Insights from Michael Bloomfield, Founder and Executive Director of the Harmony Foundation http://www.harmonyfdn.ca/
It matters what we buy. Ethical consumerism is not just about buying the best products on the market, but considering where the products we buy come from, under which circumstances they were produced and what the implications are of us buying them.
It can be a challenge being an ethical consumer. There are many labels out there and how do you know which ones signify a real care for human lives, animal lives and the environment, and which ones are merely trying to sell their products more effectively? Furthermore, there are many different ethical issues you can be concerned about when purchasing goods, for instance, fair trade, locally made, organic, green, vegan, kosher or halal, recycled etc. You may even consider boycotting certain products, due to the manner in which they have been produced or the human, animal or environmental harm they cause. What is most important is that you inform yourself and buy, or refuse to, consciously. It does matter, to others, to other species and to future generations what choices you make.
There are resources you can use to guide you in your purchases. Ethical Consumer is one among a number of organizations, which collects and categorizes information about companies according to their performance in five main areas, composing the “ethiscore.” Ethical consumer looks at the impacts on the environment (environmental reporting, nuclear power, climate change, pollution and toxics, habitats and resource), the impacts on people (human rights, workers’ rights, supply chain policy, irresponsible marketing), the impacts on animal welfare (animal testing, factory farming) and the politics behind the products and production chains (political activity, boycotts, genetic engineering, anti-social finance, companies’ codes of conduct), and finally product sustainability (organic, fair trade).
Ethical consumerism is not just an individual choice or problem. Obviously the need for ethical behaviour in the global market place is also a national and international responsibility. The fact is that ethical consumption only matters if large amounts of people gather around it, and that sometimes requires our national and international leaders to take action. Elsewhere I have written about Canada’s trading relationship with China. At the moment, Canada’s trade relationship with China is one of great imbalance. China sells us cheap consumer goods and electronics and we sell them raw resources: agricultural produce, pulp, lumber, oil and gas, coal, minerals, and metallic ore. While China has been shamed for their environmentally unsound practices and human rights violations, they are now on board for pursuing a more sustainable path to economic development. They have acknowledged that their current approach simply cannot be maintained. China is showing leadership and taking the initiative to chart sustainable economic growth and development and it is Canada’s responsibility to support this development through international relationships of exchange. China’s economy is going to drive the 21st century, and how Canada relates to that economy is going to determine our future in this new century.
The best thing would perhaps be not to buy anything all together, but that is virtually impossible. Do we really need that much money? Do we really need the latest high tech gadget? Maybe first it would help if we evaluate our lifestyles and determine what it is we really need versus what it is we just want (and whether we really need it). Stuff is never going to make us happy in the end. Reducing our overall consumption is one of the best things we can do for the environment.
Consumption is not just about what you buy, the informed choices that you make in the store, but about how you live your life. When we move around, transport ourselves, when we plan our meals, when we go travel we are consuming too. That means that we have to make informed choices about our daily routines and living standards. Take the bus or use your bike, rather than your car. Plant your own vegetable garden, or get involved in a community garden project (see http://vancouver.ca/parks/parks/comgardn.htm). Buy more second-hand items or organize a community garage sale. Not only can you trade with your neighbours, you will also make stronger ties and start building community. You can borrow your neighbours’ power tools next time rather than buying some for that one-off project you want to do. And if you love your job you may not want to retire early and may need to save less for retirement! These are all examples of ethical living, ways of supporting sustainability through choices you make on a daily basis and in the larger scheme of life. Starting a revolution is a great idea but sometimes that revolution needs to start at home and within our own hearts first.
Recommended further readings and links
John McMurtry (1998): Unequal Freedoms: The Global Market As An Ethical System. Toronto: Garamond and Westport.
World Watch – Transforming Cultures: http://blogs.worldwatch.org/transformingcultures/
Ethical Consumer Canada: http://www.ethicalconsumer.ca/