To consume ethically, or not to consume at all?

One of the tenets of reducing our impact in the environment is to ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ – so we should first try and reduce the amount we consume, then reuse things as much as possible, and finally recycle everything we can.

With the market share of Fairtrade products growing ever larger, and ethical consumerism as a whole on the rise, it would appear more and more people are embracing the alternatives to conventionally produced products. While this is of course a good thing, the most ethical choice we can make as a consumer, is not to consume at all. When I say ‘at all’, I mean that we should consider whether or not we truly need to buy the product in the first place – buying ethical goods and services is great, but only buying essential goods and services is better.

Ultimately, if we are to create a sustainable future for our societies, by reducing the negative impact on the environment, people and animals, we need to change the way we consume. This behavioural shift should not just be from unethical to ethical, but from thoughtless, needless consumption, to thoughtful consumption of only those goods and services we require.

So let’s reduce our consumption, reuse whatever we can, and recycle where possible…and when we do need to buy something, make sure it’s as ethical as possible.

(It’s a long way off yet, but an event worth participating in, and promoting, is the Buy Nothing Day, which this year takes place on the 26th November)

A win (or two) for ethical consumerism

I have been watching a lot of TV and film documentaries recently on the various impacts of commercial fishing, exposing me to the different methods used, what it means for fish to be ‘responsibly sourced’, and much more. It has also exposed me to the many flaws in the current systems in terms of regulation within the EU, and the sourcing and labelling of fish by the big companies and supermarkets.

It seems that within the UK at least, a significant amount of support has been drummed up recently in an attempt to address some of these flaws, and recent developments have shown that the consumer has the power to force real, substantial and positive change.

One of these developments is the reform of the fishing quota system currently in place in the EU to eliminate the act of discarding, where over half the fish caught is thrown back in the sea (dead), due to the fishing boat/fleet having a lack of a quota for particular species. Another is Princes and Asda pledging to ensure all their tinned tuna will be caught by either pole and line or Fad-free purse seine nets by the end of 2014, ensuring that bycatch, where ‘unwanted’ species of fish and other marine life are caught – such as sharks, dolphins and turtles, and have to be thrown back into the sea dead, is kept to a minimum.

There are more examples, but suffice it to say that even just these two acts are a clear indication that consumers have the power to make the accountable, and the unaccountable sit up and listen.

Disposable ‘Eco’ Products

The use of something other than virgin plastics in disposable objects such as the cutlery you get in the vast majority of take-aways is a good thing, but when more materials than necessary are used in its construction, then the benefits start to lessen.

I have often found that eco products are often over-engineered – created to be more durable and better quality than their conventionally made alternatives. For products made specifically to be disposable, or that will be treated as such by the vast majority of consumers, should be made for single usage, and not multiple usage. By doing so the amount of materials and resources used in the product’s construction will be reduced, thereby allowing a greater number to be produced for the same amount of materials, money and energy input into the manufacturing process.

Is this over-engineering a result of manufacturers attaching less value to recycled material, and thereby seeing it as an unlimited resource, much as those before them perceived natural resources such as oil, coal, etc? If so, it would appear to indicate that while embracing the use of recycled and biodegradable materials is slowly occurring, treating these materials, along with virgin materials made from natural resources, as a valuable, finite commodities has yet to take hold.

There is much time, money and energy spent on educating the general public, but what about industry?

Podcasts worth listening to…

There are a vast number of podcasts out there – some good, well produced, and informative podcasts do exist, but it’s a real minefield. In my quest to be informed, inspired and engaged, I have come across a few I am happy to recommend to anyone who wishes to find out more about environmental and social justice issues. So here they are:

One Planet by the BBC

Inside Renewable Energy

Green Living Ideas (quality varies)

Yep, that’s it! Those are the only ones I can really recommend to date.  I am constantly looking out for more, and so as I come across them, I will be sure to add them to the list.

If anyone has a podcast to recommend, then please get in touch, and I will check it out.

The Bitter Truth…about chocolate

Recently the BBC’s Panorama investigated ‘Chocolate – The Bitter Truth‘. The documentary itself was not very well made, but was fairly engaging, and ultimately was carrying an important message.

There was one element of the documentary worthy of note – when the presenter took to the streets of London and asked members of the public whether or not they were willing to buy and eat the chocolate he was offering them which was made using child labour. Everybody responded by saying they wouldn’t but as he pointed out, most chocolate available in high-street stores uses a supply chain where the source of the cocoa cannot be traced, yet come from areas where child labour of the worst forms are actively carried out.

While I think it is very important to have such documentaries aired on mainstream television, raising awareness is simply not enough, as I think it is safe to say that most people now know that cheap = exploitation. What will it take for people to convert the awareness they do have into action?

Is Fair Trade truly fair?

I read an article in ‘Prospect Magazine‘ by Peter Griffiths on how fair, in his opinion, Fair Trade really is, and I have to say it made for an interesting read.

