Spending your marbles

Catherine Masterman considers what a marble run can tell us about the economy.

Everyone loves a marble run – it must be one of the most enduring toys. Its addictive fascination is evident in the way in which zoos, attractions and waiting rooms around the world raise money by inviting people to watch a small object follow its trajectory and end up at the bottom with a satisfying clunk. Gravity never varies, but the size of the coin or the speed at which you propel it into the opening gives just enough variety to keep having another go – until parental patience or the coin supply runs out.

With a marble run, after phases of patient construction and careful experimentation, the denouement will often come with the irresistible urge to grab a whole handful of marbles to feed in all at once, giving off a panoply of sound as they navigate the different turns, wheels and drops before congregating in a huddle at the finish. And if, as in the best marble runs, there are a variety of destination-points, within seconds of the finish they may well be gathered back together and propelled into the feeder point in a slightly different way to see which destination ‘wins’. And so on and on, until the noise, mess and chaos is declared ENOUGH.

The reason for talking about marble runs is that I think that every time you buy something, it’s like shoving a handful of marbles down a marble run. There are different places the marbles can end up – all at the base of different towers. Let’s label them. There is the ‘social’ base where part of the price you pay goes to the people that made or transported what you are buying and affects the conditions in which they live. There is the ‘nature’ base, which represents the way in which the product was made can either run down or build up a natural resource, for example, the difference between fish caught through trawling or through methods with less of an impact on marine life. And then there is the ‘money’ base. We’ll come back to that.

There are different ways to change where the marbles end up. Most of the time, the speed or combination of marbles fed through the top won’t make much difference. More reliable redistribution of the marbles means making changes to the way in which the pieces are joined together – in our terms that means paying a fairer wage, changing working conditions, or making pollution, waste or carbon more expensive. Some of these changes might not affect the overall number of marbles that need putting in – just their distribution.

Now, back to the ‘money’ base. This is really two bases – one is the profits on your purchase that go to the companies involved – profits that are distributed to shareholders and are the foundation of what keeps the company in business. The second ‘money base’ is the return to your pocket when products are sold at a price below their ‘real’ cost, taking into account aspects that the market doesn’t price well. For example, when awful labour standards drives the price right down- like those that led to the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. The money base is important. Profits enable businesses to invest and sustain jobs. They enable more ethical suppliers to generate investment and replicate their approaches at scale. Consumer savings can be less a luxury than a lifeline to supplying families with essentials. Both can be what enables charitable giving. But if the return to the money base continues at a disproportionate rate, it’s the ‘social’ and ‘nature’ bases will be run right down.

Even allowing the marbles to accumulate disproportionately in the money base, and then using donating to charity to try to tackle the lack of marbles in the other bases is like throwing the same marbles down the same run in the hope that they land differently. It is far less efficient and effective than making the changes in the connections that make the marbles end up in different bases. There is no point making millions premised on rainforest destruction and then claiming virtue by generous donations to tree planting. Granted in the event of no other change, the donation is better than no donation but if the desire is to have an impact then addressing supply chains would be much more effective. That often means consumers need to be willing to pay a higher price.

In some cases, changing the connections in the marble run might be price neutral. However, the likelihood is that it will mean fewer marbles ending up either in profits or in your wallet. Many people are naturally wary of inflated prices when companies claim they are putting more marbles in the nature pot, but are actually just trying to justify higher prices or ‘greenwash’ their practices. Others are wary of companies promoting products that are badged as ‘enviromentally friendly’ in the full knowledge that the most environmentally friendly (and viable) approach would be not to purchase any such product.

We cannot consume our way out of the planetary crisis but nor can we cease to produce and consume. The challenge is to identify those companies and products that are asking a price that is perhaps best described as a ‘do no harm’ price that has not been artifically inflated.

I long for the day when ‘do no harm’ standards are the baseline – where there is a price default that prevents both labour exploitation and destruction of the natural world – rather than these products being badged and marketed as the exception. But for the time being, it’s down to us to work out where we want our marbles to end up.

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