Why the green shopper is not being properly served

If green products have been discredited for bogus claims, what exactly can the average good shopper do without becoming a ridiculous zealot?
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Everyone wants to be good. Now there are new and better ways to be good without really trying. If Christmas nausea is setting in and the joy of shopping is wearing thin it is a good time to consider turning shopping into a virtue: you are what you shop. Now we are back in boom times, the late Eighties enthusiasm for eco-ethical-natural-environmental and furry-animal-friendly shopping is on its way back too. Kwik Save values rule in the bad times, ethics are strictly for booms.

So, acquiring information from the Ethical Consumer magazine (a workers' co-operative), let us enter the worrying world of the virtuous shopper. Published by the Ethical Consumer Research Association, it carries out audits and delves deep into the background of companies, rooting out the unscrupulous on every front. And there are so many battlefronts: the environment, conditions of workers, links with vile regimes, gay rights, unkindness to animals. It is a kind of Which? magazine for the conscience instead of the purse, with reports available on an A-Z of the most ethical choices, from adhesives and airlines to wool and yoghurt.

There are special reports on why not to buy Rayban sunglasses, Pepsi, Nike trainers or Gillette products. Tesco is criticised for "insensitive expansion plans" as is United Biscuits for its (discontinued) contributions to the Conservative Party.

Once you combine all that with health considerations, shopping becomes very tricky indeed. The trouble with ethical boycotts and health scares is that they tend to stay with you for a lifetime. I still instinctively hesitate over Cape oranges or Spanish lemons. (Actually post-Franco Spain is back on the boycott list, "because of cruelty involved in bullfights and village fiestas"). Is it OK to eat Californian table grapes or is the Chavez workers' boycott still on? And what about aluminium saucepans causing Alzheimer's? That one-off scare caused a bigger throw-out of old pans than the war effort and it lingers on in the memory (suggesting you haven't yet developed the dread disease) but then you never hear any more about it. (The Alzheimer's Disease Society says nothing has been proven and they do not recommend throwing out pans.)

Which supermarket should you choose? This is quite complicated. If it means going by car, don't. If you must, then Sainsbury's and the Co-op rank best on environmental policy and factory farming. (The Ethical Consumer points out, though, that Sainsbury's is currently the subject of a boycott by Outrage, the gay rights group, because the Sainsbury family trust funds a "Christian Gay-healing" organisation.) A new Sainsbury's has just opened in Clapham High Street, walking distance from my home (good news, though bags v heavy). On the other hand, it was opened by John Major - bad news, except some might rejoice that he is reduced to gigs that are usually the prerogative of Miss UK, 1985.

The Ethical Consumer lists 36 current boycotts, ranging from airlines that transport monkeys for research and companies that sponsor angling contests to all Burmese/ Israeli/Moroccan/Turkish holidays. Esso is out "for use of a circus tiger in its adverts", Hazeley Down bottled water for being owned by Southern Water, responsible for South Coast sewage effluent, HSS Hire Shops "in support of a long pay and trade union dispute with ancillary workers of Hillingdon Hospital", all poultry meat is forbidden "for treatment of chickens and turkeys on the way to the slaughterhouse", Walkers crisps for "derecognition of the GMB trade union", Shell for the Ogoni region, Texaco and Total for Ecuadorian Amazon and Burma, and WH Smith and John Menzies "for their sales of soft pornography".

Maybe what the good shopper needs is a handy little ethical shopping computer which checks out any product as you reach for it on the supermarket shelf, with an alarm on the bar code if it rates above a certain number of points. You would need, though, to be able to programme it to suit your own conscience, so that you could give more black marks to perfectly- formed-vegetables-from-Kenya-that-kill-their-

workers-with-reckless-insecticide-use than to, say, the Esso circus tiger.

For it turns out that virtuous shopping is not as easy at it seemed. The National Consumer Council recently warned that the public had become wary of so-called green and friendly things that turned out not to be. Sainsbury's and other supermarkets have withdrawn many of their green cleaning products after deciding they were no more environment-friendly than others. Those green products remaining really do make a difference - like recycled lavatory paper.

But the basic truth that no buying is green has seeped through to the consumer. Plastic-wrapped combustion-engine-transported supermarket-sold goods are all expensive in energy. Companies that try to be good often run into public trouble, as with Body Shop and some of its Third World suppliers. Ben and Jerry's Rainforest Crunch ice cream, intended to benefit co-operatives of Brazilian brazil-nut workers, had to have its wording changed once it was discovered the very success of the operation had caused the co-operatives to be pushed out by the commercial suppliers.

It is all very difficult. Companies that make green or ethical claims have often been exceedingly economical with the truth. On the other hand, companies that genuinely try, do better deserve to be rewarded. There is something absurd about the Ethical Consumer's anti-shopping list because it makes no value judgements about what really matters. It lacks a sense of proportion and priority and risks being laughed at - or making people despair at the whole idea.

For some boycotts do work: in the end, business disinvestment brought down apartheid. It is encouraging that the Co-op Bank's ethical investment policy is now paying off, with double the number of new accounts opening in a static market. With 24-hour personal telephone banking and as many cash machines as the others, changing over to the Co-op is virtue easily acquired (though people are more likely to get divorced than change banks in their lifetime). Most of us are unlikely to do anything very strenuous to alter our consumption habits but opinion polls show that increasingly consumers are willing to buy the morally better rather than the worse, if the better is easily available.

`Ethical Consumer' magazine, Unit 21, 41 Old Birley St, Manchester M15 5RF