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Ethical Capitalism in Fairlawn and Bath

New business brings opportunity for "ethical eaters" but also raises questions about the role of businesses and customers in ethical commerce.

The opening of in Fairlawn offers a new set of choices for people in the ethical eating movement.  It also raises the question:  should businesses who serve ethical eaters engage in some form of ethical capitalism?

Ethical eating or ethical shopping evolved from the organic foods movement of the '80s which in turn evolved from the health food movement of the '70s.  This latest version of shopping based on principles aims to reduce the environmental and social costs of growing food.  It includes not only buying organic, but ensuring sustainable and humane practices,  preferring locally grown produce and meat, and ensuring that growers receive fair prices and that workers get fair wages.

Who pays for low prices?

Embedded in ethical eating is the belief that pure market competition fails to create social goods.  In particular, when retailers are pursuing “Always the low price,” they will find ways to lower prices by imposing the costs of products on other people.  For example, the government heavily subsidizes the cost of producing corn, meaning that our taxes pick up some of the low cost of corn-fed meat and corn syrup-sweetened soft drinks.

Other times, the cost is borne, but never paid.  People who live near factory-style chicken farms endure plagues of insects and groundwater contamination.  The fact that the producer doesn't pay the full clean-up cost of raising poultry on an industrial scale allows us to buy chicken cheaply, but it doesn't mean that those costs disappear.

Making an ethical choice to pay more.

Ethical eating is challenging, first because almost by definition it costs more.  In addition, getting accurate information about how a product is made is more challenging than simply looking at the price.  Ethical shoppers therefore rely on trade groups, but also retailers to provide accurate information.

Fairlawn and Bath ethical shoppers have long had a number of options.  has been an institution for over 25 years.  In addition, the mainstream grocery stores increasingly stock organic products.  Krieger's Health Foods Market in Cuyahoga Falls is a bit of a hike, but also an option.

Now the market has a new player. Earth Fare is an organic supermarket chain based in Asheville, North Carolina.  The chain currently consists of 24 stores, which were exclusively in the Southeast until they began an expansion into Ohio with the Fairlawn store.  The tag on the company website promises “Eat better, live longer, spend less.”

The upside of competition.

While ethical buyers regard market competition with skepticism, the interaction between Mustard Seed and Earth Fare demonstrates the upside of such competition.  Anticipating Earth Fare's opening, Mustard Seed completed a much-needed store renovation.  Its produce section is now far more appealing and easy to navigate.

Meanwhile signs in Earth Fare suggest that it will compete in part on ethical eating terms by, for example, offering more locally-grown food.  One sign in the produce section promises that it will not call a product local unless it was grown within 100 miles of the store.  The store has also reached out to the community, for instance borrowing art from a local school (in the interest of disclosure, a picture by my daughter was selected to hang in the cafe.)

It may be that both can survive, particularly if Earth Fare succeeds in bringing new customers into the store. And the competition between Earth Fare and Mustard Seed can make each store better – and in particular better at offering ethically produced food.

The challenge for shoppers.

On the other hand, it is also possible that there's only room for one major natural foods store in the market.  This possibility raises the question of ethical capitalism.  Shoppers should ask themselves:

  • When a local business has successfully developed a market, is competing with that business consistent with the ethical principles of the customers in that market? 
  • Does the answer change if we know there is only room for one business? 
  • At what point does competing on price create pressure to not simply cut costs, but to engage in the sort of cost-shifting that gave rise to ethical eating?

None of these questions has easy answers.  But the idea of bringing ethics into our shopping lives has always been about asking hard questions.  We should ask them not just about what we buy, but also where we buy it.

What's your take on this issue? Leave note in comments section at the bottom of this story, or send a letter to the editor here.

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