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Ethics And Elephant Ivory

Published: September 6, 2016

Marketing’s Terry Witkowski was recognized recently by the Ukleja Center for Ethical Leadership at CSULB with a $5,000 grant to support his original ethics research into the global consumption of elephant ivory.

His research includes a paper titled “Elephant Ivory and the Ethics of Consumption” currently under review at a scholarly journal. In January, Witkowski attended a seminar in London on “Cross-Cultural Issues in Consumption Ethics” sponsored by Royal Holloway, University of London, and conducted a photographic survey of ivory artifacts at the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. He presented his research at the annual Macromarketing Conference at Trinity College Dublin July 13-15.

“In May 2014, I visited Meiji University in Tokyo where I discussed elephant ivory for the students there,” he explained. “This past fall, as I began to convert the PowerPoint slides to a paper, I saw the Ukleja call for proposals. Much to my delight, I received an award.”

Witkowski believes one reason his research was recognized is the compelling story of the disappearing elephants.

“With the same information, consumers using different ethical calculations can come to different conclusions about decision making in that what is considered ethical in one system can be unethical by another,” he said.

Witkowski, a member of the university since 1982, argues that the poaching of African elephants threatens their survival.

“Governments, multi-national conventions and non-governmental organizations feel morally obligated to protect these iconic animals by shutting down global and domestic trade in ivory and deploying social marketing campaigns to discourage its consumption,” he said. “Yet, for a variety of ivory stakeholders, efforts to stigmatize consumption, regulate markets and intervene socially have ethical consequences of their own.”

Witkowski points out that, according to some analysts, the U.S. has the world’s second-largest retail ivory market after China and Hong Kong. “Regardless of the ranking, with the Obama Administration attempting to shut down the U.S. ivory market, I suspect sales of new ivory artifacts will be diminished,” he said. Regarding antique ivory, “some auction houses have become much more cautious.”

Witkowski believes there is a real difference between ethical consumer decision-making and ethical consumption.

“In my view, ethical consumer decision-making entails taking into account the origin (sourcing) of a product and the consequences that flow from purchasing it,” he explained. “Consumers should be concerned with how something is produced and by whom. They should also consider the environmental consequences of their decisions. Different people will approach decision making from different points of view but the important thing is being aware and making an informed calculation.”

Ethical consumption, a term more frequently used in the UK and Europe than in the U.S., concerns a moral assessment of consumer behavior in terms of right and wrong. “Thus, vegans and vegetarians will not eat meat and associated foods,” he said. “Some consumers choose organic foods because they are more sustainable and oppose products tested on animals because of the suffering caused.”

Collection of ivory tagged as evidence.
Collection of ivory tagged as evidence.

Witkowski is the former editor-in-chief of the Journal of Macromarketing, which examines interactions among markets, marketing and society. He received his B.A. from Northwestern University in 1970, his M.S. from UCLA in 1972 and his doctorate from UC Berkeley in 1980.

The possibility of total market closure looms large. “The problem of elephant ivory calls for thinking about the ethics of market regulation,” he explained. “Some present-day trade in ivory (antiques, mammoth tusks) does not directly threaten elephants in the wild and, arguably, the rights of these buyers and sellers are being infringed and their investments diminished. Total market closure may be necessary to end most poaching and trafficking but this outcome is far from certain. For many of those who want to save elephants, ethical consumption means no collecting, working and selling of any ivory whereas other stakeholders, who also profess the need to save elephants, believe in different means to this end and thus endorse some harvesting of wild animals and exempting ivory antiques from most regulation. Clearly, the preponderance of moral judgments about ivory has changed over time. As we should have learned many years ago from our failed war on drugs, total market closure in a relatively free society is impossible. Marketing systems will adapt in the face of prohibition.”

Witkowski argues that problems dubbed “wicked” by one generation may not seem that way to posterity.

“Wicked problems are matters of social definition that change over time in response to accrued knowledge, but also to evolving moral sentiments,” he said. “I believe human beings as a whole have become more sensitized to animal rights. So, the arc of history is in the right direction. Unfortunately, getting everyone on board is difficult. In the case of China, which now has a large middle-class market, it takes just a very small percentage of people to sustain the ivory merchants and the destructive sourcing that supplies them.”

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