I have been asked to give a talk later on this month about ethical supply chains in the construction industry. This got me thinking about such issues with many other areas of everyday life, for instance buying food and clothes- it doesn’t have to be with just big industries, small actions count too. But it is so difficult to make ethical choices these days with so many categories- organic, fairly traded, locally produced, low food miles, low carbon, etc., etc. It is a minefield. Plus choices based on values are always more difficult than ones based on some measurable or visible quality. So how does one choose?
Recently I have stopped buying organic bananas from my local superstore, opting instead for their ‘Rainforest Alliance certified’ bananas. My reason? These bananas come without any packaging apart from the paper stickers that can be recycled easily. The Rainforest Alliance encourages environmentally and socially responsible management of forests, tree farms, and forest resources in many poor countries. But their production is not as rigorous as organically produced bananas- organic agriculture has a slightly different angle. Of course on another note, usually bananas are flown in thereby contributing to food miles, whether they are organic or not. The organic bananas that I can order from my vegetable delivery service costs 50% more and I have to wait for the once a week delivery. But then if we stop eating them, are we depriving the people who grow them of economic and social benefits such as basic livelihood, education, etc.? What should be our priorities based on the beauty, goodness and benefit values along with the Middle way that I have written about?
I thought of different steps to follow through in our everyday buying process that could encourage ‘ethical supply chains’ in our everyday life. A ‘no’ response to each question should make you think twice about buying that product! I have used this for my banana buying as an example.
Step One– Do you really need to buy this item? Distinguish between wants and needs. Does this item satisfy your needs and suit your lifestyle (especially with clothes)? Does it appeal to most of your senses– touch, sight, smell, hearing and taste? Apparently 80% of a woman’s wardrobe lies unused- think about how much money is being wasted in the wardrobes of people all over the world! [Answer- I really love bananas- they are packed with minerals and are a low carb snack between meal or after exercise]
Step Two- Can you afford it? If not, can you wait for it- perhaps the price might come down in a sale? Buying on credit can be an option only if you are savvy with money issues (and able to juggle credit cards without paying fees) but for most people, if you haven’t got the money, don’t buy it!
Is it durable if you are thinking about any non food item? Sometimes it is better to opt for durability over sustainability. The planned obsolescence, especially in electronic goods, is one thing to think about- I once costed out the true price of an iPhone which worked out to be £75 per hour if you keep getting a new one every year. My hardy little Nokia is still going strong, showing no signs of low battery life even after seven years of use but the iPhone, which I regrettably bought last year, has already started showing problems. And I am not going to buy another one again. Again my Braun electrical toothbrush has been going for more than ten years while the Colgate and Phillips toothbrushes bought couple of years ago are showing signs of the battery running out. While I will dispose of all these electronic items responsibly, they haven’t provided the value for money or the environment that works for me. (PS- I am not being paid by Nokia or Braun to write this!) It seems companies are making us throw things out earlier and earlier. [Answer- yes, I can afford to buy the bananas, it is cheaper than the organic ones and I can choose how many I want unlike the packaged organic ones, so that there is no waste]
Step Three– Is it produced with minimal harm either to any life form or the environment? This is about goodness. There is no production that is zero carbon but we can all learn to buy good produced with minimal harm such as organic and or fair-traded (or Rainforest certified). Similarly locally produced goods will have low air miles but then you won’t be supporting a women’s coop in Tanzania- only you can decide what your choice must be at that time. Companies that support their workers by giving them adequate salaries and other amenities are a good choice. In London, another issue that has come up with home deliveries is the pollution and traffic problems being caused by van drivers, so if you can walk and get it- best!
Finally this is the packaging issue that really bugs me- it is also related with doing minimum harm and responsible disposal. Buy stuff with no or easily recyclable packaging– it is no point getting something in a polystyrene packaging with the recycling logo on it if there is nowhere you can recycle it! I once had pen delivered with miles of bubble wrap- see below- and then the same company delivered china plates with hardly any packaging so that most of the plates were smashed up!
But I do take umbrage with excessive packaging- whether the item is organic or not. Some companies have managed to reduce their packaging after complaints. I have stopped buying from one company that supports local farmers because of the amount of packaging they use. [Answer- yes, I can walk to get these bananas and they don’t come with any annoying packaging]