Guest Post: The Cost of Ignorance—How to Shop Ethically.

I personally have been making the change over the past couple of months, after ruminating on it for a year or so, to minimising waste and making sure the products I do use are ethical and animal cruelty-free (pro human rights merchandise is next on my agenda). I’m gradually ditching all my health and beauty products in favour of those from Lush, Natio, The Body Shop and (would you believe it?!) Bonne Belle. I’ve stopped using the household cleaning products of yore and switched to local ethical meat instead of the crap you get at the supermarket from who knows where. (I like meat too much to become vegetarian.) I think of myself as an ecotarian, but granted, it is hard to come to the realisation that pretty much everything you use or own has an unethical footprint. It’s also hard sharing a house with someone who doesn’t necessarily care about minimising waste or supporting ethical brands: cheap is best.

So when my friend Tess asked if she could publish something along these things on my blog, I jumped at the chance to have someone who certainly knows a lot more about being an ethical consumer than I do espouse her tips on how to become more aware of exactly what we’re buying.

I was borne of the consumer age and while my somewhat unconventional upbringing shielded me for a time from the alluring pull of capitalism, eventually and inevitably, as a person living in the western world, I am no longer immune. Modernity has yielded a bountiful array of things to consume, and even the strictest and most disciplined ideologist would struggle in this world to avoid all of the negative consequences of this reality.

Most of us feel the pressure of consumerism in one way or another: when we find out our new smart phone is no longer new, but is now an out dated model. Or when we realise our favourite sensible shoes are daggy and don’t go with any of the newest fashions. Or when we notice that people have the seen the same dress at many parties and always with the same boots. The pressure of consumerism comes in many shades: sometimes shame, or guilt, insecurity, embarrassment and sometimes depression, anxiety or even boredom. It can also be fun; most of us love a good shop. Like finding a dress that fits perfectly and looks fantastic, the satisfying weight of shopping bags when you’ve found not one, but two, or three brand new outfits to add to the wardrobe. Or a new book from a favourite author, a new CD, a new TV; the list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, we also know that these things have a price; I am not just talking about the cost of purchase, of which the modern consumer is all too aware. I am talking about the ethical price. The social cost, the environmental damage. These things that loom about in our subconscious and not so sub-self-consciousness, the guilt we usually hide from, reject or ignore, the cost we do not know how to escape.

In first world societies, we can no longer truly separate want from need. If the world as we know it were to end tomorrow, I think most of us are smart enough to realise that what we really can’t live without are things like clean water, shelter, food, medicine and security. Of course, intellectually we realise that we do not need cosmetics, new clothes, or an iPad to survive. But try existing in the modern western world without these things. Without performing some sort of Into the Wild nomadic withdrawal and going to live in a tree house in the forest somewhere it is virtually impossible to escape modernity and therefore consumerism. You can take a stand, and try to avoid all things that are unethical or unnecessary. You can shop in op shops, recycle, dumpster-dive, buy soy candles and refuse to participate in the consumerism “machine”. But once you start looking for unethical things to avoid, you begin to realise the true depth of the problem. Food, shampoo, deodorant, clothes, cars, trains, books, electronics, ceramics, magazines, cosmetics, musical instruments, CDs, beds, linens, water bottles, plastic bags… Almost anything that you can buy, unless you are purchasing it from a 100% handcrafted local store where you can see every step of the production, is likely to be infected with something unethical. Something that you could not stand to watch happen, let alone fund with your own money if you had known, or had a choice, has occurred at some stage of the production process of almost everything that we own or buy. Even if you miraculously never ever buy another product again and make all of you own food, clothes and medicine from home grown produce, if you wish to have a job, or go to school, or visit any building, anywhere, you are going to be participating in an institution that purchases or produces things that are tainted with unethical practice. Slavery, animal cruelty, environmental massacres, toxic waste, child labour and pollution are commonplace in the consumerist world. As a general rule, the bigger the company, the more likely they have survived and succeeded by participating in these types of practices, and many more things that thankfully elude my imagination.

Thinking of the cost, the real unseen but heavily weighted price of many things that we who were born into and borne of the consumer age, simply cannot avoid, it is so easy and so natural to want to turn a blind eye, to turn away from the depressing and unappealing truth of consumption. Ignorance is blissful. But it is not helpful.

