Quantifiable Ethics in Retail — Can You Change the World through Effective Altruistic Shopping?

Money is a new form of slavery, and distinguishable from the old simply by the fact that it is impersonal – that there is no human relation between master and slave.” – Leo Tolstoy

Trade is facing a revival. Reviews and ratings will replace brands. This is why we are organizing a crowdfunding campaign to afford the next phase for a great solution. Purpose is to prepare the launch of a ‘smart trademark’, a simple clear-cut graphic checklist reflecting current condition of and changes in fair trade among people, nature and technology. Of the many certification labels none acts as an all-inclusive ‘prize tag’ showing value instead of costs. None provide a window on fair trade, eco footprint, recycling, sustainable design, open source and so on. None personalizes ‘money’ with a single view on the lowest and highest value, on costs and benefits, to openly promote improvements. 

This is a tool, a handle to make things better. We are drowning in tweets, all screaming for our attention. The news fills with the newest of new, ‘new’ chasing ‘now’ in a motion blur with no time left to reflect. Now that the outrage machinery entered social media, many people having started numbing down. For the 500 million years before television when we saw something terrible, we were in the middle of it. Now, when we see something terrible on the evening news, we turn off our emotional processing.. For a moment we feel nothing at all, we are temporarily psychopathic. The news teaches apathy. This results in learned helplessness on a massive scale. Furthermore with the amount of time we spend watching television and being online we get caught into a “solution delusion” because we mistake talking about a solution with applying a solution. At the end of the day, we’ve spilt our emotional discharge on some theatre and nobody has been helped. Our moment to create meaning has come and gone. And so, bit by bit people start to think that what exists now is all that is possible and can’t even dream about a future that is different from the present. 

Start right where you are now to promote improvement. Bootstrapping the 21-st century price tag.

We are organizing this crowdfunding campaign to afford the next phase for a great solution. Goal is to bootstrap a smart label, a simple and straightforward graphic checklist reflecting current condition of and developments in “fair trade” among people, nature and technology. There are possibly thousands of certification labels, but none acts as an all- inclusive “prize tag” openly showing value instead of costs. None provide a window on fair trade, open source, eco footprint, sustainable design and so on. What would be easier than to have a single view on lowest and highest value, on costs and benefits?

 A few years ago, after working with some of the largest supermarket chains in Europe, I came up with a framework for widening the scope of fair trade. Fair trade with people, nature and technology. Inspired by a temporary involvement with a pioneer in open source software, I managed to capture a minimum set of considerations of what I really want to make sure when buying something. A checklist of certifiable accomplishments. We have a “price tag” showing costs, but why don’t we have a “prize tag” showing value? This checklist provides an easy overarching view on the shared efforts to make this world a better place.

Three measures at three depths. People, nature and technology. Weighed for a utility itself, how it got to be, plus all other dependencies as far the supplier’s suppliers go. Even though the final product may be tens of trades removed from its original resources, if at any of these companies is exploiting workers, poisoning the surroundings or intentionally ‘made to break’, this sort of behavior will bubble up in the overall status.

1. Ecological Footprint: Is this fair trade with Nature?
1.1. Recyclable: Can we reuse parts of the product?
1.2. Bio-convertible: Can we reuse and reprocess the core materials?
1.3. Environmental Impact: Did producing it add to or subtract from natural resources?

2. Quality Effort: Is this the best you can do?
2.1. Optimal Design: Is it built to last or built to fail?
2.2. Systemic Usefulness: Are the production means as good as it gets?
2.3. Sustainability: Does it make this world a better place?

3. Solidarity:Does the team-spirit go beyond the in-group?
3.1. Humaneness: Is the product safe, harmless, helpful, mindful, constructive?
3.2. Fair Trade: Have commercial arrangements been fair re best effort?
3.3. Social Responsibility: Have all people involved been allowed to add value?

Framing these nine different criteria are all it takes. To get it all up set up, the current effort has four distinct components that need to be worked out:
1. Optimize design for open display of ethical rating and trend indicator
2. Organize an international consortium (within the academic world) to ensure information neutrality
3. Establish right weights and keys to make it an integrated intertwined whole
4. Establish a universal rating base, plus translation of other labels.

