’s not as much about grappling with guilt as thinking about trying to do more good in the world. Sometimes the option is between a C and an F company and you buy a C. Or sometimes you’re in a Walmart with your family, because your family loves Walmart and even within Walmart there’s a spectrum of better or worse products. It’s still not optimal, but we try to make the best choice available. We take in account our budget, tastes and needs, and our ethical stance. It’s about putting those things together and coming up with the best choices available.

Another common excuse I hear for lack of effort is the “I’m only one person. My choices don’t affect the big picture.” argument. What’s your response to individuals who believe their positive or negative choices are too small to make any difference either way?

This is a really important question. My undergraduate degree is in International Relations, which is a trumped-up political science degree and I bring that to the table when I think about ethical consumption. In the political sphere, we have something called democracy that we’re very proud of. When the rubber meets the road, you have to answer a particular contradiction: every two or four years you go to the ballot box and realize that one person’s vote is probably note going to swing the election. Statistically speaking, any one individual’s vote does not count. So as individual, rationally, you shouldn’t vote, and yet every vote is essential. When you have 50 % turnout instead of 80 (which is what you typically have in a presidential election - 50%), we are a weaker country for it. An 80% vote represents more of the population. The same goes for shopping. When you buy a Snickers bar or a Coca Cola one day, it doesn’t seem to make much difference, but you’re multiplying your choices across your life and spreading them to more people. This is the largest economy in the world and two thirds of it is run by whether you buy the orange t-shirt or the blue t-shirt.

Of course, one person won’t make the difference. That’s the whole point. We live in a political democracy in which every vote counts and that’s the same with our economic system. Every single dollar is another vote. If you drop out and say it doesn’t mater that’s like randomly voting on your ballot. Your choices are multiplied and mimicked by millions of other people and that changes the whole system. Every dollar pulled away from a company doing the irresponsible thing and pushed towards a company doing the responsible thing empowers change in that system. This isn’t a fringe ten people doing this. Millions of people are doing this and corporations are responding to it.

One concern with this book is that it’s so chock full of condensed information (which, granted, is also a tremendous strength) that shoppers might feel discouraged. What would you say to someone who sees how many D or F products they regularly purchase or how many changes they want to make and feels overwhelmed?

I would say use that top ten things to change list. Go down one by one. Start changing one thing at a time. Then move up with your grades. Start by trying to see if you can avoid the Fs. Move up the D products and then to C products. See if you can find B or A products that fit your budget.

I remember when I was a poor college student I couldn’t afford these more ethical products that were more expensive. I started with fair trade bananas. That’s where it started. Now that I have more resources and shop for a whole family, I can do more. The other thing to keep in mind is that you aren’t taking a monastic vow. One of my favorite products, Pringles, are made by Procter & Gamble. Once a year I would go out and get a can of Pringles, because I enjoyed them. I put it in a reasonable context.

Have you already started working on another BETTER WORLD SHOPPING GUIDE?

I never stop working on these better world shopping guides. I’m constantly integrating new data and updating old data and creating new categories and responding to readers and doing presentations. One of the things that I have been toying with - and I’m not sure how long this will take me to get out there and it may take a number of years so I don’t want to jump the gun - but I’ve been thinking about this question of giving consumers more access to direct data. They could look up a company like Coca Cola and just see what Coca Cola has been doing. They could look up a company and just see for themselves, like a dictionary of companies.

I want to keep the book concise and small, but this might be nice for people who have more questions about some of the top companies out there: what they’re doing right and what they’re not. So consumers can see the raw data and get a sense themselves for what’s happening behind the scenes. So that might be coming out in the next 2-5 years.

Any parting advice you want to give anyone trying their best to shop ethically and consciously?

Find a place to start and make sure that you start in a place that works for you. Location wise, for example, not everyone has access to a Whole Foods or Farmer’s Market. Perhaps you only live near big chain stories. You should always understand that your contributions will be a unique combination of your budget, your location, your options, and your needs. A parent has different needs than a teenager has different needs than someone retired. Think about crafting your contribution in your own way and don’t worry when you can’t afford something or find something or that your options are limited in one way. Focus on something you can do and something sustainable. Don’t overstretch yourself. It’s not about being a perfect consumer. It’s about challenging yourself to do better. For me, I probably should carry my book round or have this information in my head, but I have my phone app and use that all the time and that works best for me. Each person will find whatever works best for them and that will be their unique combination, just like everyone fills out a unique combination of votes when they fill out a ballot. We need to do this on a daily basis and a weekly basis and push ourselves to move a little bit further forward.