Eat your greens and don't aid the arms trade: how to shop with ethics

Study by environmentalists highlights popular brands made by companies deemed guilty of bad global practices
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The Independent Online

For the consumer who has spent lonely decades in supermarket aisles trying to avoid damaging the globe or oppressing minorities with his choice of coffee, battery or biscuit, shopping just got easier.

For the consumer who has spent lonely decades in supermarket aisles trying to avoid damaging the globe or oppressing minorities with his choice of coffee, battery or biscuit, shopping just got easier.

From next week, the ethically conscientious will finally be able to skip through the aisles filling their trolleys with produce that has been rigorously examined for its moral and economic rectitude.

That, at least, is the claim of the publishers of The Good Shopping Guide – a 250-page attempt to reclassify the retail experience according to its impact on human and global survival.

Ranging from bananas to beer, crisps to computers, a group of environmental campaigners has spent four years systematically cataloguing 58 kinds of consumer staple on ethical grounds.

Some 700 brands have been audited by non-profit groups using government data, resulting in the naming and shaming of those guilty of questionable practices.

The idea is apparently to set up an ethical beauty contest in which those turning a profit without such shortcomings as belonging to a parent company dabbling in international arms dealing will reap extra profits by gaining the praise of a new form of consumer direct action.

Thus, the hitherto mundane process of buying a banana – usually a matter of price and number of bruises – is transformed into a battle against nuclear power, GM crops and low pay.

The guide is based on data gathered by the Ethical Consumer Research Association (Ecra), a Manchester-based research group that looks at the social and environmental records of big business.

Rob Harrison, the body's co-director, said: "Ethical issues are of growing importance to the consumer – from a position when we started 13 years ago to today, the difference is remarkable.

"This is a way of trying to channel that energy. Where governments are unable to make a difference because they are dealing with huge conglomerates, shoppers can exert pressure through what they buy."

Virtuous shopping is a growth market. British consumers last year spent an estimated £17bn on eco-friendly products, from organic food to low-energy fridges and fair trade coffee.

Ethical investment funds have seen their holdings increase from about £2.5bn three years ago to about £7bn.

But, according to the guide's authors, no one has systematically graded Britain's ever-growing thirst for appliances, cash and nutrition on the basis of its harm to man, animal and globe.

The result is a glossy guide similar in style to the Which? reports, which every month have 540,000 readers.

In the pages of the new pretender, each brand is marked with a scoring system linked to 14 criteria, ranging from the record of the holding company on animal testing to whether it makes political donations.

A green dot signifies no criticism; a preponderance of red dots implies that the well-meaning shopper should ensure the item stays firmly on the shelf.

The guide offers general advice on each of its chosen headings – for example, warning of "Chinese restaurant syndrome", or headaches and dizziness caused by monosodium glutamate in crisps – before passing individual judgement, brand by brand.

Products considered to be leaders in their class are listed under a logo – a shopping bag with a tick emblazoned on it – which Ecra hopes will become as common a sight in Britain's high streets as the safety kite-mark or the Soil Association's organic symbol.

A number of large companies have already expressed interest in using the logo, according to the guide's publishers.

The book draws its evidence from reports and data produced by other campaigning groups, court records and information provided by the companies themselves.

Within the pages of the guide, those familiar with previous campaigns against alleged corporate misbehaviour will find lurking some familiar names – and other more unexpected entries.

Under pasta, the Buitoni brand earns itself eight red dots because its parent company, Nestlé, allegedly has a poor record on issues such as factory farming and inappropriate marketing, in this case of baby formula milk in Africa.

Oddly, the supermarket chain Asda is singled out in the cooking oil listings for selling arms – a reference to the sale of guns by its American owner, Wal-Mart. Asda said all its activities were the subject of an independent ethical audit.

Creda, a domestic appliance maker, earns itself a red dot under pollution and nuclear power because of the activities of its Italian holding company, Merloni.

The guide's publishers admit that they do not expect its readers to march down to their local supermarket brandishing the book to vet every brand of toothpaste or bottled water.

The initial print run of 20,000 copies is being sold through organisations backing it, such as Friends of the Earth and Christian Aid, as well as mainstream bookshops.

About 10 per cent of the £10 cost per copy is returned to Ecra, which has also been paid a licensing fee for the reproduction of its data.

William Sankey, director at the Ethical Marketing Group, which is publishing the book, said: "It is a book which people will flick through at home but then remember certain brands when they go shopping for a new television or a pair of trainers.

"The idea is not to expose or bash corporates. We want to encourage those which have taken steps to improve their performance. In turn, those who we think should be criticised are."

The guide's compilers insist they do not give well-known organic or eco-friendly producers, such as the detergent maker Ecover or Traidcraft, the tea and coffee producer, a deliberately easy ride.

Ecover, for example, finds itself marked with two red dots for allegations relating to workers' rights and involvement with oppressive regimes.

But Ecra admitted it does not have time either to investigate individually all reports into the companies it names or to provide them with a list of the allegations against them.

