What do I class as ethical and why? Put simply, being “ethical” is all about not sawing off the branch you are standing on. For me sustainable is ethical because it is important to protect and safe guard our future. If something is unsustainable then it cannot continue endlessly. Many of our planets resources are finite. Once they are gone they are gone. They can’t be utilised again. Likewise, reducing plastic consumption is ethical because the damage from plastic waste (in our oceans for example) is obvious. It is frightening to realise that the plastic bottle top in the gutter will outlast you, by a long way. The single use plastic we throw away each day will outlast all of us. It will still be here in our grandchildren and great-grandchildren’s lives. That plastic bottle top might not be visible in ten years but it will still be there, floating out at sea, in a landfill, or as microscopic bits in the soil.
To our knowledge this planet is the only place in the universe that has both the ability to sustain life, and life itself. That makes both us and our planet unique. I believe that “ethical” is a choice that looks to the future, of our human civilisation, our planet, and the life that inhabits it. These things are what we will pass on to our children. Our children are educated at school about climate change and environmental awareness. They are encouraged to be planetary and global citizens who care about the world and all those in it. The disjunct between what we teach our kids and practice ourselves is huge. The dis-junction is even greater when you compare what our kids are learning and what the government is doing. If we wait for someone else to take the initiative, then we will be waiting a long time. If we want to see a positive change then we need to take individual action.
Socially responsible options are ethical (such as fair trade). That should be obvious, but for many people it isn’t top of their minds when they shop. Choosing products where human beings and the environment have been protected from exploitation makes sense for everyone. Why would you choose exploitation over freedom? The same goes for animal friendly products. Exploited animals can’t exactly mount their own protest. They rely on us to make ethical choices wherever we possibly can in order to protect them.
How to make an ethical choice? Well it turns out that isn’t as simple as I thought. Having said that, the good news is there is lots of advice out there and a lot of it is common sense! On this blog journey I hope to unravel some of the complexities I’ve run into and make it easier to make truly ethical choices. I plan to share what I learn with you. In the meantime here are some things to bear in mind.
- Do your own research. If you want to know if something is ethical, research it. If you can’t find anything out then ask them. Look into the main trusted eco-labels or certifications in New Zealand (and globally) eg Fairtrade.
- Always look for concrete claims that actually mean something, for example “made from 100% recycled plastic” actually tells you something about what the company is doing and how it is sourcing materials. Even if the claim seems meaningful, look for a certification to back up their claims. A claim that says “100% recyclable” won’t tell you much about what the company is doing, whether it is ethically disposed of comes down to the consumer not the company.
- Beware of irrelevant or vague claims that mean nothing. For example “eco-friendly”, “natural”, “good for the planet” “chemical free”. An example of irrelevant labeling is a pack of toilet paper that is labelled biodegradable! Words like “degradable” can also be suspect. After all most things are degradable even plastic, it just takes geological time periods to do it, and the by-products of degradation may be toxic. Be cautious of terms like “organic” unless it is certified as organic by an independent organisation e.g. GOTS.
- Beware of “greenwash” or “ethical-wash”. Greenwash is the practice of making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product, service or technology in order to present an environmentally friendly and responsible image to the public. The same approach can be used to promote a false image of a product or company in terms of human rights and ethical working conditions. For example some companies claim their products are ethically sourced but provide no certification or proof of this. Alternatively, they provide a whole line up of certifications no one has ever heard of. Another trick is to market a product based upon its plant based ingredients while the fine print lists a long line of artificial ingredients with no sourcing data.
- As a consumer you need to feel confident about your rights. You can and should make complaints about companies you think are being deceptive. Did you know that anyone can make a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority in NZ and those companies then have to substantiate their claims? The Commerce Commission, which administers the Fair Trading Act, can prosecute companies it believes have a false or misleading claim. The commission has investigated companies about their green marketing and has taken cases to the courts.
At the end of the day I thought this blog post about ethical choices would be empowering. I guess it has been, but mostly it has felt overwhelming. You can find a product that is plastic free and compostable. But that same product is more than likely made in a factory in Asia with no ethical certification to indicate a concrete commitment to social responsibility.
You can find a range of products that are certified for various things, but not all certifications are equal. It feels extremely daunting trying to wade through the various certification schemes to find the best ones. After all, I am just an ordinary average person trying to get a handle on all this for the first time myself. Most disturbing for me is how hard it is to get real information about human rights practices from some companies. They will attempt to brush aside my concerns with vague assurances that the working conditions meet their own personal moral standards. How on earth to judge when presented with this state of affairs? I am beginning to see that perhaps individuals asking questions directly, and being prepared to shift their purchasing to more ethical companies is the only way to make a lasting impact.
For me, I am committed to reducing plastic and choosing socially and environmentally responsible products wherever I can. And I am committed to making my spending choices known by personally contacting companies. I am committed to trying to make sure that the person sewing my clothes, printing my books and making my food has the same rights and opportunities that I do. If our positions were reversed, I would hope for someone to do the same for me.