If you want to be helpful, modernity thankfully has produced some pretty amazing things as well. There are many small, simple things, that you can do locally which can have amazingly huge impacts globally. Things that take very little time, very little effort, and very little sacrifice on your behalf.

1. Download & Install the Ethical Shoppers Guide.

It cost $4.99 and your money gets you a cool little app and endorses a great non for profit cause, helping them widen their impact and lobby companies to improve their ethical practice.

When we spend money we don’t just purchase a product, we endorse the company that produces the item and we encourage their behaviour. When you hit the supermarket (hopefully remembering to bring your reusable green bags—I like the ones that fold down and fit into my every day bag so I don’t forget them) take your phone, and for the first few shops allow about half an hour extra time to look up all of the products you are buying.

The products on the app are rated with a green tick/red cross coded system. There are levels of ethical endorsement and there are also products which do not have much information. To begin with, aim for no red products and definitely no boycotted products. You can click on the information icon to find out what practices have earned the product its rating (i.e. animal testing, human rights abuses/environmental abuses). This means you can also choose to stop endorsing issues that matter to you personally.

At first it will be a little bit tricky. For example, you will find that some things like baked beans or tinned fruit do not have an ethical alternative. I suggest that where an ethical choice exists choose that option. Be brave and try new products, and don’t be a fussy first world whiner. Your tinned soup may taste a little different from your favourite brand at first, but you will adjust. And if you really miss the old product, then write to the company that produces them and ask them to change their policies. The app has simple steps to help with this. (There are so many tasty dips and cheeses that I am currently abstaining from and waiting to savour when the manufacturer gets with the program. I can comfort myself that should the company get on board, their products will taste that much better after not having them for so long.) Also, you will probably find yourself buying more fresh produce, which is better for you. However, it is a lot like dieting, If you become a strict crazy sergeant who deprives themselves with unflinching discipline to achieve a short term goal, you will probably get bored or fed up, and quit. This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon; “a lifestyle change”, to borrow from the dieters phrase book. So start small and swap and substitute products to something with a higher ethical rating. As you get used to the changes you can work toward buying more green ticked products and avoid more crossed red products.

Be advised that some ethical products are cheaper and some are more expensive; some are better quality and some are lower quality. You will have to experiment with what works for you and this will take time and patience at first. However, when you think how easy it is to spend a whole day shopping for a pair of jeans or shoes, it’s not hard to justify spending an extra 30 minutes in the supermarket to avoid slavery and animal cruelty. Besides, once you find new favourite brands, it becomes quicker and easier to shop.

2. Live By Example & Spread the Word.

Recommend new ethical products to your friends, show them the app and how to use it, use social media or word of mouth to promote good ethical products, and encourage and reward companies for good behaviour. You can also challenge your friends to try to find the best ethical product for the more tricky items like shampoos or fragrances, to see who can find the best, most cost effective or hair-friendly product! Look around your workplace, too, as change can be employed in simple things like investigating stapleless staplers, or swapping the type of milk gets put in the communal fridge.

3. Keep Calm & Carry On Motivated & Do Your Research.

If you start feeling like being an ethically-minded shopper is too difficult remind yourself why you are committing to the change. You may feel deprived because you have to give up some things that you like and have become used to. But try to put this feeling of relative deprivation into perspective; ask yourself, are you really going without? Again, I will advise you to exercise caution here: it is very easy to get drawn into the I’m-not–doing-enough mentality or the why-should-I-sacrifice-my-things way of thinking. One will make you feel horribly and unnecessarily depressed and the other will make you—put it bluntly—selfish. If you have taken the first step and have made a commitment to utilise this tool or others to try and make better ethical choices, even if you are not always perfect or not 100% sure that you’re making the best choice, give yourself credit where it’s due. It is a good thing to be aware and mindful of how you are spending your money and what you are endorsing; most people don’t and won’t. If you support better practice you are creating a world where better practice is profitable and that will affect real, positive global change. And if you are thinking it is not your responsibility, well, it is, and you’re a douche. If you think your choices don’t have any real impact, I would encourage you to do a little research and become better informed about the power of consumers. Some good ways to do this are to look at the impact not changing will have and some of the more positive things you can do to keep up momentum. At the end of the post are a few great places to start your research.

