Exploring the Wellsprings of the ‘Virtue’ in Markets of Virtue

A growing number of Western consumers, increasingly aware of the environmental impacts of business operation, are now using their purchasing power to signal their preference for greener products.  In order to preserve their market share, corporations adopt greener practices and report their performance accordingly.  Ideally, companies that ignore environmental imperatives will pay dearly with a compromised reputation, a drop in the value of their stock, and/or a loss of market share.   The increase in the number of so-called “markets of virtue” is testimony to the extent to which this dialectic between consumers and producers has been successful in influencing business ethics.

As significant as it may be for their own nations, Western consumers’ awareness of the environmental consequences of businesses’ operations is especially important for the greening of industry in less developed countries.  Given limited economic prosperity, and weak political, technical, and administrative capacities, these countries often fail to impose, enforce, and/or maintain environmentally sensitive standards of production successfully. As a consequence, corporate environmental stewardship in these nations rests mainly on the goodwill of firms, which is strongly influenced by the preferences of those who consume their products.

Markets of virtue then, are supposed to provide a space for the exchange of greener, more ethically produced goods.  Unfortunately, they do not always live up to the claims made of them.  For instance, solar energy is often presented as a greener alternative to polluting and increasingly scarce fossil fuels. Advocates promise it will play a key role in resolving our climate related challenges. However, these potentials come with an important caveat.  To generate and store electricity, solar technology uses either large numbers of relatively expensive photovoltaic batteries, whose disposal may prove problematic to the environment, or massive amounts of water.  Recently, for example, a European company installed a large solar energy array in the North African desert.  The energy generated through this endeavor will be channeled back to Europe to serve communities there.  Instead of using photovoltaic (battery) technology, the firm employed equipment that requires water.  In fact, research has shown that 4 million cubic meters of water will be needed per year to maintain the facility if it is to generate its postulated electrical output (Belkhayat, 2013).  And the current plan is to draw that water from the region’s already scarce resources.

Superficially, this solar power initiative appears “green” and it has garnered support from both the World Bank and the European Union (Belkhayat, 2013). However, in fact, it places a delicate ecosystem at risk by routinely removing so great an amount of water in an already water-scarce environment.  The livelihood of native tribes and the population’s cultural and historical heritage, and even survival, may be jeopardized by this operation. The crucial, but to date at least, unasked question seems to be: What would happen if these native groups no longer have sufficient water to maintain their traditional communities?  What choices would they have to make in order to survive? And how would those decisions change their values, norms, and livelihoods?

The affected tribesmen should not have to sacrifice their ways of life to assure “green” electricity for those of us living in the west far less simply. The ethical question this scenario reveals is, how is this action of encroaching on the lives of these native peoples justified?  This situation necessitates a judgment call concerning whose consumption and ways of living are worth preserving. In fact, this particular firm is already undermining residents’ culture and economy and there is no evidence it has made any effort to make plain to the members of local tribes that such will be a consequence of its operations.

The enormity of the social and environmental impacts imposed on the communities in this example are unjustifiable even in economic terms alone, because the tribes will in no way benefit from the production imposing those costs.  Theoretically, local residents could challenge this company under the auspices of provisions of international law aimed at protecting the cultures of indigenous peoples (http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf). However, such steps would require that the tribesmen both understand the full consequences of the company’s operations on them and advocate for themselves in a manner otherwise alien to their values and norms.  Hiring lawyers and lobbyists and seeking media coverage to raise the salience of concerns may be commonplace in developed nations, but such actions are foreign to this population’s way of life. Consequently, as has often been the case in history, the affected tribes will have to adapt, as their environment changes, assuming such is feasible, or relocate or even perish as their water supply dwindles. Put bluntly, the very existence of these communities is now endangered by the ethically untethered and environmentally corrosive notion of “progress” underpinning this “green” energy production facility.

This is not an isolated case, and therefore environmentally sensitive customers in Western nations, as the instigators of markets of virtue, should assume the responsibility for ensuring that corporations behave ethically and responsibly everywhere, and not simply “in their own backyards.”  This company’s African solar installation will likely provide electricity to European households, or to power production plants across Europe.  If these consumers are motivated by a genuine sense of environmental responsibility, justice, and fairness to all, the behaviors described here should not be tolerated. Those purchasing goods and services in developed nations must be explicit and vocal about their wishes, and be proactive in supporting truly green companies. That is, their demand (consumer choices) and the economic incentive it represents for firms must be deployed boomerang-like, to provide companies increased cause to change their behavior in less-developed nation settings where they are otherwise unlikely to confront such clear and present motivation.

References

Belkhayat, M. (2013, April 14). Morocco: Green Energy or Green Grabbing. Retrieved April 25, 2013, from Morocco Board: http://www.moroccoboard.com/viewpoint/378-mohamed-belkhayat/5839-morocco-green-energy-or-green-grabbing

Karen Rignall, “Theorizing Sovereignty in Empty Land: the Land Tenure Implications of Concentrated Solar Power in pre-Saharan Morocco” International Conference on Global Land Grabbing II October 17‐19, 2012 Organized by the Land Deals Politics Initiative (LDPI) and hosted by the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

www.nrel.gov/csp, “Concentrating Solar Power Commercial  Application Study: Reducing Water Consumption of Concentrating Solar Power Electricity Generation” Report to Congress U.S. Department of Energy

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASelma Elouardighi is a PhD candidate in Planning, Governance and Globalization.  Her research revolves around corporate environmental stewardship in developing countries within the context of globalization.  Born and raised in Morocco, Ms.Elouardighi has lived in the United States for the past 13 years. She has a deep understanding of both eastern and western cultures, and views herself as an ambassador for both.
Selma Elouardighi earned her Bachelor of Arts in Economics and a Masters of Earth and Environmental Resources Management from the University of South Carolina.
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