New Internationalist

How to be an ethical consumer

Issue 395

There are no easy answers – but here are some questions that can help point the way

1 Do I really need it?

No, I can do without it. OR

Yes, I do need it.

2 Can I avoid buying a new one?

Yes.

  • Perhaps I can borrow from or share with someone I know? (Car-shares/pools, neighbour’s machine tools or lawnmower.)
  • Can I buy second-hand or recycled? (Clothes, accessories, kitchen items, consumer electronics, CDs, DVDs, bicycles.)
  • Can I make or adapt it from something I already have? (Mended/altered clothes, plastic containers and bottles, glass jars.)
  • Can I grow it myself? (Vegetables, herbs, flowers – requires some forward-planning!)
  • Can I swap it as part of a Local Exchange Trading System (LETS) or through services such as Freecycle? (See ‘Use the internet’ below.)

No, I definitely need to buy a new one.

3 Can I find one that doesn’t damage people or the planet?

Possibly not! But you can try to minimize your impact in a wide range of ways. Good questions to ask include:

  • How were the people involved in producing it treated? Were they paid a fair wage? Did they work in decent conditions?
  • What pollution or other environmental harm was caused by producing it? How far has it been transported? How much packaging does it have? How much energy does it use? Is it recyclable and/or biodegradable?’
  • Were animals harmed during its production?
  • What’s the wider behaviour of the company like? Where are the profits going?

Some good short-cuts can be to buy:

  • Locally from independent shops
  • Made by small-scale/local/‘ethical’ companies
  • Through a co-operative
  • Fair trade, organic and/or GM-free
  • Sweatshop-free
  • Eco-friendly and/or animal-friendly
  • Energy-saving

4 Now I’ve got it, how can I look after it to make sure it lasts as long as possible?

  • Is it well made?
  • What maintenance do I need to do?
  • Can I get spare parts and/or get it mended if it breaks?

Where can I get info from?

Ask people about the products they are selling
This is hard to do with highly processed products made by transnationals bought in supermarkets, but easier to do at farmers’ markets and in local shops. If you have ethical concerns about the product you are buying, ask the shop worker if they will stock a more ethical version for next time – they may well oblige!

Use the internet
A quick surf will uncover a host of sites dedicated to helping people consume more ethically.

Books and magazines
There are few sources of published information on exactly what to buy and which companies to avoid. This is partly for legal reasons – publishers don’t like taking the risk of getting sued for libel – and partly because the market changes so fast.
Duncan Clark, The Rough Guide to Ethical Shopping, Rough Guides, 2004.
Ethical Consumer magazine (bi-monthly), http://www.ethicalconsumer.org>
Leo Hickman, A Life Stripped Bare: my year trying to live ethically, Eden Books, 2006.
Pushpinder Khaneka, Do The Right Things: a practical guide to ethical living, New Internationalist Publications, 2006.
Crissy Trask, It’s Easy Being Green, Gibbs Smith, 2006.
Simon and Jane Cotter, Eco Kiwi: Green solutions for everyday life, Random House New Zealand, 2003.

WHAT ELSE CAN I DO?

Resist the supermarkets’ drive for world domination!

As the supermarkets have grown in power and reach, so resistance and alternatives have blossomed.

  • Anti-Wal-Mart campaigning in the US is widespread. This summer the ‘Wake-up Wal-Mart’ bus travelled across the US, talking to thousands of people about why Wal-Mart must change, and recruiting 25,000 new supporters in 35 days. http://www.wakeupwalmart.com
  • In Britain Gertruida Baartman, a South African fruit-picker, attended Tesco’s AGM in July to ask: ‘I don’t get paid enough to feed my children and I have to work with pesticides with my bare hands. I don’t get the same wages as other men even if I do the same work. I am here today to ask Tesco what it is going to do about my problem?’ (CEO Sir Terry Leahy said Tesco would look into it).
  • There are 63 local campaigns against supermarket expansion across the UK listed on the http://www.tescopoly.org.uk campaign website. Active campaigns are running in other European countries including Germany and Hungary.

True mavericks

Small-scale organic farms, opposing the industrialized form of mass organic agriculture being imposed by the supermarkets, can be found all over the world. One example is Maverick Farms in North Carolina, which describes itself as ‘an open laboratory’ where agricultural, culinary and social experimentation happens in order to find sustainable ways to live and work. Maverick runs one of the US’s thousand or so Community Supported Agriculture schemes. These offer households who pay a fixed fee at the start of the year a box of seasonal fresh produce each week. ‘We are committed to the idea that fresh, locally grown food is a right, not a privilege.’ As part of that commitment they also offer ‘working shares’ to lower-income households who put in more work and less cash. http://www.maverickfarms.com>.

Platypus power

In 2003 Australian chain Woolworths was granted permission to build a supermarket on the banks of Obi Creek in Maleny, Queensland. The development was opposed by the community on many grounds, from damage to the local economy and the town’s small businesses, to the destruction of local wildlife habitats, including a network of burrows inhabited by the shy and endangered platypus. A vibrant community campaign of lobbying and direct action sadly did not stop the development. But the Obi Obi Action group continues to run a boycott, with an estimated 80 per cent of people in the area joining in. According to Garry Claridge from the campaign group, ‘the building is an eye-sore, and out-of-character with a rural village. It has essentially turned the creek into a drain. But not many people are shopping there, and the local store has not lost much business.’ http://www.malenyvoice.com>.

More info about supermarkets:

Joanna Blythman, Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets, 2004.
Corporate Watch, What’s Wrong with Supermarkets?, http://www.corporatewatch.org/?lid=705>.
Charles Fishman, The Wal-Mart Effect: how an out-of-town superstore became a superpower, 2006.
Felicity Lawrence, Not on the Label: what really goes into the food on your plate, 2004.
Wal-Mart: the high cost of low price, directed by Robert Greenwald, 2005.

Buy Nothing Day 2006 – Saturday 25 November

Concern about the ecological, psychological and political consequences of our consumer culture has inspired activists in 65 different countries to celebrate ‘Buy Nothing Day’ every November. In past years, activities have ranged from leafleting and talking to shoppers caught up in the frantic, pre-Christmas consumerist binge, to street theatre and direct action. Examples include:

  • an alien invasion of a Manchester shopping mall: ‘We come in peace but we do not understand. Why do so many of you display negative emotions when buyingmore and more things is supposed to make you happy?’
  • the performance of anti-consumer Christmas carols;
  • Clown Doctors and Retail Therapists diagnosing shoppers as suffering from ‘Extreme Consumption’ and ordering them to take the rest of the day off and get some quality time in bed;
  • blessings exhorting consumers to stop shopping and start living from Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir (see 'Stopping the Shopocalypse', this issue).

Buy Nothing Day has no ‘organizers’. It was initiated by Vancouver artist Ted Dave, subsequently promoted by Adbusters in Canada and is an informal grassroots movement – it’s up to you to make things happen. Connect and get some ideas here: http://www.adbusters.org/metas/eco/bnd> http://www.buynothingday.co.uk>

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