What is a cynic? Oscar Wilde answered this question with “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Now, 122 years later, with the broad popularity of management science about one in six graduates obtains a degree in ‘business administration’ or similar. And still, costs do not equal value. Economics is the study of scarcity. Maybe the easiest example is taking a “fire tool”. After about a million years of knowing how to control and make fire we humans finally came up with the modern lighter. A century old, despite the incredible value, the economic value of a lighter depends on its cost constraints and not its limitless possible uses.

What happened? Did we all become cynics?

•  Would you use open source software if the success stories involved huge investments from commercial companies?
•  Would you pay double the price for fair trade if there was a certification backlog which could fill the whole store?
•  Would you buy a tablet when mining some of the rare core materials are made possible by funding civil wars?
•  Would you get a new smartphone if the old one ends up being dumped in computer graveyards in Africa and Asia?
•  Would you buy those gym shoes if the person that stitched the bits together was timed to the millisecond?
•  Would you use that hair dye if it contained colorant which causes chemical burns, in your body?
•  Would you get a pickled herring if half the catch is dumped overboard when a trawler encounters a newer school?
•  Would you eat a tuna sandwich if you got to eat tiny bits of dolphin?
•  Would you like paying your own pension while the funds are used for call girls and cocaine for financial traders?
•  Do you enjoy bailing out malfunctioning banks that privatize their profits and socialize the losses?
•  Do you appreciate being economically hijacked in a downward spiral of debt bondage by these same banks?
•  Do you still believe that education and raising awareness work?
•  Do you vote for a reason, or as an excuse?

Apart from the last question, no one sane would answer any of these questions with ‘yes’. Yet irrespective of all our good intentions, we still do ‘yes’. Like many ‘mechanisms’ which pervade our world, the economy has an ‘on’ switch, but no ‘off’ switch. Certain doings only stop as a result of absence of stimulus. Nowadays it is fashionable to blame the top 1%. Undeniably missed opportunities to do better keep on adding up for the social elite but nobody really is in charge. If anything the top 10% is the ruling class but it is a too large a group to steer in any clear direction. Meanwhile, instead of accepting the wide open challenge of shaping our future, the creeping agony of nameless terror has taken our societies in an iron grip, fear of fear itself. “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We are fighting ourselves. Surely we can do better than to control a cartoon marketplace with cold austerity, a butcher’s knife and some solemn pity.

Why is that? Well, we have these administration and accounting rules dating back several thousands of years that somewhat primitively resemble balance scales, counting tables and water mills. Because it is so much like sharing ideas, again let’s look at fire. Something really odd becomes clear when trying to do so some simple bookkeeping on what the world was made up of back then, 7000 years ago. So, ok, one rock plus one rock equal two rocks. That’s easy, but then things get weird. One water plus one water equals one water. If you add air to air it multiplies. And fire, if you have one fire and divide it by two you get two fires. It doesn’t split fifty-fifty, but it doubles, the polar opposite of dividing a rock in two! Where do we draw the line? How can we express ideas with the tools of a thing-based economy?

The trick is that there is no trick. Instead of pursuing a single, perfect principle, resilience by diversity is a much stronger evolutionary force than competition. We can start where we are. Use what we have. Do what we can. Approaching the ideal of moneyless trade while avoiding isolation or accidental exclusivity such as with community currencies, the following is a proposal to reinvent the “price tag” as a value indicator. Demonstrated by the prototype above, the 21st century price tag is a user-friendly to-the-point algorithmic grid, displaying a unified certification for sustainability, social responsibility and ecological footprint. Yet, the tag is just to inform on situation and developments, not to certify, so we can vote with our feet. So, open labeling to promote responsible improvements. The ambition is to work with a worldwide academia-run consortium to ensure neutrality.

It is that easy. Brand names, certification labels, are a form of money, “a matter of functions four, a Medium, a Measure, a Standard, a Store.” Instead of simplifying the role of money currencies have been dumbing it down. In our fast-paced globalized world an actual currency is going one abstracting step too far. Its functions are in fundamental conflict. We just need to step back a little to move forward again. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin provide us with a hopeful development, not so much introducing a new sort of currency but for making cryptography an acceptable way of manifesting trust with everybody else. Cryptographic authentication, authorization and accounting underlie the enabling system’s infrastructure, offering distributed control and non-linear data integrity.

