I recently took part in a challenge for the month of June (and hopefully beyond) to try to change my consumption patterns to more ethically mindful ones.
Additionally, I acted as the challenge ‘champion’ for a group of others. In that role I wrote a series of emails to inform them about some of the key areas of ‘ethical consumption’, and to support them to change their consumption patterns.
I thought I’d share some of that information here too…
Ethical consumerism is a huge area. Exploitation is a foundational part of the economic model that dominates our society, making it nearly impossible to avoid doing unintended harm to the earth or other beings as we go about our daily lives. Think of the potential impacts of all the different products we purchase and use: from the food in our fridges, to the cleaning products under our kitchen sinks, to the clothes on our backs and the gadgets in our hands… just for starters.
But we can make small but significant changes to how we consume that could dramatically reduce the unintended harm we might otherwise cause.
Food shopping tips
A caveat to begin with – my advice assumes that you’re vegetarian or vegan. As a 20-plus year veggie, I’m definitely not the best placed to advise on purchasing ‘free range’ meat or ‘line caught’ fish.
Did you know that in Ireland we throw out almost 50% of the salads we buy, 25% of the fruit and veg and 20% of the bread?
The Irish Environment Protection Agency (EPA)-funded initiative Stop Food Waste provides a comprehensive range of advisory resources to help you cut down on food waste and save a significant amount of money each month.
These include comprehensive tips on planning and shopping for food, efficient storage and cooking of food, as well as about composting your food waste.
This is a really challenging one. And it’s great to see initiatives like the Minimal Waste Grocery trying to tackle the plastic crisis by offering alternative packaging options (including using your own containers). If you get some of your food shopping in bakeries and green grocers, you can often make packaging-free purchases too.
When you’re shopping in a supermarket however, you’re a lot more limited. So where you can, you should try to buy your fruits and veg loose. And if that’s not possible, try to get them, and any processed foods you’re buying, in recyclable packing (rigid plastic, tins, glass, cardboard).
Reducing your food’s carbon footprint
Eat vegan, eat seasonal (and organic), eat local. That’s the ‘holy trinity’ in terms of reducing the environmental impact of your food consumption. If veganism isn’t an option for you (I’m not there yet either) then eating vegetarian will still cut your carbon footprint in half (and your water footprint too, as meat production is massively water intensive).
Fairtrade, organic, bio…
While labels like Fairtrade, Vegan Society, EU Organic, Soil Association etc are helpful cues on packaging, they don’t necessarily provide a full endorsement of a product’s ethics.
When a well-known chocolate brand bears the Fairtrade logo that might just indicate that one of the ingredients in that product is fairly traded, while the remaining ingredients may not be – the cocoa, the sugar, the palm oil…
It’s worth having a look through the FAQs on the Fairtrade Foundation’s website to acquaint yourself again with what Fairtrade is and how it works.
Vegan may mean that there are no animal-derived products, but there could still be unsustainable ingredients in there, that have travelled around the world a few times to land in the product.
The standard for organic foods and other products we purchase is set by the EU (and applies to international foods imported into the EU zone). But what exactly does ‘organic’ mean? How is it defined and regulated? See the EU organic farming website for their somewhat vague definition.
In conclusion, certifications are still better than nothing, but if it’s affordable for you – go for products that go over and above and have the most convincing credentials. These are sometimes available in larger supermarkets, but more often are sold in smaller whole food stores or farmers’ markets. Bulk-buying of staples is one way to save money if some of the more ethical brands are harder on the wallet.
Growing your own
I am very fortunate to be able to grow a wide variety veg in my own garden, hopefully enough to reduce my fresh food grocery shop significantly for maybe three months of the year.
All my seeds are from the Organic Centre or GIY – and grown organically using my own composted food and garden waste. And I try to water conservatively (watch this video for tips on how best to water your garden).
If you don’t have the space to grow your own at home, there are a growing number of community gardens and even allotment spaces now available.
As a former community-gardener I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a great thing to get involved with, and gives you access to all sorts of veg and fruit, freshly grown and tasting all the sweeter for the work you’ve put in.
All the community gardens are usually open to visitors for a few hours each week year-round, so simply find your nearest one, and pop along. They are always looking for new joiners.
Allotments are becoming increasingly popular in Ireland too. Check in with your local authority or partnership to find out what’s available in your area, there’s usually a small annual fee.
Even if you only have the space to grow a potted parsley or a tub of cress – it’s worth doing as it can connect you with the food you eat in a really significant way, and can help make you considerably more mindful of the origin of the rest of the food you are eating.
