Even if all these conditions are present, the impact of ethical labeling schemes will
remain limited by their voluntary nature. As long as we think these schemes reflect
issues of personal conscience or mere preferences on the part of consumers, their lack
of universalism may raise few concerns. As we have noted, however, the dividing lines
between issues of health and safety, issues of collective societal good, and issues of per-
sonal preference and conscience are dynamic, contested, and political. Insofar as these
schemes protect values like food safety, worker safety, environmental protection, or the
provision of basic income nets, the limited and unequal reach of voluntary standards
might be viewed more critically. In this context, as a complement to state regulation,
the system of voluntary certification and labeling of food may temporarily fill gaps left
by the absence of strong state standards. Such systems can further provide test cases for
how more stringent standards might work in practice and be used as a model for state
regulation in the future. If citizens begin to accept voluntary, market-based standards
as long-run substitutes for universal government-mandated regulation, however, these
systems run the risk of institutionalizing inequalities in the distribution of labor, and
environmental and health standards in the food system.
* I gratefully acknowledge the helpful comments and contributions of Evann Smith,
Michael Hiscox, Shauna Shames, Laurel Eckhouse, Jim McKinsey, Elizabeth McKinsey,
Tom Clough, and Ron Herring.
1. Although this phrase has been used more broadly in the economics literature to describe
any purchase as a signal of consumer preferences, Johnston and MacKendrick (this vol-
ume) apply it specifically to the consumption of ethically labeled food, using the voting
analogy to emphasize what they see as the political nature of the preferences expressed by
that particular act of consumption.
2. Certified food is part of a broader phenomenon of ethically sourced products of all kinds,
from denim jeans produced with environmentally safe dyes to Fair Trade basketballs and
low-emissions chemicals. This chapter, though it is focused on ethically certified food, will draw
insights and evidence from a broad literature on ethically labeled products more generally.
3. Goul Anderson and Tobiasen (2004)'s survey results are consistent with this perspective.
4. See Herring, this volume; text reflects Herring personal communication.
5. See, for example, the debate about whether GMO labeling should be voluntary or manda-
tory (e.g. Carter et al. 2012).
6. See, for example, the “Safeguard Organic Standards” campaign run by the Organic
Consumers Association ( http://www.organicconsumers.org/sos.cfm) .
7. For an extensive outline of the literature on consumer motivation for ethical consumption,
see Hainmueller, Hiscox, and Sequeira (2011).
8. See particularly Trigg's extension of the concept of conspicuous consumption (2001),
which builds on Veblen ( 1994) and Bourdieu (1984).
9. The author participated as a research assistant in this field experiment.
10. Note that this experiment does not constitute a test of gendered demand for ethical label-
ing since it does not include a high-priced men's item.