Empathy and Optimism for the Future of an Ethical Supply Chain

By Gems Gordon

The concept of distance decay has been discussed in this blog series, with reference to how an increasing geographical distance causes a corresponding widening chasm of interaction. Economists focus on the diminishing measurable social and spatial interactions, which can put parallel ‘mental miles’ between the consumer and the origins of their product. The explosion of communications technologies has perhaps thrown a spanner at the reliability of this equation by dissolving connectivity obstacles through illuminated screens hosting an array of visual and aural channels of social exchanges. Yet contrary to the hotly debated ‘death of distance’ prediction, geographical distance remains an important source of trade costs and continues to have an irrevocable impact on the patterns of international trade (Linders, 2005) and consumers’ perception of product value. Yet what about the emotional distance felt regarding the individuals who plucked, crafted or transported the product?

Technology, Togetherness and Ambient Intimacy

Technological and emotional connectivity may be intertwined to facilitate a potent state of investment in the welfare of the people involved in the more remote stages of the production chain; empathy. Can empathy connect the consumer with the faces along the supply chain? What does it mean and how does technology facilitate it to foster more conscious consumption? One definition of empathy is ‘the ability to comprehend another’s feelings and to re-experience them oneself’ (Salovey & Mayer, 1990) and it has rather grandly been hailed as the fundamental competence of social awareness. Recent advocacy for the hardwiring of humans for an empathic disposition stems from neuroscience. The discovery of mirror neurons suggests people (and animals) can feel and experience another’s situation as if it were one’s own. The technological revolution has generated an unprecedented capacity for human interaction; ‘extending the central nervous system of billions of human beings and connecting the human race across time and space, allowing empathy to flourish on a global scale’ (Rifkin, 2011).

Social Psychology, Kindness and Dissolving ‘Otherness’

Rifkin gives us hope that consumers are not the utilitarian and self-interested beings that traditional economic theory would have us believe. He optimistically outlines how viewing economic history from an empathic lens reveals new strands of the human narrative that remained hitherto obfuscated, and hints at the potential for realising an ‘Empathic Civilisation’. A recent study in social psychology reveals surprising observations in favour of this rather rosy outlook on our social sphere. People attending a museum were told that their entry fee had been covered by a previous person, and that they had the option to pay for another visitor (Jung et al., 2014). The results were generous; participants paid about 30% more when paying for someone else than when paying for themselves. It was suggested that the ‘pay-it-forward’ context leads to an overestimation of the kindness of others and a corresponding increase in personal payment to match it.

Social psychology informs on the factors defining the parameters of our empathic ‘scope’ and how these perceptual boundaries may be technologically mediated. The development of the social self is imperative; the formation of an identity, language and reasoning skills that are complemented by a culturally contingent demonstration of propriety allow an individual to be successfully socialised. We are discriminating in who we demonstrate empathic sentiments towards, and choose people who we deem to be part of our ‘tribe’; often they look, speak and act similarly, and value factors that we too consider to be important aspects of our lives. One of the obstacles stopping us from relating to the exhausted cacao producer eking out a measly wage is the abject difference in aesthetics, language and lifestyle- we think we have nothing in common. However, the internet (particularly social media platforms) creates a somewhat ambient intimacy, where fragments of information or glimmers of insight into the daily lives of others can be uploaded and shared. We suddenly see the world of the previously unknown ‘other’; their tragedies and triumphs and how they the express our human commonalities that are pan-cultural. Broadly speaking, an extension of empathy means we can relate more, to more (previously invisible) people, and thus care more. Increasing accessibility to this virtual village is evident from the viral images and videos that emerge from previously insular, almost inaccessible regions of the world. Although in relatively nascent stages, the trend indicates the rise of strengthened, more authentic social connections that may allow us to better empathise with the producer’s injustices as we would those of our next-door neighbour.

A More Caring Corporate and Consumer Culture

We know that consumption provides resources for the construction and maintenance of identity (Hamilton, 2012). It is important to implement choice architecture and capitalise on the feedback loops between environment and consumer behaviour to maximise the ease of the ethical action. However, an overarching and more optimistic perspective on the narrowing ‘otherness’ gap between global citizens suggests that responsible consumption will continue to become an issue that feels closer to home. Corporations may be well advised to consider inherent human potentialities in tandem with using technology in their social responsibility or sustainable development programmes, and weave it into corporate culture through empathic communication with suppliers. Indeed, evidence suggests that the practices of partnering approaches and procedural justice in the global supply chain is tied with empathy (Lam, 2014). For the developed-world consumer, we can cautiously anticipate the rise of conscious consumerism as their social net of empathic sensibility is cast further and wider than ever before through the accelerating vessel of communications technology.

Gems Gordon, Social Psychologist


Hamilton, K. (2012). Low-income family and coping through brands: Inclusion or stigma? Sociology, 46(1), 74-90.

Jung, M. H., Nelson, L. D., Gneezy, A., & Gneezy, U. (2014). Paying more when paying for others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(3), 414–431.

Lam, M. L. (2014). Empathy as a Major Contributing Factor to Sustainability in the Global Supply Chain. In M. Khosrow-Pour (Ed.), Inventive Approaches for Technology Integration and Information Resources Management (pp. 53-67). Hershey, PA: Information Science.

Linders, G. J. M. (2005). Distance Decay in International Trade Patterns - a Meta-analysis, 45th Congress of the European Regional Science Association: “Land Use and Water Management in a Sustainable Network Society”, 23-27 August 2005, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Rifkin, J. (2010). ‘The Empathic Civilization’: Rethinking Human Nature in the Biosphere Era. The Huffington Post, 11.