What would you really buy, use or eat if you knew where it came from? Me, I want my spending to have meaning beyond covering the costs of getting away with it. I want it to go to people and initiatives that add value to this world. It is a simple want resulting from a simple need.

As triple dip follows double dip it may by now have become clear there is just a small number of morally bankrupt people, but most people are simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of the difficulties the world is facing. I am one of these people. There are a lot of things I would rather not buy, use, eat or get treated with if I were to know where it came from. These problems need to be addressed together; yet few political organizations seem capable to carry such initiatives. There is a way around this however. Instead of trying to change politicians, we can use our collective power as consumers to turn the issue inside out, by giving ethical consumerism a clear voice.

Value Statement
• WHY: Allow shoppers to really express a preference
• WHAT: Promote natural balance, quality effort and solidarity
• HOW: Label showing interwoven criteria with chain responsibility
• DIFF: Instant useable to promote improvement. Start where you are. Do what you can.

Clearly many such certification marks already exist, yet how these are established are quite traditional and limiting. Labels are often uninformative and depend on closed-group exclusivity. No matter the underlying good intentions, any label that is just a logo acts like a decision shortcut. It becomes a trust token representing certain qualities and as such it can have no further significance other than establishing a recognizable brand. A logo is unintentionally masking the labeling organization’s performance in sticking to its core principles. It is a proven approach, but meant for times much slower. We need something more dynamic to deal with today’s fast paced globalized world.

Nevertheless, labeling, either physical, virtual or as a projection, is the easiest way to provide some information-rich content to a product or service. So instead of using a logo, an open informative rating can be used to easily demonstrate the product’s track record in terms of ecological footprint, quality effort and solidarity. To make such a label obvious and easy to use for the critical person, it will have to display signs of improvement. For example, when a farmer switches to bio-agricultural, it will take several steps to get there. Such a basic shift is not like flipping an on-off switch. Each step will likely take one or more seasons. It should be essential to good labeling that such steps are rewarded.

This is an important aspect; that you can buy your way into positive change by purchasing from sellers which are making an actual effort. Whereas a system based on exclusivity and/or punishing “bad” deeds introduces deception and thus is not effective. Still, we cannot simply erase our collective past. Very often today’s “wrongs” are simply yesterday’s “rights”. We need something which can deal with history, embrace it and stimulating positive change, beit as fair trade, corporate social responsibility, open source or open standards. Instead of looking the other way or simply forget about all mishaps, a good label means to inform on whatever actual effort is being done to improve the current situation. A good label informs. It is not a certificate.

Every sort of certification label is supposed to convince customers about certain qualities being met. Behind such a label a whole elaborate organization is set up to ensure compliance. It’s a business in its own right. That is where the paradox enters. Sooner or later even highly successful certification programs grow incapable of dealing with the overwhelming complexity. Some even face a backlog of certification requests large enough to replace most if not all products on the supermarket shelves. Idealism does not exclude pragmatism. Online shopping offers an opportunity to introduce a simple informative framework which expresses the whole ethical footprint, the direct, indirect and overall ecological footprint, quality effort and different degrees of solidarity of how a product or service came to be.

To get it all up set up, the whole effort has four distinct components that need to be worked out:
1. Design a visual framework for open display of ethical rating and trend indicator
2. Establish right weights and keys to make it a unified intertwined whole
3. Establish a universal rating base, plus translation of other labels.
4. Establish an international consortium (within the academic world) to ensure information neutrality

Three measures at three depths. Weighed for a product or service itself, how it got to be, and all other dependencies in the supply and demand chain as of the 2nd degree. This third measure is a summation of the status and development of the supplier’s suppliers, and so on, the sum-total of the value chain. Eventhough the final product may be tens of trades removed from its original resources, if at any of these companies is exploiting workers, poisoning the surroundings or intentionally ‘made to break’, this sort of behavior will bubble up in the overall status.

