A while ago I turned down some potentially lucrative work on ethical grounds. I was approached by a global company I will call SubSidTech because it is a wholly-owned subsidiary company of one of the Big Five (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta and Microsoft). SubSidTech wanted help with creative research methods, and I was tempted, because I could have charged them a high fee and they might well have flown me to interesting places. But we didn’t get that far.
I turned down the work because I know that SubSidTech’s parent company works in some ways I consider to be unethical. I explained this to SubSidTech, politely; they sent a cordial email back thanking me for my candour and assuring me that they respected my views. I would have been very glad of the money. But I know turning the work down was, for me, the right thing to do.
It got me thinking, though, about the costs of acting ethically. Let’s start with consumption. I try to shop as ethically as I can: wherever possible I buy from companies with good policies and practices; I try to buy fairly traded and environmentally friendly products; I do what I can to avoid perpetuating cruelty to humans or animals. But living this way is often more expensive. For example, my phone is a Fairphone 3. The people who make this phone are paid a living wage, it is partly made from recycled plastic, and I can repair it myself with component parts available online at reasonable prices. It doesn’t have the built-in obsolescence of many mobile phones. But it was not cheap.
Sometimes being ethical can save money. I often buy second-hand clothes from online marketplaces or charity shops. But usually there is a premium to be paid for ethical consumption. And with costs rising as steeply as they are at present, I find myself rethinking a lot of my previously automatic choices. I love organic butter. It tastes like the butter of my country childhood, it’s not full of hormones, and it’s good for the planet – but its price has risen by 17% in recent weeks, and non-organic butter is cheaper. I don’t know how long I can maintain my ethical shopping preferences because, although I am not on a low income, my income is not rising. (It does go up and down a bit, but the average profit from my business over the last five years has been £24,964 per year; I can pay myself most of that.) And people who live on low incomes or welfare benefits have much more limited options for shopping ethically. The impact of the global financial squeeze on ethical consumption practices is already being recognised.
There is also a cost to doing research ethically. Taking the time to do proper participatory or other inequality-tackling research; paying or otherwise recompensing participants; providing suitable aftercare – these all cost more money, time and commitment than funders are used to funding or researchers are used to providing. Completing an ethics application form has a sizeable time cost, though some of the work done will save time later on. But there is still a time overhead, unless you are the kind of researcher who, having received their formal ethical approval, declares that they have ‘done ethics’ and will now get on with their research. And if you’re not that kind of researcher, if you aim to think and act ethically throughout your research work, then that also comes with a time cost and in some cases a financial cost too.
Because of the costs of acting ethically, we end up having to make compromises. Due to the rising cost of living I am consuming less of the ethically produced goods I like to eat and wear and use. My current choice is to consume less, rather than to buy unethically produced goods; this is a mark of privilege, and may have to change again in time. Perhaps there will also come a point where I cannot choose to turn down work from companies whose practices I regard as unethical. I hope not – but I know that, as for most people, if I need the money badly enough I will take any work I can get. But when it comes to research ethics, I plan to stand my ground. This is easier because someone else is paying the bill, most of the people I work for and with understand the purpose and value of research ethics, and often I can influence the ethical aspects of the research I conduct or support. That doesn’t mean research ethics is compromise-free – there are often compromises to be made where ethics is concerned. But I am happy to work in a profession where ethics, albeit expensive, is taken as seriously as I take it in my personal life.
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