Consuming ethically during the COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on consumer habits with shops shut and deliveries becoming more difficult.  Sophie Billington looks at what it means to be an ethical consumer in this time of crisis, with some simple suggestions on how to live a good life on lockdown.

As the crisis began to unfold, necessities such as rice, toilet paper, soap, pasta, menstrual products and nappies flew off the supermarket shelves.

A lot of goods became difficult to find in shops nationwide, even with supermarket limits in place. This made things difficult for many key workers and those self isolating.

Recently the national medical director of the NHS appealed to panic buyers to “be responsible when you shop and think of others. Buying more than you need means others may be left without.”

The good news is that this early consumer response seems to have subsided, perhaps as it became clear that there were few problems with the supply of goods.

However this has lead to a second problem, food waste. UK shoppers bought an extra £1.9bn of groceries and personal goods in the four weeks ending March 21 and councils are now begging citizens not to waste food as they  fear a ‘waste explosion’.

In response many are now asking if they can in fact cut their food waste. It’s time to get creative, find new recipes and adapt old ones.

More waste reductions -  Repairing and repurposing

Its not just in the kitchen that you can help reduce waste. The lockdown is a great opportunity to “Make do and mend”. Some people will have time to get crafty with what they have at home rather than buying more. Ethical Consumer researcher and tech specialist Tom Bryson has taken this circular approach to help him and his partner adjust to life now that they are working from home:

“I’m making my partner a laptop stand out of some old wood, and I have converted my phone to webcam using an app and some velcro!”

Other ideas we’ve seen shared online include, repairing and revamping old clothes, making your own plant milks or trying your hand at making your own toiletries and cosmetics...

Seeking out ethical products

If you’re struggling to find certain products on the shelves, eco-friendly alternatives may prove easier to find and could save you money in the long run.

For food you may want to consider finding a local trader who can offer deliveries, or shop local if you can. It’s possible that someone is offering a food box scheme in your area, so ask around with your friends or have a look online.

If you have a garden, the option to grow your own veg is always there.  You may even find that someone in your area is giving guidance on how to grow food from home. This is the case in Derby where the Derby Food Growing Network has gained recent interest.

Single-use items back in favour

Panic buying is not the only change that we’re seeing in consumer behaviour at the moment, there has also been a rise in the popularity of disposable plastics. As the focus on sanitisation has increased, items such as mainstream cleaners and hand soaps, hand sanitiser and plastic gloves have been put in high demand.

As The New York Times puts it, ‘disposability, once a dirty word, has become a selling point as hygiene takes priority over sustainability’.

Industry leaders in America had already been working to block plastic bag bans prior to the pandemic, but now they take advantage of the anxiety that we face due to coronavirus. It is by no means ethical to capitalise on fear.

An article featured in the Guardian says that the perceived trade-off between disposability and sustainability is a misnomer, safe hygiene and sustainability can exist quite happily together - all it needs is a little thought.

With regard to whether we should continue to ban single use plastic bags, the benefits far outweigh the costs; it takes barely any effort to wash or sanitise a used bag.

That said we wouldn’t recommend washing items that have been designed to be single use such as plastic gloves or facemasks (you can read more about this below).

You may also find some interesting ethical alternatives for disposables that are in short supply. If you can’t find disposable nappies opt for reusable ones. Or if you need sanitary products go for a menstrual cup.

And if you do run out of toilet roll, there are some more-eco alternatives that can be adopted from other cultures... Some options are to install a bum gun, or pick yourself up a washable ‘family cloth’. The latter has become popular of late and has also been dubbed the ‘pee rag’ and as ‘fabric toilet paper’ in mainstream media.

Greener sanitisation

Soaps and cleaning supplies do not need to be antibacterial to protect from coronavirus. Advice from the WHO specifies soap and water as one of the ‘most effective’ preventative measures for coronavirus. This means that you needn’t worry about using chemical-laden soaps in plastic pumps.

Rather than risking your health and the environment you can use organic soap bars from companies that have no or better packaging, or you can even make your own!

Cleaning products

Bleach and antibacterial sprays contain a whole host of chemicals and they are not necessary to protect against coronavirus.  The Greenscents ‘practical guide to coronavirus’ states,

There is no need to put your health at risk by using harmful chemicals. Just as soap and water is best for washing your hands, soap and surfactant based cleaning and laundry products are best for household tasks.

Think twice before you buy online

COVID-19 is having a huge impact on the state of the economy but even some of the most unethical businesses acknowledge that ‘business as usual’ is no longer acceptable.

Unfortunately, a few businesses have not adapted to the situation and some workers continue to commute to work on public transport and have complained about a lack of social distancing in the work place, which has become limited in many areas and puts them at risk.

As we reported last month Amazon has offered workers unlimited sick pay but unless they fall ill workers have no choice but to put themselves at risk. In fact they are at more risk than ever given that they have been ordered to work compulsory overtime to deal with the spike in demand for consumer goods.

They have also increased pay by 15% and been on the move to recruit 100,000 more workers with little to no regard for people’s safety in the work place. Jeff Bezos argues that the company is prioritising the delivery of necessary goods to the most vulnerable people, but the company has not encouraged people to stop panic buying or participating in retail therapy. This can’t be helping the most vulnerable people.

 With home deliveries soaring and workers’ lives at risk, now is the time to really consider what you’re buying. Do you really need to buy that new item? Can you get a digital version? And if it’s necessary but not urgent, could you find an alternative source for it or wait a little longer?

