Being an ethical consumer can become this huge thing. Sometimes it’s difficult to know where to start. Or you might not see the point at all. In which case it’s good to think about it in terms of what you care about. This aspect is as big or small as you want it to be. The global market is huge, it effects everything, and tackling its ethics is daunting but there are structured ways that you can guide yourself through the maze of products and come out the other end with a shopping basket you are happy to vouch for.
The infringement of human rights is a massive problem in a world where companies outsource so much of their production to developing countries. It also challenges us on a fundamental level because this happens to lower costs and western consumers love to love a bargain. However, the problem with cheap is that it probably means it is a product of exploitation. The fashion industry is a notorious example of this. Fast fashion means that companies build their business model on selling lots of very cheap clothing. They have to sell lots to make a profit because people have grown used to paying very little for products. How can a t shirt cost only $10 or less to make? The need to drive costs down is pushed on to the factories in places like Bangladesh who are subcontracted to produce this clothing. And this cost cutting is then pushed on to the workers – many of whom will not earn a living wage and will work long intensive days. Unfortunately paying more for your product doesn’t always mean that more money is invested in the workers but it is possible to find companies selling products who believe in paying a fair wage for a fair days work. It is nearly always better to buy local or from a country with good workers’ rights legislation.
The issues of global warming can seem slightly intangible. For many people it inspires a guilt over extensive travel or car use. While buying locally to reduce your carbon footprint and spending money on an efficient and economical car, or better yet an electric one, could both save you money in the long run and limit harmful emissions to the earth there are a variety of ways that your spending habits can make a much bigger impact. In fact, the cow is the biggest global warming culprit. Beef and dairy are huge staples of our diet and this has only increased as it has become more affordable. We have things like milk, cheese and butter every day and beef burgers, steaks, and the minced beef in spaghetti bolognese or lasagne is also a regular part of the western diet. This demand means the production of cows is huge and this is a problem because they notoriously produce large amounts of methane when they fart. This can be a little funny on paper but in reality it’s scary. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. It is such a big factor that if the world were to stop consuming cow products this would stop global warming in its tracks. For many people, giving up beef and dairy would have far fewer consequences than giving up motorised transport. Even reducing intake to once a week would make a big difference to our climate. For those concerned about global warming a review of the food you buy is probably the single biggest action you can take.
A lot of companies rely on some natural resources to deliver their product, like water, wood and forest, or just land. These resources can be used sustainably with a view to preserving the natural environment, or they can be exploited leaving areas desolate. Palm oil is an example of a food that’s production has had devastating effects on the rainforests of Indonesia and the ecosystems and wildlife living there. Farming palm oil is lucrative and vast areas of rainforest have been destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations. Avoiding palm oil or buying products that use sustainable palm oil is the only way to ensure you are not funding this destruction. Moreover, boycotting brands and products that do not use sustainable palm oil will help pressure them to change their practices. Doritos are a hugely popular product that do not source sustainable palm oil.
Land clearing to produce food products or cotton for clothing is also common but by being aware of what you buy you can find companies that farm sustainably and with respect for the natural world. An ever more pressing issue is the use of chemical fertilisers and insecticides which over the years have increasingly polluted our soil and water sources and wreaked havoc on the world’s ecosystems. This is not just for food produce but also to grow things like cotton to manufacture cheap clothing. The decline of the bee is attributed to the use of chemical insecticides. Buying organic is often more expensive but the cost is negligible if we think about the value of our natural resources and the importance of protecting them.
It is impossible for us to farm animals on the scale that we do and to do it ethically. The demand for animal products is huge and the industry does not meet this demand by spending lots of money and using lots of space to let animals live healthy and happy lives. In reality many companies do the bare minimum for the animals to create the end product. The fact that they must be alive at all is undesirable and incidental. This is something that we can find confronting. Most people profess a love of animals and it is hard to admit that we may be financing cruelty through the purchase of animal products. It is true that there are ways of farming that are more ethical than others but we do not pay enough attention to the meat, fish, eggs and dairy products we buy or engage with the processes that get those products to our local stores and supermarkets. Eating a plant based vegan diet is one sure way of not supporting cruel practices. If you must buy animal products it is better to buy locally and do your research about the farming standards.
Thinking about what you buy is an important aspect of living an ethical and conscious life. It also empowers you. If you have ever felt powerless or unable to tackle the problems you see in the world ethical consumption is one of the best tools you have to impact those big issues. Every decision matters.