Household cleaning, hygiene and cosmetic products
The chief ethical concerns related to these are their environmental impacts (mainly related to their toxicity in both manufacture and the subsequent impacts of their uses/disposal) and those related to animal welfare (specifically animal testing).
Common commercial cleaners are loaded with toxic and polluting substances. These chemical-based products can have long-term implications for human health (particularly skin and lungs, and many have carcinogenic properties) as well as causing environmental damage by their manufacture and disposal (particularly water and air pollution, and the creation of excessive packaging waste).
While less toxic than household products, many personal hygiene products and cosmetics also contain chemicals that are harmful to human health, and disastrous for the environment.
Check out Ethical Consumer magazine’s ratings for different categories of household cleaning products to find the best performing brands, you’ll probably be unsurprised to learn that the best known household brands perform the worst across various sustainability criteria. It’s also important to note that Ecover, an ‘eco’ brand that has successfully gone mainstream, performs pretty poorly by Ethical Consumer’s standards too.
You can make your own household cleaners. Easy to purchase ingredients such as vinegar, lemon, salt, rosemary, baking soda and different types of alcohol can all be used in combination (or sometimes singly) to meet most of your household cleaning needs.
The EarthEasy website provides a really useful selection of recipes for making your own cleaning solutions from dishwashing to carpet cleaning to brass polishing to paint brush cleaning.
Also, ‘soap nuts’ are a good (and cheap) alternative to laundry detergent.
This is a confusing area in terms of different rules for different jurisdictions, and different categories of testing bans.
You may remember (depending on how old you are!) that the 1980s and 1990s were a peak time for anti-animal testing campaigning here in Ireland and more broadly across the West. It was also when The Body Shop, famed for not testing its products on animals, became a popular high street retailer. Unfortunately it’s a common misconception that animal testing is a thing of distant the past.
In 2004 the EU banned the testing of ‘end product’ cosmetics on animals within its jurisdiction. Then in 2009 the testing of ingredients for use in cosmetic products was banned. But it wasn’t until 2013 that the EU banned the use and sale of ingredients within the EU that have been tested on animals outside its jurisdiction. Each phase of ban has been hotly contested by the big cosmetics companies like L’Oreal (who actually bought The Body Shop in 2006, selling it on again in 2017).
Testing cosmetics is also fully banned in India, Israel and Norway (there are different degrees of bans in a number of other countries including New Zealand and Turkey). However, testing cosmetic ingredients and products is still legal in the US, and it’s actually a legal requirement for some categories of cosmetics in China (hence the big companies with operations in Europe fought so hard against pro-animal laws that would mean they had to produce different products for different markets).
So, while the cosmetic products on European shelves might now be technically ‘cruelty-free’, the companies producing them may still be testing on animals for markets outside the EU and other full-ban countries. Companies that continue to test on animals for other markets include Avon, Chanel, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and many, many more. Peta maintains a comprehensive list of companies (or sub-brands of companies) who continue to test on animals.
NOTE: THERE IS NO BAN ON TESTING HOUSEHOLD PRODUCTS ON ANIMALS… And it is commonly practiced. So choose your products very carefully, and look for the Leaping Bunny logo, or other solid assurances.
The best places to start looking for more ethical products are the various health/whole food shops dotted around like Down to Earth, Nourish and Holland & Barrett. Spend some time reading the packaging (hopefully recycled!), get familiar with the labels and the lingo, and you’ll soon find it pretty easy to identify the best brands for you.
I’m blessed with a very limited interest in fashion, so I have a pretty compact wardrobe that I tend to wear to death, and when I do go shopping I tend to ‘buy to last’ (buying good quality items rather than cheaper ones that won’t last as long – spending less in places like Penneys is a false economy in the long term).
I read somewhere that we in Western Europe buy around a third of the world’s clothes (that seems really high?!?), while we make up less than 3% of the world’s population…
Unfortunately shopping has become a national pastime here in Ireland, and many people have an excessive amount of clothing, and a shoe habit that would put Imelda Marcos to shame. The crazy queues outside high-end shops like Brown Thomas for the post-Christmas sales attest to our obsession with grabbing a ‘bargain’. But our appetite for ‘throwaway fashion’ in particular, and slavish following of the latest trends, has significant effects on both the environment and the rights of workers in garment factories in major production centres like Bangladesh and other developing countries.
In terms of environmental impact, large amounts of energy are used in every stage of clothes production, from farming the cotton to transporting the clothes to your wardrobe – with dying, cutting, sewing and packaging in between.
