Jun 19 2013

Ethics is in the eye of the spender

Sophie_Offord_8434_WEBEvery day is filled with purchasing decisions: from the food we buy at lunchtime to that last-minute weekend away. Do these things really have an impact on the world? And, if so, how should we change our habits, so that they are better for the planet? Sophie Offord wades through some ethical guilt to investigate…

‘Ethical consumerism’ is about making consumer choices for environmental or social reasons. It is one of those phrases that has now entered into modern parlance – but are we trying to have our (Local, Organic, Animal friendly, Fairtrade) cake and eat it? Perhaps it is one of those buzz words that we use to justify a societal flaw: the notion that we need ever-growing quantities of stuff.

‘Consume’ means to use up, expend. How long will our actions be sustainable? Curbs and contraction are hardly crowdpleasers, but maybe we need to ask ourselves at the checkout: do I need this? Will I use it? Are there other ways to get happy? Some recent figures show that manufacturing and consumption are responsible for 57 per cent of the greenhouse gas production caused by the UK.

Yet even if we reduce our consumption, we have to face a consumer decision, eventually: even if it’s just which loaf of bread we buy for breakfast. This is where – if we want to – we can wield some power.

Despite the economic downturn, sales of ethical goods and services have proven resilient. The Co-operative Bank, in their 2012 Ethical Consumer Markets Report, revealed that the total value of ethical markets in 2012 was £47.2 billion (up around 33 per cent, from figures five years ago). Since the Ethical Consumer Research Association launched in the late 1980s, Corporate Social Responsibility and sustainability ratings have grown in parallel with this public awareness. Sustainability is arguably the greatest marketing tool of the 21st century.

Environmental journalist, George Monbiot, has rallied against this “Green consumerism… [as] a substitute for collective action”, an indulgence for the middle classes. What comes to mind is Livia Firth (however well intentioned), in her green carpet challenge, wearing ethical evening gowns with an astronomical price tag.

But does ‘greenwashing’ matter, if it gets a company to do the right thing? Andrew Wilson, former Director of the Ashbridge Centre for Business and Society, stated a few years ago that “Shopping is more important than voting”. We are all players in this economic system, whether we like it or not: we may as well make our move and steer the bandwagon.

Here are some reasons to jump on board. Ethical shopping can be positive (buying) or negative (boycotting), and there are examples of great results for both. The reason why organic products are so prolific in major supermarkets now is because there is demand for them. Nestlé has promised a zero deforestation policy in its palm oil supply chain (to be monitored by the Forest Trust) because it endured weeks of campaigning and boycotting from Greenpeace and angry consumers.

The big corporations usually need the big numbers, but just one person can make a difference at the small independents. I recently nagged the wonderful Fleet Street Press coffee shop, near LSE, into using organic milk in their flat whites (my ‘get me out of bed’ beverage when I need drastic measures). They were more than happy to respond to my request, once I bothered to make it.

There are lots of confusing labels to mull over in the beginning, from ‘FSC certified’ wood to Rainforest Alliance, organic and Fairtrade goods – but don’t be deterred! There are helpful resources if you look for them.

The Ethical Consumer website has a whole host of product guides, from baked beans to broadband. Some of these are free; others can be accessed if you become a member. The companies within each category are given an ‘ethiscore’, and presented in a ratings table. There are also organisations outside the UK that perform a similar role, such as Green America.

Once you have jumped that first hurdle, you might see some areas that conflict: for example, buying organic produce from abroad, if it’s not available in the UK. Do your research and prioritise the issues that resonate with you most. If shopping is a vote, are you going to mark your ‘X’ for environmental impacts or for worker exploitation? Helpfully, the Ethical Consumer website allows you to customise its scorecards, so you could, for instance, place more importance on ‘people’ than ‘animals’.

If you’d rather not pick a particular issue, perhaps focus on a particular product. This doesn’t have to be anything huge: it could be the brand of chocolate you buy, or you could look at a more involved category, like clothes.

Let’s say you pick clothes. All of the high street stores score abysmally on the Ethical Consumer website – a rather dispiriting start. Although some have ethical clothing lines, like H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’, how much should we trust this? What does it say about the rest of their clothes, if they have to release a range that makes this distinction?

There are also ‘alternative clothing’ companies, founded on sustainability principles, and mostly online. These clothes tend to be more expensive, but some, like People Tree, are still at (higher end) high street prices.

But if we have to pay the premium for our ethics, does this alienate the poorer sectors of society? Is this simply soothing the conscience of the middle class, just like George Monbiot claimed? On reflection, I think not.

If we continue to use clothes as our example, there are lots of ways someone on little or no income can change their fashion habits. Rather than buy something new, try secondhand instead. Charity shops can be the source of some brilliant finds, but these days we also have vintage, Ebay or swishing – one person’s junk is another’s treasure. You could also boycott certain brands in favour of those with a better ‘ethiscore’, but which aren’t more expensive.

The planet is going to need more than an army of green shoppers. That’s the blunt truth of it. But it’s empowering to know that you can influence an issue with barely any effort – whether it’s your local high street or the wages of people thousands of miles away. Society is made up of individual actions – so open your wallet and act.


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