My efforts to get ethical (and some pointers for how you can too)
Guest blog from writer and journalist Ruth Stokes
Being ethical isn't always straightforward. Websites like Ethical Consumer mean it's getting much easier, but trying to avoid all the products that exploit people and the environment throws up some sizeable challenges.
It was only after many years of being a bit lazy about my consumption that I decided to get my act together. Quite frankly, issues such as planned obsolescence and opaque supply chains made me cross; I'd had enough.
There were two distinct problems I felt I needed to address. The first was the amount I was buying (too much). The second was the origin of the things I was buying (unknown or damaging for people and planet). I wanted to be more sustainable by buying less and throwing away less, and when I did buy something I wanted it to be sourced from organisations that had consideration for the people it worked with and the place in which it operated.
Here's how I got on...
Working out my weaknesses.
I decided to test where I was with my consumption. So I signed up to Buy Nothing New Month (BNNM). The event takes place every October and asks you to consider alternatives to the things you might normally buy.
For that month, I bought less. And when I did genuinely need something I got it from a second-hand source. It was a more conscious kind of consumption, and an interesting experiment.
There was some things that were easy find second hand (such as books), but I found other things more difficult. For example, birthdays presented a challenge, due to my habit of leaving present-buying to the last minute. I identified this as one the points that needed work: if I was going to buy second-hand stuff in the future, I'd need to be more organised and plan what I wanted and where I was going to get it.
For the most part, however, doing BNNM made me see that I didn't really miss going into shops too much. It also prompted me to go looking for useful resources to help me live more ethically, which brings me onto the next thing I did...
Finding useful networks
Drawing on the resources owned by other people, and therefore reusing items and reducing the amount I buy, has become a key part of ethical consumption for me.
The sharing economy is growing, making it easier for people to find alternative sources for the things they need, or to pass on items the don't want any more instead of sending them to landfill.
For my purposes, the most useful network was probably one of the best known – Freegle. From there, I got books, some materials and an office chair, and passed on two phones and some weighing scales, among other things. There are also sites such as Swap Shop, Street Lend, Rent My Items and Collaborative Consumption, the last of which brings together a selection of useful services.
Sourcing ethical products
Buying ethically across the board is a genuine challenge, and buying in the best way you can – even if it's not 100 per cent ethical – still sends a message out about the type of product you want.
While I was able to get a lot of things from sharing networks and charity shops, I thought that I was probably going to need to balance this with some new stuff in the long term. For this, I started looking for ethical suppliers. Websites such as Ethical Consumer and My Green Directory were a huge help.
However, I came to see that there's not always an ethically suitable answer. One of the more difficult areas, for example, is smartphones. Thanks to the recently launched Fairphone and the Phonebloks proposal, there seems to be some progress here, but when I needed a new phone in 2012 there was no such thing as a truly ethical smartphone. In the end, I went for a refurbished smartphone with one of the networks rated more highly by Ethical Consumer.
It wasn't the perfect solution, but at least I was essentially reusing a phone already in the system, so I didn't think I should beat myself up about it either.
Brushing up on negotiation skills
When I started out with this, I only really thought about what challenges I might encounter personally – I didn't consider about how my other half might find it.
The people you live with and share your shopping with - whether that's a partner, family or friends - will have their own habits and their own ethical standpoints, so you may well need to do some negotiating on any shared shopping.
I ended up being lucky, in that my boyfriend was willing to give most things a go, but we're never going to see eye to eye on everything. And although we've improved a lot about the way we live, it's an ongoing process. You can't force people to see things your way, but you can at least demonstrate what the benefits are – you never know, they might end up joining the fight.
Ruth Stokes is a freelance journalist and author of The Armchair Activist's Handbook. Her website is www.ruthstokes.com and you can find her on Twitter @ruth_stokes or @armchairaction
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