Kid’s backpacks – a burden of responsibility.

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Two very happy children and two ethical backpacks. Cotopaxi bag on the left, and Recycledbag.co backpack on the right.

We have just started a new school year.  The summer holidays are over.  It is back to school with all the fun of buying stationary and the grind of making school lunches.  This year we have had to buy school bags too.  Making an ethical choice in the back to school madness is an interesting journey.

My children are the best part of my life.  They bring so much joy and fun.  When it was just my husband and me on our own we thought about the future, but I don’t think we really felt how important it was until we held our children in our arms and watched them sleep at night.  My children focused me firmly on their future not mine.  My point of perception stretched from the immediate – to far in the future when my children and potentially grandchildren might be struggling to understand why we thought and acted as we do right now in 2018.  There are many paths to this realisation, and not all of them require kids, (that’s just been my personal experience).  But all of them permanently alter your perception of what is truly important.

The people making cheap school backpacks in sweatshops probably feel exactly the same about their children and the future they will inherit, but they are dis-empowered from taking any action because their labour is cheap and there are few laws to protect them.

I don’t want my children to have products that exploit another person.  I’m really bothered by the idea that my child might be wearing a school bag manufactured by workers in a factory who may not able to provide for, or even spend proper time with their own children.  My children feel the same way.

The more I have looked into ethical and eco choices the more aware they are of the reality of what goes on to make their things.  As a result my children are equally bothered by plastic waste, and they are horrified by the idea of people slaving away in factories for a pittance to make the things we end up buying.  They can’t believe (with their childish innocence) that this isn’t easy to fix.  “Why don’t people just say they don’t want plastic”?  “Why don’t people just stop buying things if they are made in sweat shops?  And “why don’t we just ask for the workers to be paid more”?  Why indeed?

In the past we have always been in a rush at the last minute and ended up buying what we could easily get hold of in the local shops.  However, these bags are usually made in China, are most often cheap, and clearly not well made.  These are the bags you usually find in the “back to school” sales.   I’ve never seen an ethical alternative.  The best you can hope for is to buy a bag that is designed to be more durable so it will be a while before it ends up in the landfill.

My little man has just started school.  He wanted an ethical back pack to replace his tiny kindy bag.  Fair enough we thought, he is going to have to fit more in his bag now than lunch and an emergency change of undies.  My 7 year old needed a replacement bag.  She was particularly keen on fair trade backpacks.   And so the search began.

It’s hard to find an affordable fair trade backpack in the local mall, so we didn’t even look.  We simply turned to good old Google.  We found a few option, some Fairtrade, some made from recycled materials.  They are a bit more expensive, but mostly they seem to be made to last. When it comes to ethical choices I think Vivienne Westwood summed it up nicely when she said “Buy less, choose well, make it last.”  This is exactly what we are trying to do.

Mister 5 initially chose a backpack from Patagonia.  He was really excited.  But although we had been impressed by Patagonia’s environmental and social responsibility claims we were sorely disappointed.  They do have outlets in NZ but they don’t necessarily stock the full Patagonia range and they don’t stock this little backpack.  We decided to try buying online from the US but they refused to ship to NZ under any circumstances.  They wouldn’t even ship to a US address if it was coming to NZ.  I don’t know how ethical they really are if a customer in NZ wants to buy an ethical product from them but they won’t allow that to happen.  I am really disappointed and I won’t be buying from them in future not even from their NZ outlets.  A truly ethical company needs to ensure that any person wanting to make an ethical choice is empowered to do so no matter what country they are from.

Following this disappointment my little man considered his options with us and decided to choose a backpack from Recycled bags.co which we purchased through an online shop called The Spotted Door  that specialises in recycled products.  Recycled bags.co is an Australian company making sustainable eco-friendly products from recycled fish feed and cement bags.  Their mission is to bring economic empowerment and a sustainable income to artisans in Cambodia where many people live below the poverty line on less than $1.25 a day.  Mister 5 is particularly anxious to stop plastic ending up in landfill so he was thrilled with this recycled bag.  He also instantly fell in love with the little elephant on the back. All in all, this bag was a super choice.  It has a couple of pockets, two on the outside and one on the inside.  It is the perfect size for him.  He insisted on wearing it for the first time on a family tramp to celebrate Waitangi Day.

Miss 7 looked at a number of options before settling on a Backpack from US company Cotopaxi.  She chose this neat little number in purple and it arrived the same day as Mister 5’s arrived.  It was like Christmas again in our house!  Cotopaxi products are guaranteed to last 61 years – the average lifespan of a person living in the developing world. If something goes wrong they will repair or replace the product, which might be a bit hard for NZ customers but I really like the intention behind it.   Cotopaxi is a public benefit corporation which means it is focused on public good rather than just pure profit.  Each year Cotopaxi provides targeted grants to non-profits, and this can include volunteering at local farms or helping install irrigation pumps in Myanmar. Cotopaxi are committed to helping eradicate poverty. They are also B Corp certified .  And it came with a photograph of the person who made the bag and a handwritten note.

Cost wise the Recycledbag.co pack we got for Mister 5 ended up being $75.00 NZD including postage.  The Cotopaxi pack was $65.00 NZD including postage.  Although much more expensive than a $15 cheapie from the Warehouse or some other budget place, our kids have helped to change the world!  These bags are designed to last, and in the case of Cotopaxi that guarantee should take Miss 7 through to when she is 68 years old!  It is a good sized bag for someone who is 7 years old, but it is still perfectly wearable for me so she should be able to get excellent mileage out of it.  It is designed and intended to last most of her life!

During our search we did find one Kathmandu backpack made from recycled bottles, but it was far too big for a kid’s school bag, and a bit pricey for us too.  But if you are interested it is worth taking a look.

So there is our ethical school bag journey.  We are very happy with the bags our kids chose and so are they.  They are proving a talking point with lots of people, who had no idea there were ethical bag choices out there.  I think it was all worth it.

SUST Blog – What is ethical?

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.

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We are educating our kids from preschool to secondary school to care for the environment and the people we share the planet with.  Are we walking the same walk?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.