Simple visuals give an immediate overview of the situation. Color coding expresses the current status and simple symbols express trend movement. International guidelines for social responsibility, ISO 26000, is used as a basis yet with the added notion that any ‘costs’ will be reflected within a value of one of the three criteria. This added feature means that any conflict in trying to boost one measure at the expense of another will show up. And so, even though it just informs, in a very simple manner this label stimulates chain-accountability in the supply chain.

As the aim for the label is purely informative, any complexities are buried in the background where it is supported with a system that can measure, weigh and map interdependencies, possible alternatives and consolidate different rating systems. The underlying technology is a complex mix with artificial intelligence and a variation on statistics as used for information theoretical flavored quantum mechanical calculations. To allow for credible neutrality a number of universities and non-governmental organizations will be approached to enable a global consortium, an international academic cooperative, which will co-own the solution and ensure data integrity with scientific rigor.

As the objective is to stimulate improvement, if a product actually has a positive contribution then the score moves towards ‘good’ or ‘excellent’. For example, a highly efficient plant that deals with different sorts of garbage and waste material is likely to score above neutral because its scope covers both solving the problem of piling up garbage, as well as providing a means to recycle the base materials which lessens the burden on e.g. mining for ore. Or say that Amazon.com plants a tree for every book they resell, they didn’t have to do that, but it overcompensates for the paper usage and it would make me want to buy at their store more eagerly than another store.

With augmented reality websites are moving into people’s home, with the tablet even into the living room, soon to be become virtual furniture. Improvements in joint delivery, sustainable packaging, self-cleaning designer materials and electronic vehicles will allow for a “last minute” supply chain. Home automation plus wireless will enable a shift towards home-delivery for ordinary groceries within the coming decade, although fierce competition among suppliers could drain the potential too swiftly so it may take a few years longer. However, all these enabling technologies enable a fundamental shift in shopping, immersed within a highly information-rich context the usual brand-based decision-making will become replaced with goal-driven selection. Whether offered as an online service, a browser plug-in, a mobile app or as an independent intelligent overlay, for a computerized system it is very simple to read each and every label of every article on the market and match this up with the latest medical information and the Greenpeace product database.

Filtering out products which follow one’s personal norms and values will reshape the concept of brand image, render it unimportant for highly similar goods, such as soap and just about everything under the kitchen sink. Still, for other goods brand image will start acting as a certification for more abstract qualities such as delivery services, support, aftercare, eco, sustainability or corporate social responsibility. Supermarkets are dying.

The initiative requires a ‘big data’ approach of combining different data sources, data mining and recommendation engines. Even the largest retail chains only sell up to 25.000 distinct products with a possible redundancy of a factor 5 to offer a choice among a product range between an A brand, a B brand, a cheaper store brand, a generic brand and a bio-organic alternative. Then there are paired goods where you don’t need one if you have the other. Of the remaining four to five thousand things, the average household only has about one thousand things or less. Although the supportive system will surely have its challenges in supporting internet-scale use, technically it is relatively simple effort in data fusion compared to the political implications may be considerably more complex to manage.

For retail chains, this may be one of the few open doors available to establish a firm relationship with consumers, beyond completely turning into a federated cooperative. It is important to establish a strong, evidence-based corporate identity now, in order to continue offering retail services in a certain but unpredictable future. Just as supermarkets have captured much of the activity that used to occur on the market square and shopping streets, the infrastructural ties of webshops are mostly unconstrained in offering a very low threshold to introduce rapid advances in logistics. This may be obvious considering the success of a Google, Ali Baba, Amazon or Apple.

Most retail processes are in essence push-based, with an ongoing stream of goods moving from manufacturer to warehouse to store to the end-consumer. Retail chains have always made use of delays, in informing, distribution and payment. By adequately predicting and regulating the stock and flow of products to and from the stores they aim to optimize their margins. The pull-side of the equation involves a very elaborate 500 billion dollar industry of marketing aimed to go from need to wants, trying to build up a brand name, reputation, goodwill and attempts to influence consumers in all sorts of ways to ‘guide’ them in choosing their particular product. This ranges from measuring brain activity as a reaction on packaging to spray-painting oranges so they look like the healthy fruits they are supposed to be. For some creating the impression of being a ‘good’ food has taken priority over actually providing one, even if today the latter is more cost-efficient than the former. Few find this situation desirable, but it has become a self-sustaining rat race where retail chains as a collective are suffering from the same forces which used to be their strength as a single organization; crowding together of the participants and economies of scale.

