It’s not all about the money

Have you ever seen me at the supermarket, pondering over my phone whilst picking things off the shelf, looking at them,  putting them back, taking another item, putting that back too, only to go for the first item again and finally putting it into my shopping basket? Were you wondering what I was doing with my phone? And why it took me three attempts to decide which box of tissues to go for?

Let me introduce you to the Ethical Consumers Guide.

This not-for-profit organisation has built a massive database of most Australian supermarket articles and rate them based on a range of criteria. They look at whether the brand, and the company behind it, are “fair”: do they use animal testing? Have they been accused of child labour? Is the packaging environmentally sustainable? Do they pay their workers well? Do their products harm any endangered eco-systems (like rainforest deforestation driven by palm oil production)?

The Ethical Consumer Group is a community based, not-for-profit organisation and network, set up to help facilitate more sustainable purchasing practices for the everyday consumer. We are based in Australia.

Our goal is to educate and empower people to make shopping choices that better reflect their values and to use their consumer power to create a better world.

We produce the popular Shop Ethical! pocket guide and app which focuses on the environmental and social record of companies behind common brands, and draw from our extensive database of products, companies and issues.

Through their app or pocket guide they make it very easy to make an informed decision right there when you’re wandering the shop aisles. It is so easy to just be led by marketing, advertising, well designed packaging and wonderful keywords like “healthy”, “organic”, “fair trade”, “natural” that are printed and bold and pretty letters on the product. How would we know that the brand you’re looking at is owned by a subsidiary of a big company that has been accused of exploiting workers in third world countries? They sure wouldn’t write it on their product! “Healthy and organic and owned by an asshole company that is pocketing all your money without giving back to the world”. Yeah that doesn’t sound like the best selling practice.

Okay, let’s imagine this. You’re walking through the supermarket, your trolley is pretty full already with all the things you need, and you’re feeling good about yourself because you stuck with your shopping list and haven’t bought anything stupid or unnecessary. You’ve got fruit and veggies, milk, bread, some groceries for dinner tonight, your baby’s nappies and dog food. You walk past the chocolate aisle and remember it’s your auntie’s birthday tomorrow, so you get her a nice box of choccies. You know she loves nothing more than a wonderful afternoon with her family around, cuddling her cat, drinking a cuppa and eating some nice chocolates. She’s gonna love these and you are looking forward to spending the afternoon with her where she can tell you all about the fantastic volunteering she’s been doing in the dog shelter on the weekends. After all you and your aunty are really good people and strive to do the right thing and help the world.

Now, what would your aunty say if you came over that afternoon and told her you made a donation to someone who makes animals suffer and drives orangutans to extinction? What?! No! I would never do that! Well, you just did with that box of chocolates. By buying that product your money directly contributed to that company’s profit and supported them in their doings.

The biggest power we ordinary people have is our purchasing power. Our dollar is our vote. Companies are not going to survive, let alone grow, if they can’t sell their products. They may seem massive and strong and invincible and not phased whether you get that one box of chocolates or not, and it’s true, that one purchase doesn’t make much of a difference but combined we, consumers, are the driving force and determine the market. Imagine consumers like ants. One little ant niggling away on a giant’s toes is going to go unnoticed, but have you ever stepped on an ants’ nest? They hurt! There is definitely strength in numbers and even the biggest toughie or the largest company is going to fold, or change, if their product is not in demand anymore.

You care about orangutans? Don’t buy anything with palm oil (unless grown in rainforest-friendly ways). You love fluffy little animals like your cat or bunny? Don’t buy from a brand that’s testing the hazards of their products on animals. You worry about plastic in the oceans? Avoid companies that over package their products and create heaps of waste.

This would be really easy to do if packaging was totally honest. “Our hand cream is safe and good for you because we killed 1000 rabbits in the making of this product.” … “You’re going to love our yummy chips! They’re going to go down as quickly as the apes did when we felled their trees!” …

Because companies of course wouldn’t adopt my amazing marketing slogans we need guides like the Ethical Consumers Guide to help us make the right choice that is in line with our values.

Pete and I are in a fortunate situation: we both have secure full time jobs that pay well, the house we live in is part of the work package and apart from our food, supplies, fuel and insurance we don’t really have any major or ongoing costs. No mortgage, no debt. We’re not rich but we have enough and a some to spare, part of which we save for our financial goals (like buying a house in Germany one day). We don’t have to worry about money and that is wonderful. I realise that not everyone is in this position: some are paying off a house, others have credit card debt, others lost their job and can’t make ends meet, others are investing their money into education for the future. Everyone is in a different situation and it’s important to realise that there is no one-size-fits-all-lifestyle.

It hasn’t always been this way for me either. When I first moved out from home into my first own flat money was tight. I pretty much lived off cereal and pasta. I lived with an awesome flat mate though, Rike, who was a vegetarian going for vegan. Rike taught me quite a bit on the consequences our consumer habits have on the planet. When I bought Nutella I never thought about reading the label to check for palm oil to see if I was endangering apes on the other side of the world. All I was thinking about was whether to have the Nutella pancakes with or without banana and whether I was going to eat two or three. As my knowledge grew I spent a lot more time in the supermarket, checking labels and finding alternative brands that would still give me my chocolate pancake delight without the ethical bitter aftertaste. I didn’t have much money so sometimes I frankly had to go for the cheapest product and didn’t have the luxury of choosing another brand. But every little bit counts as you may remember from the starfish story in my last post.

You don’t have to be 100% perfect with all your shopping choices. I’d say that would be almost impossible. But why not check out the Ethical Consumers Guide, look at some of the products and brands you normally buy and see if there are alternative brands that are better for the planet. Just pick three and then next time when you’re at the shop see if you can make this little change. Who knows – you might find another brand that turns out even better than your normal one. The organic chocolate, whilst maybe a bit more expensive, might be really nice and tasty. Moreover you’ll be able to have a nice afternoon cuppa with your auntie and feel genuinely happy about the small but good deed you were able to contribute to the world.

Sometimes we have to sacrifice some of our money to support the values we believe in. Money is a means to an end – money itself doesn’t give us anything. You can’t eat it, you can’t talk to it (well you can but it might be a bit of a strange monologue), money itself can’t make you happy and money itself doesn’t do anything. It’s what you do with it that matters. We can either use it just to purely satisfy our own needs and wants, or we can use it in a more altruistic way by also using it to solve the world’s problems one little bit at a time.

As the Native American saying goes:

When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.

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