Whilst the exploitation of workers is sadly nothing new, dangerous factory conditions, anti-environmental policies, and even companies supporting apartheid are frequently ‘outed’ on the news channels and on social media. I’m a bit of a reactive conscious consumer; as soon as I hear that a supplier of clothes/food/technology is using slave labour, not paying tax, or working with cancer-causing chemicals, I boycott them. Though I wish I had known they were doing it before I had bought my woolly hat/hot chocolate/printer from them!
My school friend Elena Morris is the first person I go to when I want to find out if a shop is ethical or not. As well as being a customer with a conscience, Elena works in store allocation for a British family brand, and is very strict about researching the ethical practice of brands and chains before she works with them. So, I asked her for the inside scoop on where to shop without feeling guilty:
What made you first want to shop ethically?
I’ve always thought about my actions – I grew up recycling and giving money to charity. Hearing in the news about various infringements of retail factories, and then discovering there are websites that are doing the research for you, made me more inclined to shop ethically because I wanted to do the right thing.
Does it necessarily cost you more money?
It depends on the product. Yes, ethically sourced clothes do generally cost more money, but they last longer so, long term, it’s about the same. At the moment, things like organic produce and eco-friendly toiletries cost more as there is less demand for them (It’s all about supply and demand), but hopefully that will change. At the end of the day, it’s the price you pay for a clear conscience, and I believe that the prices will come down as more people are aware and know to buy the right products.
Where do you research what products are above board?
I look directly at the different retailer’s websites on the ‘corporate social responsibility’ section. Also, the following websites are good: the good shopping guide and ethical consumer. But if there are products not on those two websites, I do a google search and find out which ethical retailers are selling it. Surprisingly this led to me buying a frying pan from Debenhams recently!
What are your top places to shop at and why?
Toiletries: LUSH – their products are natural, environmentally friendly, and some of their money goes to charity, they are reasonably priced, and I don’t have to buy online.
Clothes: I get some free clothes from work, but high street retailers are a bit of a minefield as some websites mention that they are ethical and some not.
Food: This is even harder! I tend to shop for convenience as I have to buy so regularly. Morrisons is not far behind the best supermarkets – they do fair trade and organic, and they are near to where I live. I also use independent shops to support small businesses. I avoid Tesco, as they are one of the lowest ethically rated supermarkets. I get a few bits from As Nature Intended but, as it is very expensive, I just get things like washing detergent, toothpaste, and porridge.
What is the best way to support and encourage fair and safe working standards?
At work: When I started at my current work place, staff participated in an ethical workshop, so it’s always in the forefront of our minds to continue to be aware of, and improve, our practice. If an agent’s factory isn’t meeting standards, our staff will find this out during an audit. We don’t just cease working with them, as then those workers would lose their income, instead guidelines are given to help them improve those standards.
Personally: On the good shopping website, green equals the highest ratings and red equals the lowest ratings, so I avoid the red.
Generally: Most consumers are looking at price and quality. If you ask them directly, they want to be ethical shoppers but they don’t care enough to think about it independently, or they believe it’s not their responsibility and that their lives are busy enough.
Without the government making laws for retailers, there won’t be much change. A good example of how the government can change things, is with the plastic bag charge. For years, retailers would give reward points if you brought your own plastic bag, but usage was still very high. As soon as the law came in, usage went down by 80%. In France, the government have banned plastic cutlery and also supermarkets from throwing food away; it would be good for the UK to follow their lead!