Supported by the increase in information a shift towards a more conscious consumption pattern is happening, the importance of brands are diminishing and transparent qualities are rising. While the supermarket reincarnates as a virtual service, using current technologies it is possible to step into the wide-open gaps left on the pull-side, the direct interaction with customers and ordering what they agree to buy. This initiative is positioned to allow a graceful exit for old-style marketing, graceful enough to be an entrance as well. It is only a matter of time before universal solutions come available on the market and allow for repairs that actually improve the original product. With the growing ecological awareness, a growing sense of self-determination and cooperatives and the ongoing global crisis, maintenance, repairs and uplifting will surge. Opportunities lie in facilitating the market shifts this will enable. If Social Media teaches anything it is that systems dealing with large numbers of participants are increasingly easy to realize.

(see http://www.befoodsmart.com/blog/the-best-and-worst-greek-style-yogurts-for-your-health/ and  http://www.fastcoexist.com/1682137/your-healthy-greek-yogurt-harbors-a-deadly-secret-updated)

One problem with the idea of “market forces” is that this idealized model only works for a specific kind of products, commodity goods, where each piece is pretty much the same as the next. For the vast majority of goods and service however worth is not a matter of costs but of value. Price does not express this value if it has not been traded often enough to have built up enough informational, geo-economical and historical traction in the collective memory. It is still too disconnected from the rest to even speak of market dynamics. So, let’s face it, the “law of supply and demand” is a behaviouristic convention. There is no market for any free price mechanism to act upon; all there is the range of our own actions together and reciprocal altruism to guide us towards fairness. We have come to accept an imaginary marketplace with seemingly reasonable workings which we can refer to during individually isolated commercial transactions, or, as in the case of an auction, engaging in a collective ritual acting as if this fantasy is authentic reality. Either way, “the market” doesn’t really exist beyond its behavioural enactment. Just like statistics don’t really exist. Of course we can force people to behave like the economy is a steam engine. And we do.

Collective mishaps, like cap-and-trade allows for smearing out pollution over many players, making it seem like each individually only pollutes a little but on the whole it adds up to the same old environmental burden. Such tricks allow for smearing out the costs as well, but if these come with a high lower threshold for adoption the effect is disproportional to the measures taken. Even though statistics can be used to blur out the effects, pollution is often locally concentrated with clear effects and using the right sort of approach (e.g. power laws instead of normal distribution), it is very much possible to construct a rating system where this does not disappear by using a convenient set of measurement.

Another effect of using such an approach is that it exposes collective rituals such as how oil prices are more or less self-fulfilling prophecy as every barrel of oil is traded some 250 times until it reaches “the market price”, after which excess tax and value added taxes are being applied, making a liter of gasoline to be priced at nearly two euros, whereas the real costs are just a little less than twenty-five cents. Needless to say, if oil wasn’t traded so often and in such large quantities, it would not act as money as store of value and measure of value, but does this value come from the oil or from the trading? Usually if business scales up the price goes down, like in any “economies of scale” scenario, so traders can ignore all the facts concerning existing reserves, OPEC forecasts, projected usage saturation, bio-engineered variations (oil is “algae poop”) and more cost-effective solar power in the form of light-sensitive spray-on coatings, but the price of oil is bubble waiting to burst.

Clearly not all of economic science is a complete idealization or a shared obsession, but if impressions and psychology are such a great part of the overall picture, aren’t we creating and sustaining a crisis by the obsessive need to try mould the economy into a model that doesn’t fit anymore? How can we update our behaviour to fit a world where globalization has turned it into interdependent interconnectedness? Countries like China and India have been as kind as to open their borders for importing obsolescence, those bits and pieces in our economical apparatus that were not considered cost-effective. This allows them to quickly catch up and grow towards Western standards of living but seems to have them now facing up to the same creeping issue of on-going automation as the manufacturing process is becoming “softwareized”. Within the next ten years we’ll enter an era where physical objects, their manufacturing and distribution are being untied from its infrastructural bonds, and like an mp3 recording of an actual musical performance you can play it anywhere you like.