Finally, have fun! Don’t make every shopping experience about doom and gloom. You can still enjoy almost everything you are already enjoying. I am encouraging mindfulness and awareness, not abstinence and guilt. So challenge yourself to become a better shopper.

Product Recommendation of the Month (originally recommended by the Ethical Shoppers Guide).

Great Ocean Road Dairy: Yummo! I forgot that this is what milk is actually supposed to taste like, having purchased watered down, chemically altered products for so long. It tasted like a memory from my childhood. And I feel good every time I use it, knowing that it is better for me, locally produced, and ethically endorsed. And it’s cheaper than most other brands. Winner!

—Tess Keane.

Elsewhere: [Shop Ethical]

[Great Ocean Road Dairy]

[My Slavery Footprint]

[Carbon Footprint Calculator]

[Global Citizen]

Event: Evolution of the Bookshop at the Wheeler Centre.

I never thought a seemingly boring panel conversation about e-books versus hard copy print media would trump a discussion about masculinity in Australia, but it seems “The Evolution of the Bookshop” has come out on top when it comes to talks I’ve seen at the Wheeler Centre lately.

I’m a bit late reporting on this one, but a couple of weeks ago I attended “The Evolution of the Bookshop”, which entailed the panel of Michael Webster, Corrie Perkin, Jo Case and Chris Flynn, with Sally Heath as the facilitator.

The main item of contention on the agenda was the receivership of the REDgroup, which includes Borders and Angus & Robertson (for those of you living under a rock in recent months) and how online shopping from overseas stores, like Amazon and the Book Depository, may have contributed.

2010 was a good year for books in Australia, actually, as Webster, of RMIT and Nielson BookScan, pointed out in a riveting (no, I’m not kidding!) spreadsheet. There was no denying the large amount of Australian dollars that were spent online on books, what with parity and all that jazz, and the panel urged the audience to buy local throughout the night.

But when Flynn, fiction editor of The Australian Review of Books, compared the prices of all the books he bought over the course of a year at Borders (the devil’s bookstore, according to the panel!), Readings (of which Case is a staff member) and the Book Depository (there was over $1000 difference between online and at a bricks and mortar bookstore), it doesn’t bode well for physical bookstores.

Personally, I’m not in the financial bracket to be supporting local bookstores when I can get the books I want online for half the price at a click of a button.

Earlier this year, I went into Borders at Melbourne Central wanting to purchase Marilyn Monroe’s Fragments, The Great Gatsby and Sloane Crosley’s two books of essays (which you may remember me writing about here). They had none of them in store. An hour later I was at home on Amazon, $70 poorer but immeasurably happier that four brand new books were on their way to me.

Case made the case (haha!) for the experience of shopping at a bookstore, but Flynn countered with the presumption that people who shop online probably already belong to an online community, and thus their experience at an online bookstore is just as valid and important as at a physical one.

As the owner of her own bookshop, Perkin asserted that she just can’t compete with free shipping and the iPhone app Shazam, which allows users to record a piece of music, to which the app generates the full details of and where you can buy it online.

But independent bookstores compete on service, not price. Perkin relayed the example of running out of Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals recipe book and being told that the next shipment wouldn’t be for awhile as it was, and is, a very popular title. She was forced to buy copies of the book on the Book Depository at her own expense, and provide them to her customers who had already committed to the title via pre-sale. Now that is service!

Flynn countered that whether we like it or not, e-readers have hijacked traditional forms of reading, but based on a show of hands, not one person at the Wheeler Centre that night owned or read books on an e-reader.

On a side note, I will be visiting the best second-hand bookstore I’ve ever been to over the weekend, and there’ll be more to come on that next week.

Related: “Who the Bloody Hell Are We?”: The Sentimental Bloke at the Wheeler Centre.

The Ten Books I Wanted to Read This Year But Didn’t.

All Eyes on Marilyn.

Images via Crunch Gear, TS Bookshop, Lance Wiggs.