Finding meaning in ethics

DPhil research looks at how fair trade products are purveyed and conveyed

Lucy Bartlett

Lucy Bartlett

Lucy Bartlett, a DPhil candidate at Oxford’s Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) at Saïd Business School will be investigating this question under a Research Studentship from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The ESRC has just awarded her a grant under the open competition scheme for her project titled, “Ethical discourses in contemporary markets: does STS mean ethical business?” The award will provide two years of funding with all fees paid plus a living stipend for Lucy to focus on her research and complete her doctoral thesis. In addition to the funding, the award brings a great deal of prestige. Only two open places were allotted across Oxford’s social science division.

InSIS Director Steve Rayner says, “This is wonderful news. Lucy has already made significant contributions to InSIS research in the areas of ethical production and consumption. This grant will ensure that she can carry this innovative work through to the next stage.”

Lucy’s advisor Steve Woolgar, Director of Science and Technology Studies (STS) says, “This is a considerable achievement. It’s a prestigious award in a very competitive scheme, and it provides a great platform for some very novel research. This will be one of the first uses of STS to shed light on the myriad ways in which ideas about ethical production and consumption are generated and sustained.”

The research builds on her 2009 MSc dissertation, also at Saïd Business School, titled, “Configuring the ethical consumer: an investigation into the contemporary discourses of ‘ethical’ production and ‘ethical’ consumption.” The research revealed a significant gap in the literature on ethical consumption. Though the term ‘ethical’ is widely used, there is little examination of the deep-rooted, unaddressed assumptions about the use, currency and multiplicity of the term and how it’s applied to products, institutions and practices. Both academic and general publications treat ethics as a universally understood concept; however, in actuality, the term is used to describe a multitude of practises. As a result, what comes to count as ethical still remains un-investigated. Lucy’s dissertation was awarded a Distinction and won the Dan Gowler prize for best thesis.

For her DPhil, she will draw on theoretical perspectives in Science and Technology Studies (STS) to look more deeply at how the concept of ethics travels through the production process and whether it gets reinterpreted along the way.

For example, can a tomato be made more ‘ethical’ by growing it without pesticides (‘organic’), by consuming it near where it was grown (‘local’) or by paying its farmer a living wage (‘Fairtrade’), amongst other measures? Is this multiplicity of ethical ‘identities’ potentially problematic?

“The research asks how ethical production can be compared to a game of Chinese Whispers,” says Lucy. “How does each link in the chain from original concept to sourcing to marketing to the point of purchase re-interpret and re-construct what ‘ethical’ means?”

To follow these twists and turns, she will conduct ethnographic research in two organisations to go beyond what people say they mean by ethical to looking at how they put it into practice. Another underexplored area that she will investigate is the role of irony in the ethical market. This involves looking at, among other things, ad slogans that contain irony – and what this reveals about who ethical products are marketed to and how they are perceived by consumers.

While STS has provided a new lens through which to examine these questions, Lucy has been interested in Fairtrade products since she was 13. At school, she and friends set up a Fairtrade ordering scheme for classmates to be able to find ethical products that weren’t yet widely available. Later, as an undergraduate at Oxford University, she had the opportunity to go to Ghana to research child labour on cocoa farms, but it was STS and its approach to questioning deep-rooted assumptions that has resonated most strongly.

“It was a revelation when I realised that STS didn’t have to be about ‘science and technology’ though I find those topics interesting too,” she said. “The thesis will explore how this sensibility can be used in other areas. STS provides a way of questioning deep-rooted assumptions, which is needed in the investigation of the ethical market.”

According to Lucy, these questions are particularly pertinent now that we are beginning to see a backlash against the all-encompassing imperative to ‘be ethical’. Her hope is that this research may help the market to anticipate a potential backlash and help businesses concentrate on those aspects of their business that resonate most strongly with consumers’ expectations of ethical trading.

For example, not all stores that carry so-called ‘ethical’ or ‘Fairtrade’ products necessarily apply the same level of scrutiny, resulting in confusion amongst shoppers, and potentially leading to a backlash against these goods due to labelling that is vague or misleading.

One potential policy outcome of the research may be a push for stricter guidelines in ethical products or more clarity about what this means for each category. By applying a high level of rigour to the ethical products industry, Lucy hopes to ensure that the ethical marketplace continues to thrive, and remains not just a fad, but a way of doing business.

Certification and sustainability: seminar series starts 14 October 2010
This autumn, InSIS will convene a seminar series to compare newly emerging third-party certification programmes for products such as diamonds, Fairtrade goods, labour standards and sustainable forestry.

Through dynamic talks by Oxford and outside experts, the series will explore the origins or inspiration for the certification programmes, their structure, effectiveness and impacts (anticipated and unanticipated), and principal challenges. The series takes place Thursday afternoons at the James Martin 21st Century School starting 14 October 2010. For more information and a full list of speakers, visit

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