Monday, 21 April 2014

Ethical consumerism

This garlic is local and organic, but often I grow my own.
Yesterday, a friend of mine approached me and asked me if I ever blogged about ethical consumerism. In a move that both flattered and humbled me, she told me that she trusted my ethics as a consumer. It's a huge responsibility, but at the same time, it's comforting to know that the things I believe in are also coming through in my actions and politics.

Because she wanted some tips on how she might up the ethical ante on her consumerism, and because there wasn't much info out there that she could find in the local context, she came to me. She asked me where I get my clothing from, which is a question I actually get on a regular basis.

Now, I should preface this with two points:

One, my answer is usually hypothetical in nature. While I do my best to shop ethically, ethical clothing hasn't entered the plus-size market yet, so the best first-hand recommendations for ethical clothing (that is, based on personal experience) are things like accessories that aren't so size-dependent.

Two, ethical consumerism is a privilege. It's a privilege that most of the people I personally know have access to, mind you. But it is something that people who live in poverty can't afford, and I'm fully aware of that. So before we start extending the tips below to be a blanket statement of how everyone should act, please know that I do not condone these practices for everyone. I condone them in the case of people who are financially stable and who want to and can make choices that are making the world slightly less bad.

I'm going to try to take a broad approach for this, as keeping a few general principles in mind can very flexibly make sure that my ethics are held up in practically any situation.

Step one: understand your role in the system

Do some general research about consumer impact. A good place to start is to look at things like carbon footprints, and see how much of your own personal emissions come from things like waste, food production and clothing manufacturing. I won't provide a specific link, because there are tons out there, but Google carbon calculators for one way to get started.

You can also get a ton of information about the human cost of production by doing a quick search of "_______ [product] ethics" and seeing what information is already out there. In general, finding out the country of origin goes a long way. If you find out that something is made in China, and the company website doesn't give very specific and legit-sounding information about production practices, then chances are that there is some messed up shit happening there. Anything that's produced in Asia, Africa or Central/South America usually has a nasty story unless the company specifies otherwise. These continents have largely come to bear the brunt of Western consumerism.

And finally, get interested in politics. Have an understanding of how your government impacts trade, the economy and general human rights. BDS is a good example of people pushing to use consumer power to make a statement about a highly political human rights issue. Our own government is deeply embedded in the Israel-Palestine issue, but you wouldn't know that until you did some research.

Step two: understand what you do and don't need

Both sides of this are really important.

There are things you need. I, for instance, need clothing that is bigger than what you can buy at Suzy Shier. I also need personal care products that don't make me break out in rashes. I also, as someone with a vagina who's so busy she's usually running around all day, need a tidy, convenient way to manage my period. So never, ever underestimate the power of figuring out what you actually need. If you do, then you won't actually be making an ethical choice, because you won't be able to use the item you just bought!

There are things you don't need. This was one of the trickiest parts for me to wrap my head around. We are trained to look at ethical consumerism as just buying "good" products instead of but as often as we buy "bad" products, thus becoming consumers that make no negative impact. But the thing is, we've had this fast consumerism mentality beaten into our brains since birth, and simply consuming as much as we are isn't sustainable. We've been taught that we need to change our wardrobe every season with the new fashions, and that we need to have disposable everything. Challenge that. Re-think it. Ask yourself if you're saving time, money and resources by buying 3 flimsy shirts that rip in 6 months, rather than one beautifully-crafted shirt that you'll be tempted to hand down to your children. You'll probably spend the same amount of money, but the enjoyment you get out of it could be greater, and you're certainly doing the environment a favour.

You will find that, based on your needs, you can make a massive impact by just switching out a few strategic things. Here are the top 5 things that made the most massive impact for me:

I love my Fairphone. No, you really don't understand.
1. Reducing
It's the first "R" (and the most important). The issue with fast consumerism is that it's made it necessary for us to produce stuff for as cheaply as possible, which means we end up outsourcing work to the developing world, where people can be as mistreated as "necessary" and we don't even ave to know and feel guilty about it. I buy less stuff because I need less stuff than the mainstream would have me believe, and this is more important, even, than any other choice that I make. I spend the same amount of money as I used to, only now I buy higher-quality stuff less often and really value the things I have, rather than feeling like I should replace them all the time. (My last cellphone, for instance, finally broke after 6 years, and so I finally replaced it with a Fairphone, which costs roughly what an iPhone costs, but you can't use your tab on it.) Also, being informed makes you value what goes into something. When you know how much work goes into growing produce, you think twice before letting it go to waste.