In his article he discusses the evolution of the coffee market, and the impact the introduction of ‘fairly traded’ coffee has had on this particular market.  The title of the article – ‘Fair trade isn’t fair’ sums up Peter’s views on the matter, but I have to say to judge the fair trade system based on one commodity is, for want of a better word, unfair.  Having said that, I have always been concerned about the way Fair Trade status is awarded, and how it is regulated.  The fact that there is no universal accreditation, and the industry is self-regulated, does raise the question as to how the flaws in the current system will be ironed out?  A lot of faith is placed in fair trade brands, and I hope our faith is not misplaced.  I think the complexity of any market, along with the social and environmental impact of any changes to that market means the road to a fairer system is never going to be a smooth one, and requires people at all levels, at all point along the chain from ‘farm to fork’ to have a similar destination in mind.

Stuffed and Starved

With the rising food prices and so many people suffering as a consequence, the book ‘Stuffed and Starved’is a must read for all those who wish to know more about how the global food industry is structured, and how it functions.  The introduction alone is a real eye-opener – stating that for the first time in history the obese out number the starving, elaborating upon the fact that it is less to do with affluance and more to do with socialogical issues.  The site, the link for which is given above, is also worth looking at, with a blog, articles and an interactive map.

I am not far into the book, but my first impression is that it is well written and well researched – the author has certainly read around the subject.

Ethical Clothing – Reaching the Masses

Type in ‘Fair Trade Clothing’ or ‘Organic Cotton’ and you will be greeted with a whole plethora of options for buying ethically sourced clothing – particularly if you are a woman.  But what about the high street?  I for one prefer to try clothes on before buying them – I am happy to buy technical clothing over the internet because the main issue is functionality rather than fashion, but if I am buying any other clothing I want to be sure it fits well and I like the cut and style.  Consequently I don’t like to shop for non-technical clothing online.  However if I want to stick to my principals and ensure my consumerism is as ethical as possible, there is very little choice out on the high street.  With a Guardian investigation exposing that Gap, yet again, has been caught using factories that utilise child workers as recently as the end of last year, I am reluctant to buy from any of the big stores.  However I have since discovered that the likes of Next and H&M have corporate responsibility reports which they make available to people via their websites.

So in an attempt to ensure you and I are able to buy clothes in as ethical a manner as possible, I am going to do a little research on the big clothing brands and make their ethical policies and CSR reports available via this site – to inform and empower, while we all wait for fair trade to become more accessible to high street shoppers….watch this space!

Plastic Bags – reduce, reuse, recycle

The plastic bag for me is the epitome of Western consumeristic behaviour – a disposable item that people attach little or no value to, despite the actual cost in terms of energy, labour and other resources in their production.  I think the focus on recycling and the creation of biodegradable bags, while certainly having the potential to reduce the impact on the environment, fails to stem the consumption – the key to addressing the environmental issues associated with our waste production.

What really needs to happen is a change in people’s behaviour.  Recycling requires energy and only a very small percentage of bags actually get recycled – my council (Wandsworth) doesn’t recycle them, as they have a quota to reach that is based on weight, and so limit recycling to plastic bottles.  Even for private firms it is generally not economically viable for them to recycle plastic bags, and so the vast majority end up in landfill or are shipped off to ‘developing’ countries to be incinerated.

As for biodegradable bags, well they require light and oxygen to decompose, which isn’t really in abundance in the middle of a landfill or in the sea!  So a good thing for us to do is to reuse the bags we already have, while the best thing is to reduce our useage in the first place – there are plenty of affordable and accessible alternatives available to us, we just have to make use of them, and be conscious of impact our consumption is having on the world around us.

If you are interested in finding our more about the waste we produce, then have a look at the Waste Online site. It apears to have a good amount of information on a broad range of waste items, and they give the sources of the information they provide.

The other reason to buy organic

People are so caught up about the debate about whether organic food is better for you and more nutritious than ‘conventionally’ grown food, that the environmental issue is completely neglected.  Do the majority of people who buy organic food only do so for selfish reason?  Are they not motivated by the opportunity to minimise the environmental impact of their consumption?  I think it is a severely neglected aspect of why people should buy organic. 

Organic food may not be any more nutritious, but then if it were then that would indicate that the chemical fertilizers weren’t doing their job! As for the impact of consuming the chemical residue on conventionally grown food – I think the impact of not eating adequate fruit and veg, regardless of how they are grown, is going to be more detrimental to your health in the short-, medium- and long-term.  As for the environmental issue?  Why is there no debate about that?  Why, when you hear or read something in the mainstream media about organics, it is always related to health and nutrition?  Well, quite possibly because there is no debate to be had about which farming method is better for the environment?!  Of course it can still be debated that organics are less productive, and so take up more land, but that’s where Fair Trade kicks in.  If you give someone a plot of land, and they need to earn an income from that finite piece of land, without the means to supplement it by chopping down forests, then they are going to go for the more economically viable option, the one that provides them with a fairer price for what they have produced and the time, energy and resources they have used to produce their crop.  They are more likely to go for organic farming (in an ideal-world situation, taking into account only those variables mentioned above).  It may take more land to produce the same amount or crops, but it takes less to generate the same amount of income.