Your planet: The ethical consumer

The world's leaders may be largely ignoring the planet's plight - and your views about it. However, says Ruth Rosselson, it is still possible for you to make your voice heard. The secret is to vote with your wallet
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The Independent Online

Earlier this year, the Make Poverty History campaign saturated the country's media. Millions of people around the country involved themselves by buying white wristbands, attending one of the many demonstrations or watching the massively hyped concerts broadcast around the world.

While the spotlight quite rightly focused on the G8 leaders and their influence on world poverty and the environment, it also meant that emphasis shifted away from what we as individuals can do to make our mark on the world and to effect change ourselves.

Two months on and the G8 leaders have failed to deliver on either poverty or the environment.

While we shouldn't be letting our political leaders off the hook, it's also time to take personal responsibility for how our lifestyles impact on the world. Each year, we throw away £20bn worth of unused food - enough to lift 150 million people out of starvation. We create our own bodyweight in rubbish every four days - the majority of which ends up in landfill.

As a planet, we're consuming the Earth's resources faster than it can replenish itself. According to the World Wildlife Fund, if everyone in the world consumed at a similar rate to us in Europe, we'd need three planets to support us. The American lifestyle requires the equivalent of five planets. The facts are stark - there just simply aren't the resources available for us to carry on as we are. Now, more than ever, is the time for consumers to take action.

Becoming an ethical consumer isn't as difficult as it might seem. It doesn't necessarily mean jacking it all in, forgoing all luxuries and going to live in a tepee in Wales. What it does mean is adopting a different perception to our disposable income.

Instead of seeing money as a means to buying us status, luxury goods or an improved quality of life, we also need to consider our money as a vote which we use every time we go shopping. Buying cheap clothes which have been made in sweatshops in China is a vote for workforce exploitation. Buying a gas guzzling 4X4, especially if you are a city dweller, is a vote for climate change. Even small, everyday purchases, such as coffee, tea, breakfast cereal, bread or bin bags are a vote for something. Favouring organic produce is a vote for environmental sustainability and using Fairtrade is a vote for human rights.

In the UK, the cheapness of our food, clothing and electrical appliances can make headline news. Yet it's important to remember that while we might be saving money, there's always a cost somewhere down the line. It could be an environmental cost. Cheap, throwaway electrical goods cost us dearly in terms of landfill, chemicals leaching into our soil and in their environmentally destructive production. It could be a human cost. Cheap clothing produced in East Asia or South America comes at a cost to those making the clothes, earning barely enough to survive on. Factory farmed animals, meanwhile, may make cheap meat but it comes at a cost to the quality of life to the animal. When it comes to supermarkets, the cost can be to our high streets and local shops. Considering ethical issues when we go shopping means taking costs like this into account.

It's not just the links between the product and its impact that ethical consumers need to consider, but the activities of the company behind the brand. A small number of multinational companies own a large proportion of the country's favourite brands. Many of these companies are involved in a range of unethical activities.

An Indian subsidiary of Unilever (owners of the Birdseye brand, Persil, Dove, Marmite & Flora among others) dumped mercury from a thermometer factory and exposed workers to its toxic effects. Nestlé, owners of Nescafé and a variety of other food ranges, is the target of a continued boycott for its controversial marketing of breast milk substitutes. Meanwhile, PepsiCo, owners of Quaker oats and Walkers Crisps, has donated cash to George Bush, whom most environmentally concerned people would consider an enemy to their cause.

As consumers, we have a great deal of power in our pockets and we've already effected change. We just need to look at the example of how the supermarkets and food companies responded on the issue of genetically modified food. Even the threat of withdrawing our custom can change, and has changed company policy.

Yet, even if they don't change a company's ways, your choices are no less worthwhile, especially if you are supporting smaller, more ethical companies at the same time. Happily, despite mergers and takeovers of smaller brands, there are still plenty of alternatives and a growing number of smaller companies who are as concerned with making the world a better place as they are with making profits. This is the positive side of ethical consumerism. It is just as much about supporting the "good" companies and products as it is withdrawing our support from the "bad" ones.

It's often easy to get overwhelmed by the scale of the problem and by the number of changes that you could make. Yet small steps can lead to bigger ones, and it's better to take a few small steps than no steps at all. Every vote counts (which is more than many of us can say about our votes in general elections). Awareness of global poverty, animal welfare and green issues are at an all time high. If we can carry this awareness into our shopping basket, we can all work together to help make the world a better place, and make sure that companies start treating it, and us, with more respect. While money may make the world go round, deciding how we spend our money might just save it.