Earth Balance: a vegan staple.
2. Veganism
One of the top contributors to carbon emissions in the world is meat and animal product production. And just to be clear: there is very little social and environmental difference between meat production and dairy/egg production. When I went vegan, it made a huge impact on my environmental footprint. Also, massive increase in the net happy in the world, because less suffering animals, and less trauma to the farm workers that experience this suffering first-hand (and often have to administer it). It's also made my body feel better, as a side note, so it's a win-win-win situation.

Camino is Fair Trade & organic.
3. Local/organic/Fair Trade
Organic food makes a bigger difference than local, in many cases (both socially and environmentally), but when I can get local and organic all at once, it's a win-win. Fair Trade products also have to meet certain environmental standards and make sure that the workers are treated respectfully, so I buy Fair Trade at every chance I get. I now get a produce basket from gdfd2u, which is local, organic, and uses Fair Trade Certified products for items like bananas (that we can't grow here).

4. The cup
If you have a vagina, there's an extra, massive contribution to your personally-generated waste: menstrual pads and tampons. They say that the average person with a vagina uses about 10,000 of them in their lifetime, which is a ridiculous amount of stuff we're sending to the landfill. I now use a menstrual cup, which is reusable, and lasts a year (which they recommend just in case) or more (which is the case for me), vastly reducing the amount of new materials that go into managing my period. (Most of us use around 200 to 250 disposable units a year.) Also, I would never go back, because it's tidier, more comfortable and lower-maintenance than any pad or tampon ever was, at least for me.

My own two feet help me travel more now.
5. Transportation
I don't have a car, but I was relying almost 100% on public transit. It's better than driving a car, but why not be part of driving the demand for safe bike lanes and such? I've refocused my politics somewhat, so that I'm able to support the push for safer cycling locally, and I've also made a point of biking and walking more where possible. Skype has been super useful, allowing me to avoid leaving home for work, so that when I get out of the house, it's on my own two feet for an afternoon stroll. And if I were a driver, this impact could have been even more massive.

Step three: focus on sustainability

I mean this in two separate ways. I mean that yes, you should look at the sustainability of your consumer impact, and try to use steps 1 and 2 to keep your negative impact to a minimum. Our current consumer model is totally unsustainable, and we're going to continue to wreak havoc (socially and environmentally) on this world if we don't cut it out.

The other way I mean to focus on sustainability is to make sure that the way that you're making your choices is actually sustainable. If you really don't feel comfortable wearing those 100% vegan, organic, bamboo t-shirts, then eventually you're going to get fed up and stop buying them altogether. So try to make sure that you're loving what you do, that you can afford what you do in the long term, and make sure that all of this is consistent with your actual needs and values.

Make it a habit. I said this when I talked about going vegan, and I'll say it again: if you find favourite brands, it will become a routine and be way easier for you. Because I've informed myself about labour practices, where most products tend to be produced, and what politics need to be behind my major purchasing considerations, I've been able to come up with a few things that save me a ton of time and energy. I learned, for instance, that chocolate is a human rights nightmare (that mostly West Africa gets to deal with), and that Fair Trade standards are pretty thorough, so anytime I buy chocolate, it's as easy as looking for the symbol on the label. I've learned that clothing manufacturing is one of the nastiest processes in the world, so I need to do everything I can to buy as little new clothing as possible, and that means trying to shop at thrift stores where I can. Because I informed myself, I was able to figure out what will work, and now it's automatic. The less brainpower required, the better.

I hope this guide helped someone. Leave me feedback in the comments!

1 comment:

  1. Yay, I already do some of these things! There are some I could do better, though. I like how you talk about knowing what you need and not buying things you probably won't use.

    Also, IMHO pads and tampons are kinda gross.