Mr Harrison said: "This is a sociological snapshot of what society is saying about each of these companies and what they do. We make every effort to ensure the information is accurate but we are reliant on a multitude of independent sources."

A few "corporate ghouls" named in The Good Shopping Guide made clear last night their unhappiness with their ratings.

The Royal Bank of Scotland, which fails to earn a single green dot under the entries for banks, insurance and mortgages, denied emphatically the guide's claim that it gives political donations in America. A spokeswoman said: "The group has a policy that it does not make political donations anywhere. It is simply not true."

Nestlé, the long-standing target of a boycott campaign over its baby formula marketing as well as complaints about the fees paid to coffee growers, rejected allegations that it was guilty of "irresponsible marketing", saying it had long since stopped advertising baby milk in Africa.

Publication of The Good Shopping Guide on 30 September is likely to create some uneasy feelings in boardrooms across the land. But according to retail industry experts, the fickle nature of the consumer is what its authors should fear more than anything.

Rita Clifton, chief executive of the marketing consultancy Interbrand, said: "In the wake of events such as Enron, any company knows full well that its brand has be backed up by a reality of ethical behaviour.

"Consumers, however, can be an unknown quantity. When they read a book or fill out a research questionnaire, they are radicals. But when they reach the check-out, they've become reactionaries."

How ethical is your shopping?

1. WASHING MACHINES

Every year about 350,000 tonnes of white goods – including washing machines – are disposed of. A machine with a high spin and the smallest appropriate capacity is ideal.

Best: Candy, Hoover, Miele

Worst: Bosch, Creda, Zanussi

2. FRIDGES AND FREEZERS

Over the lifetime of a fridge, the cost of powering it will be twice as much as its original purchase cost. Coolants and insulation containing CFCs still remain in old models.

Best: LEC, Liebherr, Brandt

Worst: AEG, Electrolux, Hotpoint.

3. TV AND VIDEO

A TV set requires raw materials, such as graphite in a cathode ray tube, which are notoriously difficult to recycle. About 2.5m sets are dumped in Britain every year. Buy second-hand where possible.

Best: Akai, Bang & Olufsen, Casio

Worst: Aiwa, Sony, JVC

4. COMPUTERS

Computers become obsolete more quickly than other type of consumer durable. They contain toxic metals such as lead, cadmium and mercury which incinerators and landfills cannot dispose of.

Best: Dell, Time, Tiny

Worst: Compaq, Hewlett Packard, Siemens

5. TOYS

Many toys are produced under sweatshop conditions in the Far East, according to the guide. PVC plastic used in many create hazardous waste.

Best: Bandai, Lego

Worst: Disney, Fisher-Price, Mattel

6. LAUNDRY DETERGENTS

Ingredients used in washing liquids and powders, such as surfactants and phosphates, have environmental implications. Use concentrated powders.

Best: Tesco Advance, Bio-D, Co-op.

Worst: Persil, Surf

7. HOUSEHOLD CLEANING PRODUCTS

Advances in chemicals have produced a vast array of cleaning liquids which are discharged into rivers and add to pollution. Bleach is particularly damaging.

Best: 1001, Parazone, Bloo

Worst: Ajax, Cif, Domestos

8. BATTERIES

All batteries contain toxic or corrosive metals to some extent, such as cadmium. Concentrate on recycling or buy rechargeable batteries.

Best: Energizer, Ever Ready, Uniross

Worst: Boots, Panasonic, Sony

9. CHARITY CREDIT CARDS

Although generally an excellent way to raise money for good causes, some cards attract an annual fee and users should not be afraid of paying off their bills every month. Use of PVC.

Best: Beneficial Bank, Co-Operative Bank, Frizzell Bank

Worst: HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland

10. BOTTLED WATER

The product of marketing hype, according to the guide, which questions how pure many mineral waters are and whether we should pay for water that has travelled hundreds of miles.

Best: Aqua Pura, Ballygowan, Highland Spring

Worst: Malvern, Perrier, Vittel

11. SOFT DRINKS

About 20 per cent of what the average Briton drinks every day. Too high in sugar and often contain caffeine and acids.

Best: Irn Bru, Vimto, Rio

Worst: Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Ribena

12. BANANAS

The subject of unfair trade barriers and cultivation by large multinationals accused of offering poor wages and conditions.

Best: Fyffes, Geest

Worst: Chiquita

13. CHOCOLATE BARS

The average Briton eats the equivalent of 180 bars of Dairy Milk a year. Nutritionally poor, the product of often heavily sprayed fields and raises fair trade issues.

Best: Thornton's, Green & Blacks, Ritter Sport

Worst: Kit-Kat, Mars Bar, Galaxy

14. POTATO CRISPS

Raise questions of nutritional value as well as levels of additives such as monosodium glutamate and saccharin. Also concern at levels of GM ingredients.

Best: Jonathan Crisp, Jordans, Kettle Chips

Worst: KP, Pringles, Smiths

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