If you’ve reached this blog, you probably have some awareness of the ways in which items in the store are grown, processed, manufactured, shipped, and distributed across the globe, and how much negative impact those processes impose on our planet. If you don’t, here’s a quick recap by the brilliant Annie Leonard.
So you want to be an ethical consumer, but how can you assess which products are ethical and which ones you should avoid?
In this article, I’m going to lay out some basic thumb rules to stick to when you do your shopping, that will help you identify products that are worth supporting with your money, and avoid the ones that aren’t.
Minimize Milage – Buy Local
Avoid imported goods whenever you can. This is easy to do with food if you shop at farmers’ markets and buy from local producers. The tricky part is where it comes to other goods like clothing, textiles, cookware, appliances, furniture, and many other items that we occasionally buy to make our lives easier.
Buying these items locally will require you to go out and explore local workshops and galleries, and the fun part is that you’ll get to know the people behind the product. This turns the entire shopping experience into something a lot more personal and interesting.
If you don’t have any workshops in your local area, you can always search online. You may have friends or friends of friends on social media who offer handmade crafts or clothing. These are exactly the sort of people you want to support with your money, to help them overcome cheap imported alternatives which are often low quality. A quick Google search can also bring many local results so you can explore the options without leaving your home.
Check Ingredients and Materials
This is advisable for multiple reasons. On the most basic level, you want to make sure the goods you buy are not damaging your health. Watch out for synthesized ingredients in your food and respiratory and endocrine disrupters in textiles, cookware, appliances, and furniture that can really mess with your health.
Oftentimes, you’ll see a product labeled “Made in the USA”, but in fact, each of the ingredients or materials that the product is made of comes from a different continent. This is particularly common in the supplements market, where a significant portion of ingredients is actually sourced from China.
Sounds confusing? this is exactly why you want to check further. Don’t just buy a product off the shelf, assuming that what’s written on the label is correct. Call the company, ask them questions, ask to see quality tests and certificates, and when you find a product that satisfies your standards, stick to it.
Make Sure it’s Fairtrade
If you have no choice but to buy an imported product, make sure it comes from a fairtrade source. As a concept, Fairtrade changes the way trade works through better prices, decent working conditions and a fairer deal for farmers and workers in developing countries.
There are many fairtrade shops online that sell beautiful clothing and natural textiles, as well as oils, foods and preserves. Look for the Fairtrade badge on the packaging, or do your own research and contact the people behind the brand to make sure they’re aligned with your consumer ethics.
Check the Production Process
Sometimes, manufacturers may use good quality materials, but process them in a way that harms the environment, for example, by creating affluents and not treating them properly, emitting fumes, and generating lots of waste in the process.
With clever permaculture planning, certain processes can be reverted into an additional income stream, for example, by turning waste into by-products, or treating wastewater and using it for irrigation.
Algae crops like spirulina and Chlorella reduce Co2 emissions by default, regardless of how they are grown or where. Edible forests and polyculture farming increase ecological diversity and support wildlife habitats.
Some factories offer guided tours where you can see the entire production process, get information and ask questions. It makes a great educational experience and gives a good overview of what’s going on behind the scenes.
Here’s an amazing video that shows multiple production processes in different parts of the world.
Understand the Political Context
This is such a huge topic, it probably requires a separate blog post, but for now, let me tell you a little story about the Amazon rainforest.
Up until a few years ago, timber was the main source of income for landowners in the Amazon. In the last twenty years, regulations requiring sustainable forestry have been introduced, as well as certification bodies like FSC and PEFC. Landowners who wanted to endure the market changes had to comply with new, stricter standards for sustainable forest management.
Logging in Brazil became heavily regulated, but corruption in the enforcement system has led to a state where honest businesses were being blackmailed while other illegal businesses were paying bribes to their inspectors to get their annual licenses. Landowners who refused to play along ended up being fined and persued, and many of them went out of business.
If that’s not enough, Greenpeace came in with a global campaign to boycott all Brazilian timber, claiming that FSC standard certifications may be fake. Anyone familiar with the standard procedure knows this is impossible. Instead of calling for transparent oversight and monitoring of the entire production and supply chain, Greenpeace just knocked down the entire industry at once.
The combination of heavy regulation, a corrupt system, and political pressures has wiped out any economic viability for sustainable forestry in the Amazon. In response, local farmers caused widespread man-made forest fires, to clear space for cattle and soybean farming.
This is just one of many examples where whatever happens on the political level has immense implications that are not always foreseeable and are never black and white. Most chances are you won’t hear about it in the news, so the only way to really know what’s going on is to know who you’re buying from and how they run their business.
Avoid Unnecessary Packaging
Some products come in way too much packaging. This is particularly common with imported and processed foods where the product has to survive long-distance transit.
Its easy to find loose produce, grains and nuts that are sold by weight and bring your own reusable packaging from home. Other goods like toys and gifts tend to be overwrapped, especially when you order them online. Add a note to the seller asking them to only pack with recycled materials or minimize packaging as much as possible.
If a product that you like comes with excess packaging, contact the manufacturer and ask them to reduce it, or find an alternative product that is packed more lightly.
To Sum Things Up
Being an ethical consumer is all about staying informed of market trends and practices. Reading between the lines, being curious and asking questions will help you reveal the true story of stuff and identify products that are worth investing your money in. Remember that as a consumer, you have the power to flip the story upside down.
When veganism started to gain popularity, many critiques said that the action of a single person wouldn’t make any difference, but look at what’s happening now. This growing movement has completely transformed the food industry and today, almost any brand or restaurant will offer a vegan option. And that is how you create positive change in this world.