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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