Do Ethics and the Frugal Life Mix?

We’re halfway through Fairtrade fortnight, which has got me thinking about ethical shopping in general. Before the downturn, buying Fairtrade, organic or environmentally friendly produce was all the rage. Green was the new black.

But it’s funny how having fewer pennies in your pocket can make those intentions disappear. Suddenly we’re tempted to ditch the free range, organic produce and head for anything on special offer, whatever life it may have led or who it was made by.

So I’m conducting a small experiment. I want to find out whether I can shop ethically but still watch the pennies. This week I will be doing my best to buy ethically sound produce and reporting back to see how much I spend compared to my normal shop.

Until I did some research, I didn’t realise how complicated ethical shopping has become. Naively I’d thought it was a case of avoiding clothes made in sweatshops and food transported thousands of miles. But taken to the extreme, it’s far more convoluted.

OK, first of all there are food miles. ‘Shop locally’, say ethical consumer websites. Buy local produce and not only will you cut down on emissions, but your cash will go back into the community (I observed the Zambian chillis in our fridge with shame…). Although, on the other hand, if we all did that then where would the Fairtrade movement be? ‘Grow your own veg’, says another site. Well, there’s not much doing in the plot at the moment although I’ve just planted my first onions, but there should be later this year. ‘Buy organic’, suggests another website. OK, I do occasionally but I can’t say I always see a difference, except in the price. You may disagree. ‘Avoid products tested on animals’ – fair enough, this is a well worn path. I try to, although it’s dawned on me that my makeup bag needs a serious overhaul.

But full blown ethical shoppers go much further. One website I stumbled across has a long list of companies to boycott. A handful are named and shamed for not signing up to the Humane Cosmetics Standard. Altria, the company behind tobacco producer Philip Morris, is singled out not only for selling cigarettes but also for apparently funding the US Republican Party, and therefore – the website claims – indirectly Bush’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol. Previously ethical shoppers were urged not to indulge in a Toblerone because Altria used to own a stake in Kraft Foods, the owner of the Swiss chocolate bar….Does your head hurt because mine does…?

The finger is pointed at various companies for doing business in Burma. And the British Heart Foundation is criticised for research which involved animal testing. The list of villains went on for 39 pages of A4 by the time I’d printed it out.

But I felt pretty disheartened after reading it. It was all so negative. And while I’m sure the intentions may be good, to my mind the list smacked of bullying. Rather than inspiring me to find ethical alternatives, I felt like juggling with Israeli oranges, dressing from head to toe in Gap and Nike and stuffing a Toblerone in each ear.

It’s not that I’m comfortable with the exploitation of workers or corporate corruption. Far from it. I detest these things. But I also hate bullying, extremism and being told what to do.

Anyhow. After overcoming my confusion at the proliferation of ethical dilemmas, it occurred to me that there are many different approaches and that you have decide what’s important to you – not just take on someone else’s agenda. So I’ve decided to try to stick to these criteria this week:

1. Cut down on food miles

2. Buy free range meat

3. Buy Fairtrade products where offered

4. Stick to animal friendly products using recycleable materials which are gentle on the environmental.

Later I’ll report back on my shopping expeditions and how the price and product quality compared with those I usually buy.

Are you shopping ethically despite the credit crunch? Which issues are important to you? Or do you feel that saving money and shopping ethically are incompatible? Leave a message and tell me what you think.

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6 Responses to Do Ethics and the Frugal Life Mix?

  1. Tom says:

    This is pretty complicated stuff with a lot of calculations. Are you willing to trust others with doing the calculations for you and telling you what to do? Could much of this end up having the opposite and negative effect like substituting corn ethanol for gasoline? Or should poor farmers in somewhat remote countries be deprived the opportunity to improve their lot just because the produce has to be shipped a bit further? Good luck.

