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As global trade gathers pace, can ethical consumerism truly make a difference?

Tuesday 17 November 2009
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Buying green has never been so easy, and offers many ways to embed sustainability in your lifestyle. Giles Crosse gets out his shopping bag.

Ethical consumerism is all about exercising the power of your money to drive forward positive change.” says Will Ferguson of Triodos Bank. Its policy finances only business contributing to environmental and social change.

“Every time you buy something, you’re participating in a form of daily democracy, voting with your wallet and showing the marketplace that you’re not willing to put up with socially corrupt or environmentally damaging practices. But what’s as important, and perhaps more so, is what you do with your money when you’re not spending it.

He’s pointing at inordinate sums of your cash, used daily by mainstream banks in unsustainable profit based venturing with no societal criteria. “There’s growing movement of sustainable banks, which are providing an alternative to the mainstream, investing in organisations with social or environmental benefits, from renewable energy to organic farming, with the support of thousands of savers.”

Far from becoming a negative driver, the financial crisis means society’s better placed to move from ethical niche to mainstream sustainability. “Even before the second round of bank bailouts, each household had more than £3,000 invested in RBS and Lloyds.” says Ferguson.

“That’s an awfully big collective stake and one we could use to change the way they operate. Bonuses are just a distraction from the real issue, which is the short termism at the heart of the financial sector. Years of putting short term shareholder return above people and the planet is the reason we need ethical consumerism in the first place.

“It’s put profit before common sense and environmental destruction, and it’s the reason producers in the developing world have been squeezed to such an extent that we need fair trade to pay them a decent living wage. Change the system, and you’ll change the world for the better.”

The global high street

Crucially, things like green finance have a global influence; the best way to catalyse sustainable change. It’s better to put your green foot forward in this way, rather than obsessing over minutae percentages of recycled content in ready meals. These are valid, but don’t deal with political and economic models so central to global inequality and harm.

“The need is to connect consumers with producers in more of a global sense, and help impact positively on those poorer producers who are not responsible for the environmental and consumer issues we face today.” says Toby Quantrill, Head of Public Policy for the Fairtrade Foundation.

“Linking consumers and producers is the first step towards empowering global citizens who can inspire the move to change; consumer power is not as simple as an individual purchase. It is more about getting the message across that we can use consumption to develop and link citizens globally. This is where the power should be and we can increasingly shift towards this.”

Quantrill argues systems like Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), used to weigh up environmental harm or good, have no social element. Such LCAs might find third world food sources more harmful than local goods, but don’t involve a wider debate over what can be achieved with more intelligent buying and communication.

“Its not true, if you take the life cycle assessment view, that we necessarily need to punish the poor producers, this is not the way to go, our aim is about helping educate and making sustainable these links with vulnerable producers, creating education and new social structures.” he says.

“In a sense we’re paying back for the damage we’ve done. It’s about reducing the negatives and increasing the positives of our footprint, we want to look at consumption in a way which is actually positive for the world today, creating a more equitable world where we not only consume less, but we also consume better, with positive choices.”

System breakdown

“Fairtrade is among the strongest labelling programmes because we are about not just improving a way to produce things, but more about challenging the existing system.” Quantrill explains.

He advocates focus on the dynamic of the existing economic process, creating systemic change and debate about the challenges and issues which have been brought about by today’s dominant economic model.

“If I were to offer advice, it would be to consider how your purchasing affects such systemic change, and consider consuming less, and better, increasing the positive elements of your consumption, basically reduce but also improve.”

There’s vast potential for change. Figures suggest from December 2008 there was approximately £6.8 billion invested in Britain’s green and ethical retail funds. Co-operative Financial Services’ says it’s committed to mobilising its six million customers, lobbying for stronger legislation, similar to the emissions standards currently in force in California to be introduced in Europe, prohibiting the sale of fuels with higher emissions than traditional oil.

If anything, the key may be to look beyond organic, recyclable or line caught labels, and think about the more fundamental reasons why such labels exist. Less profit driven markets would remove the need for overfishing. Less pressure on cash squeezed farmers would reduce the need for harmful pesticides. Accepting our basic principles must change is the first step towards genuinely sustainable consumption.

What are your views?  Not sure? Read the resources below for more information. Add your comment below. We welcome your thoughts and proposals. Not a Planetary Citizen? Sign up 


The Ethical Consumerism Report 2008
The Fair Trade Foundation Climate Report

Comments (1)Add Comment
John Jackson
November 17, 2009
Votes: +0
Bad vs Good

I think the best opportunity we have for getting more people to move to ethical banks like Triodos and Co-op is instead of exposing the good investments of them, exposing the bad investments of the others.

Barclays are one the largest arms-trade investors in the world, and recently got exposed as having invested in a US company that specialises in cluster bombs, seem to remember them investing in Mugabe's regime as well.

Get people angry enough about that, and they'll find an alternative.

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