One of the best ways we can combat the climate crisis and parallel environmental issues is to thinking critically about our purchases and vote with our wallets.
With that in mind, I’ve invited my friend Elly Boulboul to write about Ethical Consumerism. Elly’s been practicing ethical consumerism for many years and works as a designer for Aptivate (a company specialising in web design for NGOs and development agencies) and as a yoga teacher.
She’s got loads of great tips on how you can make smarter, more ethical purchases that will genuinely make a difference. Over to Elly…
It was a BBC documentary series’s in 2008, called Blood, Sweat and T-shirts, that first got me interested in ethical consumerism. It highlighted to me how wasteful we are and how I’d been drawn into our throw away culture. I started to question each purchase. Do I really need this? Do I already have something I could fix/alter? How long will this last? Where and by who was this made? What’s it made from? What will happen to this when I have finished with it?
What Is Ethical Consumerism?
Ethical consumerism is a type of activism. With every spend you are choosing which companies to support. A little research each time you buy something can help you make positive consumer choices that support more ethical companies and products.
The term ‘Ethical Consumer’ first became popular in 1989, with the launch of the magazine Ethical Consumer. They used ratings tables to give companies and products a score representing how ethical they were.
They defined 5 categories that are a great starting point if you’re looking to spend more ethically:
Does the company use animal testing or factory farming?
What’s their approach to climate change, pollution, habitats, and resources? Does the company offer transparent reporting? Do they use non-renewable power?
Do the company use irresponsible marketing? What’s their approach to workers rights, arms and military supply, human rights and supply chain management?
What are the organisations political activities and company ethos? Do they use unethical finance and accounting (eg. not paying their taxes) or controversial technologies?
Are the products produced organically? Do they have environmental or animal welfare features?
Where To Start
Food is an easy and effective place to start. You have to buy it, you get through a lot of it and it’s easy to work out how to make more ethical choices. It’s also possible to change gradually. Here are a few good places to start:
- Research a few of the items that you buy regularly and switch to more ethical alternatives.
- If you like to cook with fresh veg, find out about local veg box schemes.
- Try out local farm shops and ask about where they source their products.
- If you eat meat you could try some vegetarian recipes or maybe skip meat options at lunchtime or certain days of the week.
There are some easy wins and changing a few of the things that you buy all the time can make a difference.
For example, I love mayonnaise and I get through a lot of it. After searching online I found a guide provided by Ethical Consumer and it showed that my favourite brand, Hellmann’s, scored 1 out of a possible 20 points on their scoring system (the higher the better). So, I tried out some of the higher-scoring alternatives and I found another brand called Simply Delicious that was even more yummy and still available in most supermarkets. Now each time I add mayonnaise to my dinner I know that I’m supporting an ethical company.
Switching service and utilities providers is another fairly simple change that can have a long lasting impact.
For example, I recently started using Monzo for my personal banking and they have much more ethical practices than the high street banks. They are also much easier to manage, with a brilliantly designed mobile app that allows you to automatically categorise your spending and perform most functions that you would usually have to go into the bank to do.
I’ve gone through the Ethical Consumer website and pulled out some helpful links that you can use to make choices around the services you use (note: these are quite UK-centric, but helpful nonetheless and it should provide a good idea of what to consider, wherever you are):
Buying ethical clothing is a little more tricky. I find it much easier to buy clothes on the high street where I can feel the fabric and try them on for size, but most of the high street shops are not particularly ethical.
For basics I usually shop at at ASOS or H&M Conscious which are cheap, and have a good range. They are both doing a bit more to make their products ethical but in reality they aren’t that much better than the other high street brands.
Lucikly, there are many great ethical clothing brands online. My favourite is People Tree, where I’ve found quite a few lovely, reasonably priced additions to my wardrobe, and they often have a sale.
One thing I consider is the material each item of clothing uses. Here’s a list of what I check for, starting with the worst qualities and ending with the best:
- Plastic (polyester, nylon, acrylic, polyamide) is used in a large percentage of clothing. This is energy intensive to produce, will take hundreds or thousands of years to biodegrade, and releases plastic particles into rivers and oceans when washed.
- Viscose (also labelled rayon or bamboo) is another common fabric. It is made from wood but in most cases produced through polluting processes.
- There are debates around whether cotton is a sustainable option as it uses a lot of water to produce, takes up agricultural land and uses pesticides. This a personal call, but I find it more comfortable and feel it lasts longer.
- Cleaner versions of viscose, like lyocell, tencel or monocel.
- Organic/fair trade cotton.
I also look at where products have been made and favour items produced more locally.
This selection process takes time and limits your options dramatically. Ultimately, the easiest way to be more ethical with your clothing purchases is to buy less, finding ways to mend, alter and swap clothing to make your current wardrobe go further. If you’d like to read more about sustainable fashion there’s another Target 2030 article here.
Where to get advice
It’s worth subscribing to Ethical Consumer. They have clear and easy to understand guides on most foods (as well as many other products and services), making it simple to make more ethical purchases. It’s fairly cheap for a yearly subscription and they are a good organisation to support.
I also like Klooker who aim to make ‘Sustainable consumerism the new normal’ and offer advice about alternative places to buy mainstream products.
Ultimately, you can search online and find your own resources. There are a number of websites with good information but some are more credible than others, so question where they’ve got their information from!
What Else To Consider
The biggest hurdle when trying to make more ethical purchases is price – ethical choices are often more expensive.
That said, most of the time the products are of much better quality, will last longer, or you will need to use less of them. There are also ways to make it cheaper – I buy things I use a lot in bulk online, like toothpaste, toilet roll, rice, pasta, flour, cleaning products. This helps a little with the price, and means I can spend less time in the supermarkets!
At first I wondered if my more ethical purchases would actually make any difference. But over the last 10 years I have seen how consumer pressure has helped. New products are becoming available all the time, and where previously there might not have been a more ethical option, now there is. Ethical products are also becoming easier to access, with supermarkets stocking more ethical essentials.
So, give it a try! Start with the things you find easy to change, if you’re like me you will feel good every time you see your new ethical purchase. Before you know it you will be automatically questioning each time you spend to see if there’s a more ethical and sustainable option.