Is Smaller More Ethical, or Less?

The food world’s fascination with small-scale production of bespoke edibles shows no sign of waning.

See, for example, this piece by Emma Sturgess, for The Guardian: From small seeds grow big ideas

There are David and Goliath battles in all fields of business, but in food David seems to be putting up a particularly gutsy fight. In recent years, small-scale food producers have become both more numerous and higher-profile, helped by the rise of farmers’ markets and the ease of setting up a technological shop window to sell to the world….

Small certainly has its charms. Many of my favourite businesses are the small-and-independent kind. But small is also generally inefficient.

Back in February, on my Business Ethics Blog, I wrote about The Ethics of Inefficiency.

This vague association of the small with the ethical misses the fundamental truth that, when it comes to production methods, size brings efficiency. Mass production tends to be efficient in its use of energy, materials, and labour. There are of course tradeoffs and exceptions: it’s entirely possible for a factory mass-producing something to be highly efficient in the use of labour, but to be highly inefficient in the use of, say, water — especially if water is had at no cost. But generally, mass production is efficient; that’s its raison d’etre….

The general point is that smaller is generally less efficient, and inefficiency means (by definition) less output per unit of input. It means getting less for more. In a world focused on conservation, that’s crazy. It’s also worth pointing out what the inefficiency of small-scale production generally means for the standard of living of those who engage in it. As Tim Worstall points out, inefficiency of labour generally amounts to poverty. Small-scale farming may be romantic, but in most places of the world it is a recipe for staying poor. It’s fine if you choose to produce inefficiently, and hence to earn less, as a lifestyle choice for yourself. But it’s not something to be wished on other people.

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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