  2. maryminn says:

    saving money and shopping ethically do not mix in this credit crunch time those on limited incomes will turn even more to the cheapest and unfortunatly the unheathiest. I believe many would choose differently if the genuine benefits were shown of eating organic and it WAS cheaper. Mary

  3. Diana says:

    The point is this – its not the miles the food has travelled but the carbon dioxide expended by the transport that is the ethical issue. If all methods of transport ran on carbon neutral clean sustainable energy (seawater battery engine for example) then the problem with food miles would disappear.

  4. Christine says:

    It\’s a very long journey to doing the ethical shopping properly. I don\’t think you can really appreciate the benefits over a week. Cleaning is surprisingly the easiest and if you are careful it works out cheaper. I went into the local Oxfam and picked up shampoo, conditioner and bath foam to try out. The prices were higher than supermarket own brand by quite some and higher than the middle of the road products on offer which hurt me at the time. However the products were also considerably longer lasting in that I used less and the results were nicer. I followed through by asking the daughter to get me some products through her health food co-op as this reduces the price considerably and eventually went online and bought in quantity (5 litre sizes of shampoo, bath foam, laundry liquid and washing up liquid). It hurt a lot paying out at the beginning believe me but I save up a little each week knowing that I shan\’t have to buy again for over a year. The rest of the cleaning is washing soda crystals (cheap in any larger supermarket) and distilled vinegar (try a Chinese supermarket if you have one). I find that a lot of the food products that I want are not offered in the Fair Trade range – especially as I don\’t drink tea or coffee. I\’m not sure that buying cheap does the diet any good and I suspect that buying smart will extend the budget better and allow you to buy more organic if that is what you want. A farmer\’s market may help you to buy local if there is one near you (or it may not if it has a lot of soap and candle makers). I was listening to Farming Today at some silly early hour of the morning this week before I got out of bed and there was a butcher commenting that a lot of younger people do not know how to cook the cheaper cuts of meat or how to use offal properly so buy sausages or ready made pies on price and maybe don\’t get the best nutritional value out of what they are spending. I would suggest that a reference to some of the older cookery books by authors like Marguerite Patton (try the library if none in the family) would be good in this area. I haven\’t got as far as organic lentils or beans or similar yet as I just can\’t afford. I suspect that knowledge is the key to ethical food. As for ethical clothes – the full on ethical ones seem to be for scarecrows who never have to do housework, get out in garden or allotment, clean the car or even risk getting drinks spilled on them in pub or club. They don\’t come in my size and would easily take up my full week\’s pension for one item. I suspect that most clothes made abroad are possibly made in places where the conditions would not meet with our approval. However it does allow women some freedom from cultural backgrounds where they can be tied to house and family with very little say in their way of life. It\’s a very difficult one to see your way through ethically as we don\’t have major clothing production in the UK or Europe for the chain stores.

  5. Kerri says:

    I must admit that I do not go out of my way to shop ethically – partly because a lot of what I want isn\’t necessarily available ethically certified in one way or another, and partly because some of it is so darn expensive. I do buy Fairtrade bananas and some Fairtrade tea, but this is because its JS own which I would buy anyway. However, reading Piper\’s blog, I think the first (and key part) to shop ethically is to decide what your definition of \’ethical\’ actually is – what do you care about? Do you want to help the coffee growers in Kenya and thus buy Fairtrade coffee from there, or do you want to reduce the carbon emissions created transporting the coffee and thus look for a local alternative? It\’s all very well for other people to harp on about \’don\’t buy this from this company because….\’ but at the end of the day there\’s no way that we could be every possible ethic at once, so it comes down to personal choice. And, given many people\’s financial circumstances, we also have to decide which ethics are most important to us. I personally will pay a bit more for free frange chicken & eggs and other meats that are british and freedom food endorsed (if I can\’t buy fully outdoor reared in the case of pork). That way I feel I am doing my bit for the welfare of the animal before it is slaughtered and the British economy and farmers too.

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