Burritos with a Conscience

Chipotle is causing a stir with an evocative new video: A silent scarecrow working in a foodlike-substance factory grows dismayed by the treatment of animals while Fiona Apple croons a haunting reinterpretion of "Pure Imagination" from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Soon, the scarecrow has an epiphany. He strikes out on his own and opens a food stand that serves locally-sourced (and presumably sustainable and humane) food, which happens to look a bit like Chipotle's fare.



It's an understatement to call this video striking, coming from a fast-food company. It's really well done, even captivating.

It left me wondering what advocates for the values it promotes think about Chipotle's practices. The chain is trying to do things differently, but how is it doing? My sense is that there are serious questions whether local, sustainable, and humane agriculture can be practiced on a scale large enough to serve a major fast-food chain. Not to mention the pricing issues. Is Chipotle making breakthroughs?

Now let's assume the best about Chipotle's representations. It's rare to see a large company go after its competitors on the moral or social desirability of practices, as opposed to the quality of products. If that starts happening more often, it could have interesting implications for consumer protection and regulatory policy more generally. In theory, the market can solve some social problems without the need for government responses. If consumers have good key information and real choices, then they can bring about change by voting with their dollars. In practice, it's often difficult for consumers to get the information they need to make choices that align with their ethics. This is true even for consumers who care a great deal and put real effort into their choices. The model of change based on consumer choice looks more promising when large companies affirmatively compete on social values by exposing bad practices and promoting good ones. They have the information and the marketing budgets to make a difference — and they can reach not only consumers who try to make ethical choices, but ones who aren't paying much attention.

One last twist: The video technically isn't an ad for Chipotle, but for a free video game. (Maybe one that promotes Chipotle, in another fast-food marketing innovation? I don't know.)

Hat tip to Matt Yglesias.


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