Check out our guide to ethical online retailers which will help you get what you need and support best practice at this time.

There are also coronavirus-related reasons to consume more carefully for the environment. Find out more in our feature 'Coronavirus and the destruction of our environment'.

Support small businesses

If you appreciate an organisation or an artist’s work, help them however you can.

Give artists what you can spare as a donation and buy their work if possible. Or have a social impact: spread the word about them and send messages of support.

When it comes to ethical businesses, buy gift vouchers if you can afford to as this will support cash flow. If you’re able to do so, help set up local delivery schemes to support small businesses and farms that won’t have time to do this themselves.

Full online access to our unique shopping guides, ethical rankings and company profiles. The essential ethical print magazine.

What else consumers can do

Do you need a facemask?

It’s not just food shortages that we face.  Health workers must also deal with shortages of protective equipment. Doctors and nurses in America are struggling to access basic supplies such as masks, gloves and sanitiser wipes.

The WHO has released a report in which it reveals an ‘insufficient’ global stockpile of protective gear that is part driven by panic-buying and stockpiling. In the UK, health secretary Matt Hancock recently admitted “problems” in getting PPE to ambulance workers and doctors, but with the WHO’s warning that we could face global shortages of this equipment we must understand that the supply gap could get considerably worse if things don’t change.

The WHO  doesn’t recommend that healthy members of the public wear face masks and claims that ‘misuse’ of the masks could be a major issue. However, the main reason for not recommending mask usage is the risk of shortages for health workers.

Michael J. Ryan the executive director of the WHO states,

“The thought of [health care workers] not having masks is horrific.”

However, Hong Kong and Taiwan’s low infection rates should not be ignored. In the Czech Republic  it is considered socially responsible to wear a face mask. The Washington Post agrees that face masks could ‘flatten the [infection] curve’. Their solution to combatting coronavirus with a mind to the supply gap is to make DIY face masks for general wear.

The Post suggests using two layers of an old cotton t-shirt to make a mask. This would also help with matters of environmental pollution - videos can be seen of disposable masks washing up on Hong Kong beaches.

Manchester-based cooperative Stitched Up has been making washable and reuseable face masks for key workers using this pattern that they have shared on their website.

Online and on social media

While you’re self-isolating you should be thinking about the actions that you’re taking, and the impact that they have on other people.

Use social media as a force for good. Rather than taking to your community group to chastise and shame others, set a good example and praise those who are doing commendable things.  Share helpful and well-referenced information before you put someone down for their choices.

Campaign while you’re in lockdown and sign every petition that resounds with you. Put pressure on companies to act responsibly.

Act locally, consider joining your local Mutual Aid Group on Facebook, or get the Next Door app to help around your neighbourhood.

Finally act in solidarity with people at the far end of our global supply chains. The tribulations of our own isolation pale into insignificance compared to some of the people experiencing an impact in the Global South.

•    To donate to vegetable and fruit pickers in Almeria and Huelva, follow our campaign page.
•    Donate to the Clean Clothes Campaign and call on high street fashion brands to pay garment workers what they owe them.
•    To offer help across the globe, visit the Covid Support Network site that SumOfUs has set up.

Switching providers

Being homebound might mean that you have spare time on your hands to make a positive impact. Now could be the time to limit your CO2 impact by changing bank or energy supplier.

Changing energy supplier

Being at home for a considerable amount of time means that you might use more energy than you normally would at this time of year.

Look at our ethical shopping guide to Gas & Electricity to find out more.

Change bank provider

If you’re switching over from one kind of provider, why not another? Find out what you’re putting your money into with our guide to current accounts, and divest from fossil fuels.

Thinking time

Imagine the future we want after the pandemic is over and discuss with others. Ask, how do we work towards it?

Think about how consumerism might change post-lockdown. Explore whether you think you could learn from the period in terms of how you consume and act politically and socially.

Review the personal choices that you have made. Take stock of where your money goes and if these directions are ethical (e.g., streaming, internet/TV, companies behind the supermarkets, the oil company behind the pump where you fill up your car, utility companies, the landlord and letting agency who take your rent and fees, etc.)

If you finding that you’re spending more time on your computer, look into the companies/products you're using (Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Google etc.).

Give yourself a break and focus on the good things

Things might feel like they’re upside down at the moment but don’t worry, you’re doing the best that you can. This article might appear like a daunting list of instructions, but as a consumer you can only do what you feel up to, what you can afford, and what works for you. Besides, something to feel good about is that you don't have to bear the weight alone. Even though public guidance is sparse we’re seeing citizens take on a great deal of responsibility.

Here’s what  Rob Harrison, the co-founder of Ethical Consumer, had to say on the matter:

“Much ethical activity is taking place in communities and not markets at the moment as people support others around them.  This is great. We always were citizens as well as consumers.”

As long as you’re doing what you can to help others then it’s okay to let yourself off the hook from time to time. If you’re living with vulnerable people and there’s only mainstream soap on the shelves, don’t focus on feeling guilty. Take the time to remind yourself that you’re more than a consumer - you’re a citizen first and foremost.

If you’re feeling generally low allow yourself some peace of mind. Here are some resources to help you find some headspace:

Thank you for reading. We will be writing more about the actions that consumers and citizens can take over the coming weeks.

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