The textile industry also uses huge amounts of water. It takes up to 2,700 litres of water to produce one cotton t-shirt. That’s about the amount of water that an average person drinks over three years. Demand from our throwaway fashion culture has even caused water shortages in some countries. While the intensive use of pesticides and insecticides in cotton farming mean that toxic compounds find their way into water systems.
There has also been a dramatic increase in the amount of clothing sent to landfill. On average each of us now throws away approximately 30kg of textiles in the bin each year.
Naomi Klein’s groundbreaking book, No Logo (1999), exposed the operations of big brands like Nike and Gap who use ‘sweatshop’ labour in developing countries to produce their market-dominating footwear and clothing lines.
In the 20 years since it was published, there has been an increased awareness of sweatshop-produced clothing and many campaigns focusing on and eliciting promises from major clothing producers and retailers to do better. However, the practice of using contractors who exploit and mistreat their staff to produce cheap garments is still rife. The tragic collapse of a major clothing factory in Bangladesh in 2013, in which over 1,100 people lost their lives, shone a light again on the poor working conditions and lack of safety regulations that many people face in the global clothing industry.
So, here are a few things we can do to reduce the impact of our clothes-buying decisions on other people and the environment:
Check out the Clean Clothes Campaign
This organisation supports the rights of garment workers in places like Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. You’ll see them shine a spotlight on many familiar brands like H&M, Gap, Adidas, Nike etc.
Invite your friends over and ask them to bring a lovely but unloved piece of clothing or two. Everyone goes home with a revived wardrobe and full wallets.
Business is booming at charity and vintage shops at the moment as more and more people opt to look for clothes with a little more character. A friend of mine in London who is a charity shop obsessive gave me a simple tip before – go to charity shops in well-off areas to get the best quality second hand ‘cast offs’.
Make your own contribution to the charity shop economy by bringing them any shoes and clothes you no longer wear. If your clothes are in too bad condition, don’t send them to landfill – charities can recycle even unwearable clothes – and you’ll usually find an old clothes collection container wherever you recycle your glass.
Buy ethical brands
I’ll refer you to Ethical Consumer magazine’s website again for this area.
As in other areas, being an ethical shopper can cost money, so my ultimate tip is…
Buy less and buy to last
Take stock of what you have, and also have a good think about what you actually need to have in your wardrobe. When you need to buy something new then make sure it’s made to last, and under fair working conditions. The keyword here is ‘need’!
In terms of the vast area of ethical consumerism, I’ve done a whistle-stop tour of shopping for food, cosmetics, household products and clothes.
I’ve outlined changes to consumption patterns that are relatively easy to implement. However, if you want to be an exemplar of ethical consumption, here are some other things you can do:
· Embrace slow travel: stop flying in favour of taking boats and trains.
· Ditch the car and get on the bus (or your bike).
· Do not upgrade your phone again, upgrade to someone else’s old phone if you have to (there are now considerably more mobile phones on the planet than people to use them). Try and use your phone, and other electronic devices, for as long as you can.
· Switch to the greenest energy supplier you can, get solar panels to supplement your electricity if you can afford them. Try to minimise your electricity use overall (don’t leave chargers plugged in, don’t leave devices on standby mode, use energy efficient lighting etc).
· Insulate everything, try to use as little fossil fuel-driven central heating as you can. Wear an extra layer at home in the winter!
· Conserve your water use (turn off the tap, only boil what you need for tea, water your garden smartly).
· Divest your pension fund from unethical industries (fossil fuels, armaments, gambling industry etc) and reinvest in something greener. Find out what your pension or savings account invests in on your behalf as a starting point, then find out what other options are available to you. Save with a credit union – this money is loaned to others in your community, not invested in unethical businesses.
Another thing you can do is get involved in reusing, sharing and borrowing communities.
I’ve given loads of stuff away over the years through Freecycle, and more recently WeShare. On the latter, you can put requests in when you need something, or attend sharing or upskilling events. Adverts.ie also has a ‘free stuff’ section where you can find things you may need, or give away the things you don’t need to others.
When it comes to consumption, less really is more. The less you consume, the more we realise how little we actually need to live happy, fulfilled lives. We don’t need to spend so much time in shops, we don’t need all those variation-on-the-same-item of clothes or all those shoes, we don’t need the latest phone.
If you’re going to try to be more ethical in your consumption, think about what you need to support your decision, what conditions do you need to create?
Then start creating.