Running an average home now produces more carbon dioxide than running a car. A simple, immediate way to reduce our impact is to improve the energy efficiency of the products we use.

Only ten per cent of energy from regular lightbulbs produces light - the rest goes into heat. By replacing your ordinary lightbulbs with low energy compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) you'll save yourself both money and energy. If we all replaced two of our household lightbulbs with CFLs, it is estimated that we'd save enough energy to power the UK's street lighting for a year.

Many appliances, including fridges and washing machines now display a letter from A to G to indicate its energy efficiency. A+ and A++ rated appliances save between 25 per cent and 45 per cent of the energy consumed by A rated models.
Visit: for more information. Special section on energy labels:

The jury may still be out as to whether organic foods are better for your health, but there is an increasing body of evidence that shows, beyond doubt, that organic crops are far superior for our environment. Organic farming improves biodiversity and is more beneficial for local wildlife.

It isn't just edible crops that benefit from organic farming. Cotton is a major consumer of pesticides, using around a quarter of the world's insecticides and more than ten per cent of the pesticides. Pesticide use isn't just detrimental to the environmental but also has serious health implications for those working with these crops.

Organic products, including organic clothing, are more readily available than ever before. Find out more from the Soil Association website at, call 0117 314 5000, or register with, the Soil Association's directory.

Pesticides aren't the only chemicals we have to worry about. There's a range of other chemicals used in products from toiletries, make-up and household cleaners to sofas and computers. These chemicals have an environmental and a human cost, persisting in our environment and in our bodies too.

WWF, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are all running campaigns, but you can do your bit as consumers by avoiding products made with these chemicals and favouring companies who have explicit policies to remove them. Furniture icon IKEA, for example, is taking these issues seriously, as are a number of other big companies who have pledged to remove PVC or brominated flame retardants from their products.
Visit Greenpeace's Chemical Home website for more information about which chemicals and products to avoid.

The concern with how animals are farmed and slaughtered has meant that the farming industry has made some efforts to improve standards over the past two decades. It has also meant that more of us have become vegetarian or vegan. Even if you can't go the whole hog, forgoing one meat meal a week will make a difference. If you can't avoid meat altogether, choose organic meat, as organic farming has higher animal welfare standards.

Contact the Vegetarian or Vegan society for more information about how to make changes. Visit the Vegetarian Society on or call 0161 925 2000. The Vegan Society is at and 01424 427393. Try for organic meat.

Old-growth forests around the world - from the Amazon in Brazil to ancient forests in Indonesia - continued to be logged, often illegally. The only surefire way to ensure that a wood or paper product has come from a sustainable source is to look out for the Forest Stewardship Council's logo or buy recycled products. You'll find the FSC logo on a range of products including garden furniture, shelving and even paper.

Using virgin paper to wipe your bottom verges on the criminal, especially when there are plenty of high-quality recycled alternatives around. When looking at buying furniture, think about buying reconditioned items or ones made from sustainably sourced wood (railway sleepers or beams from old houses for example). Visit for a list of FSC certified products.

The Fairtrade logo is becoming more and more common and is found on everything from coffee to bananas. Buying Fairtrade ensures workers aren't exploited and instead are paid decent wages for their services. However, the Fairtrade logo is currently absent from many non-food items including computers, clothes and shoes.

Many companies continue to use cheap labour in countries such as China and Bangladesh in order to maximise profits. Although we've seen written company policies on workers' rights improve over the last few years, NGO researchers have seen little change for those working on the factory floor. The only way to guarantee that your clothes have not been made in sweatshops is to buy from one of the growing number of ethical clothing companies such as People Tree; Footprint clothing; Greenfibres; or Hug clothing at for t-shirts.

Many of us wouldn't accept that there are any ethical petrol companies out there. However, some are definitely worse than others. Esso is currently the subject of a boycott called by environmental organisations because of its support for George Bush and refusal to acknowledge climate change. Other brands from Bush's donors include Maxwell House coffee, MBNA financial services, Lucozade and Budweiser. Look at to find out who to avoid and what the alternatives are.

Although you're more likely to get divorced than you are to change your bank, it's still worth considering. Most high street banks have their finger in a range of unethical pies. Currently the Co-operative bank and Smile (its internet bank) are the only banks offering current accounts with a credible ethical policy stating where your money will go.

The Ethical Consumer Research Association researches the companies behind the brands so that you don't have to. This information is published in the bi-monthly Ethical Consumer magazine and on the website. By finding out who are the best buys and who are the worst, you can make your vote count every time you go shopping. A subscription to the magazine costs £21 for a year, the website £25 or £30 for the two. Call 0161 226 2929 for more information.