The boundaries between design, prototyping and production will become increasingly vague, only limited by the number of steps through a series of general purpose manufacturing tools while these same tools can fabricate molds and scaffolds when gearing up for small series production. Although not a “one size fits all” solution, this will dramatically change the manufacturing landscape. But not only that, a split is caused in product characteristics which until now have been an implicit whole, “how it is made” and “what it is”. Between competitors the shrinking value of owning the production process will cause a great reduction of the immediate rivals, while for end-customers this means the product’s fading rarity will evaporate its illusionary exclusivity which up to recently has been upheld by geographical isolation.

We need to move towards new ways of dealing with commerce in an information-rich environment. Machine translation services are becoming so proficient that soon we can surf the internet in our language, while mobility helps spreading the internet over the earth’s surface both for communication and augmented reality, eliminating yet another three boundaries. If we go shopping, either online or offline, we can do so embedded within the multifaceted context of the internet and the shopping experience cannot be seen in an isolated manner anymore as it can easily be juxtapositioned in a screen-by-screen comparison with third-party recommendation services which will drastically intensify the error-corrective workings of openness. Needless to say that fashion and advertising will not disappear and there will continue be plenty of opportunities to become famous for being famous, or provide a sense of exclusivity by acting exclusive, but exclusivity itself is to become less exclusive as mass personalization becomes the new norm. Economic models will need to deal with this and move away from price and quantities as life’s warp and weft, just like leaving the gold standard behind and adopting other currencies like oil, Eurodollars, Bitcoins, Farmville Cash or pre-paid cell phone cards as used in Africa.

Beyond tribal altruism lies a vast universe of opportunities. The world is moving beyond things towards events, where a product is not “frozen” in temporary versions anymore, but more a snapshot in the course of ongoing upgrades, an actualization of a set of evolving qualities. And so, besides the obvious superbrands, the majority of goods and offerings will shift from brand-based selection to quality-based definition. The rise of corporate social responsibility and ethical consumerism are clear signs of the shift from an information-poor to an information-rich context.

Like many emergent initiatives the voices of grassroots ethical consumerism are manifold, and with our limited attention span we are troubled it has no clear voice yet. Very much in line with traditional commerce trade mark certificates and labels have been established. Often uninformative unless doing some research in order to guarantee the aspired qualities they mostly depend on closed-group exclusivity due to organizational limitations. This too will have to adapt to an information-rich context. Still, labeling is the easiest way to provide some information-rich context to an article, a user-friendly rating on qualities that people value, a twenty-first century price tag which can easily demonstrate a product’s ethical track record, a ‘value tag’.

You can support this effort via crowdfunding:




Paul Peters is futurist and designer, working through both the tangible and the phantasmal, ranging from common beliefs and common sense, to how people feel, think, motivate and decide, to designing enterprise-wide solutions He has 17 years working background in ICT, involved with some 80 projects of which some 60 with integration technologies. Geographic coverage of some twenty countries, mostly in Europe but including the USA, Turkey and Egypt.

Paul’s main expertise concerns providing strategic and operational consulting services in the areas of multi-layered integration and collaboration, the enabling enterprise architecture frameworks and the technologies involved.

Since late 2009 Paul’s activities have been shifting towards both advisory services as well as early-stage entrepreneurship. Adding to roughly ten years of researching interdisciplinary approaches to evolutionary applications, in recent years I have spent much time self-training in the areas of quantitative analysis, machine learning, robotics, and also Chinese Medicine, cognitive sciences, organizational psychology and a random pick from physics, complexity and theoretical biology. Paul’s aim is to gradually shift towards “resellable formats”, where the valuable concepts are “invented on demand”. The aim for his entrepreneurial work is simply to change the world.

See http://www.fluxology.net/