December 09, 2019

International Affairs Professor Studies Ethical Consumerism in the Portland Cannabis Market

Associate Professor of International Affairs Elizabeth Bennett studies how the political/ethical consumerism movement can promote environmentally and socially responsible products. For the last three years, she has applied her research to the nascent Portland cannabis market. Bennett describes the ways in which consumer activism and sustainable supply chains have emerged in the context of the American and Canadian cannabis markets.

by Yancee Gordon BA ’21

Professor Bennett presenting on her research. Professor Bennett presenting on her research.

Over the past two decades, the political consumerism movement has grown as people hope to achieve large-scale change through collective action. Consumers have turned demands for more ethical products into a movement that has forced companies to supply products that fit within the bounds of environmental and social responsibility. Associate Professor of International Affairs Elizabeth Bennett studies how environmental and social responsibility, the basis of ethical consumerism, can be achieved in the political consumerism movement.

“I came into academia because I care about workers and economic justice,” said Bennett. “I know a lot about fair trade and global supply chain, and this research is an opportunity to understand and contribute to economic justice in a new and important way.”

This study was completed with the help of Lewis & Clark undergraduate students who found themselves both more knowledgeable about the importance of this research and how to properly conduct it. 

“I have learned so much from this research, and I am now passionate about fair trade and sustainability and workers’ rights in agriculture, including in cannabis,” said Chloe Safar BA ’21, an international affairs and Hispanic studies double major. “Assisting Professor Bennett has given me added confidence that I can work in an academic environment often limited to postgrad students or students at larger universities.”

As the regulated cannabis market began to develop across Oregon following voters’ approval of legalization in 2014, Bennett was in the midst of her research on fair-trade policy. She was curious how cannabis would compare to other agricultural products in relation to organic and social responsibility. She hoped to track developments in the cannabis market as they occurred.

“I thought it would be an exciting project to try to understand how different fair-trade certifications and sustainability labels would compete with one another,” said Bennett. “But instead of a big competition to see who would have the most power over making cannabis better for the environment and the people who harvest it, what I ended up watching was an industry unfold with no attention from certifying organizations, major environmental NGOs, the fair-trade community, or the Organic Business Association.”

This lack of involvement from the industry surrounding sustainable, fair-trade, and fair-labor labeling could be due to the reputational or legal risks involved in the cannabis market.

To get a more systematic view of the sector, Bennett worked with Lewis & Clark undergraduate students to randomly sample half of the dispensaries in Portland, both in 2016 and 2019. The goal of the study was to analyze the availability of environmentally friendly and socially responsible products, as well as gauge the knowledge of the workers about pertinent aspects of the political consumerism movement. Overall, the amount and accuracy of information and ethical products improved over the three years.

“The quality of information that dispensaries are providing to consumers is so much better than it was three years ago,” said Bennett. “Each time we go to a dispensary, we give it a grade. In 2016, the grades were A, B, and C. This year, we added a plus because there were so many dispensaries that were going above and beyond what they did three years ago.

Despite the improvement, the discrepancy in accurate information also grew. Consumers were demanding products that fit within some aspects of ethical consumerism and the cannabis market was working to provide them with those products. The aesthetic of each dispensary was coded as high-, mid-, or low-end. The gap of accurate and available information based on these classifications was apparent.

“We found there’s a big difference in the quality of information that we received at low-end versus high-end establishments, and it seems to be more pronounced now than in 2016,” said Bennett. “The high-end places typically gave accurate and comprehensive information, while the low-end places gave inaccurate information to consumers.”

Even with the improvements, there is still a long way to go for the cannabis market to fully support ethical consumerism. Bennett found that the information around the environmental aspect of cannabis production improved, but most of the dispensaries had no knowledge about social responsibility, such as fair-labor practices or living wages for workers. She hopes her research can be an entry point for people within this market to understand and support ethical business practices.

“I have learned how scholarly work puts education and research into action to create positive change in the world,” said environmental studies and international affairs double major Nicole Godbout BA ’20. “This research experience with Professor Bennett has not only improved my technical skills but has also enhanced my perspective on the ways I can contribute to making the world a better place.”

Environmental Studies
International Affairs
Political Economy

Hanna Merzbach BA ’20 contributed to this story.