The race to the bottom

So, times are hard at the moment right? Jobs are hard to find, everyone is trying to save money, but we still want to buy, we want it now and we want it cheap. But there’s more to a price than how much goes out of our pocket.

The other day, I asked someone where the fur trimmed gillet they were wearing came from. The response, North Weald Market, but when I asked where it was made and where the materials came from, she did not have a clue and frankly, looked at me like I was a bit odd.

This is exactly my point, many people think no further than the price. But what happens if you go down the supply chain? Where do our things come from, and how does the price affect all the other people along the chain? Cheap products are produced with cheap materials using cheap labour. The labour laws that producers are subject to in the UK and EU are certainly not worldwide. Child labour, lack of sufficient health and safety measures (resulting in injury, exposure to harmful substances and lowered life expectancy), insultingly low wages and terrible, long hours are rife in the developing world where much of the products sold in the developing world come from. Yes, these industries provide valuable trade and employment and an outright boycott is not the answer but making ourselves aware and campaigning for a better deal for these people is key.

Suppliers in the current market are constantly trying to undercut each other, to provide cheaper and cheaper products, no matter the cost to human rights and the environment, this has become known as ‘the race to the bottom’.

I’m passionate about ethical consumerism, consumer power is one of the greatest tools in the ordinary person’s arsenal. Industry is shaped by the consumer, supply and demand, so change the demand and the supply will follow suit.

Take food for example, every day I see adverts from Asda and Aldi purporting to be cheaper than Tesco, cheaper than Sainsbury’s, this all sounds wonderful, but has anyone stopped to ask why? Why are they so cheap? Well in my experience, as the price falls, so do the ethical standards. Cheaper food id often non-fairtrade, non-organic, poor quality and poor welfare. But most people only look at the price and in my experience, cheap and ethical are often, sadly, mutually exclusive.

I try to be an ethical consumer (see my below top tips), I’m not perfect but I try my best. I mainly shop at Sainsbury’s -with the odd trip to a farmers market- because they have a great organic range, do lot’s of MSC (Marine Stewardship Certified – a TRUE indicator of sustainable) fish and are not too horrendously expensive. I happened to be near Morrison’s the other day so I popped in, but could not find anything organic and when I asked at the fish counter they did not stock anything MSC (and neither do my local Tesco), so off I went to Sainsbury’s as usual.

I may not be able to afford going exclusively organic or have the time to research every single thing I buy, but I try to do my bit, especially for Christmas (watch this space). I would really encourage you to do a bit of research into what you are buying and maybe buy a little less and a little more ethically, your conscience with thank you as will those down the supply chain and you can be a part of shaping a better, fairer industry.

Lucy’s Top tips for ethical buying

1. Try to go organic and high welfare – not just food but cotton, bathing products and gifts

2. Buy sustainable, acronyms are your friend go for MSC for fish, FSC for wood and paper and buy recycled, repurposed and upcycled where you can, besides palate furniture is pretty chic

3. Buy products from charities such as gifts

4.Buy fair-trade to send a message to suppliers that consumers care about the welfare of others

5. Buy from local and small traders – help out the little guy and the chances are they have sources their products or materials more consciously

6. Make conscious decisions, think and research what you are buying

So even though times are hard and we may not always be afford ethical purchases, but if we are conscious in our decision making and all try to do our bit -especially at Christmas when consumerism is utterly rampant-  it will make a huge difference to the market and suppliers will sit up and pay attention.

Thanks for reading,

Lucy

The folly of fur

Is it just me (or because I live in Essex) or if fur slowly creeping back into the high street? I have noticed it in shops whilst perusing, and at markets, but a decade ago there was not hide nor hair of it (excuse the pun). So is fur becoming socially acceptable again, and if so why now?

I asked about a fur garment I saw in a shop the other day, and was informed that it was rabbit fur, the assistant did not know (nor seem to care) where it has come from, another shop stated that their fur was fox. I would not buy fur and would actively discourage others from doing so on the basis of ethics, but I eat game so is this a double standard?

Some rationalise the purchase of fur from animals such as rabbits by referring to it as a by-product, however most fur does not come from the same animals which are sold for meat. Some are bred specifically for high quality meat, others for fur. The meat from fur farms is usually used in pet foods or sold to zoos and the like.

There are two main sources of fur for textile production are farms in the EU, the US and those notorious establishments in China. There is a high incidence of poor welfare and much controversy associated with fur farming, apparently 10-25% of animals may die due mainly to respiratory problems caused by congestion. Animals are usually kept individually in wire cages, however, rabbits are highly sociable in the wild, so this causes welfare concerns and prevents natural behaviour.

But what about leather? I wear leather so is this a double standard or are the welfare standards higher? And then there is the by-product question. It is certainly extremely prevalent in shops and markets and seems to be far more socially acceptable then fur, why? Is our society just more comfortable with the idea of killing a cow, an animal routinely slaughter for meat, than a rabbit, an animal often kept as a pet? I hope not as that sounds awfully hypocritical.

The skins of cows that are killed for meat are often sold for textile production, and organic, high welfare leather is starting to creep into the market, I am a very keen supporter of organic farming (as anyone who knows me will be sure to attest) so this is definitely something I would be for.

But its not quite as simple as that, some of the softest (and therefore most desirable) leather comes from very young animals such as veal calves (another notorious industry), and then there is the tanning process which releases noxious and carcinogenic products such as chromium from chrome tanning into the environment. BAD.

So, not all leathers are created equal, and as with everything we consume, I believe that education is the key, researching your sources and only buying from ethic and sustainable sources. I often try to choose game over intensively farmed meat as the animals have a natural life with a high standard of welfare and then (usually) a quick death.

But I will certainly continue encouraging people not to buy fur (or angora, but that’s another story) and keep advocating ethical and informed consumption in all things.

Thanks for reading,

Lucy

Image courtesy of BMW

Carbon offset credibility

The world my seem to be greening, but with increased attention and publicity on the sustainable and the environmentally friendly, are the carbon offset schemes flying the green banner all that they say on the tin?

I’ve been thinking about carbon offset credits lately, namely what they are and whether they as good as they are cracked up to be? Are they effective on a long-term scale?

Carbon offset credits are designed to counter carbon emissions from activities such as driving a car or flying. The theory is, that for each unit of carbon produced, the equivalent is removed elsewhere. They are usually renewable energy schemes such as solar or wind power, or ‘carbon sinks’ such as forests which absorb and store carbon.

So, you take a holiday to the Caribbean, and upon your return decide to purchase some carbon offset credits to ‘offset’ your flight – so you can fly guilt free and the environment does not suffer – everybody wins right? Well, unfortunately its not quite that simple, this strategy known as ‘dump, burn and offset’ (thank you Fred Pearce) should not be used as a substitute for cutting down on energy use and increasing efficiency.

Carbon offset credits are often more complicated than the organisations marketing them may let on. Firstly calculating the carbon footprint for a given activity is not straightforward. Take a flight for example, it is generally accepted that 3.15 tonnes of carbon dioxide is produced for every 1 tonne of aircraft fuel burned- so just multiply that by the amount of fuel used right? Well, you also need to take into account the outside temperature, altitude, other gases emitted etc. AND how much of the plane should you be responsible for? Just the share allotted to your seat or a percentage of the whole plane depending upon how full it is? Phew, I feel tired already!

You then need to consider the effectiveness of the scheme you buy into. Forest planting is a typical ‘carbon sink’ scheme, but saplings planted this year may not mature for decades (if at all). What if the trees never reach maturity? What if the area is sold or they succumb to a some rampant disease? We cannot be certain that the trees planted will definitely absorb their allotted carbon, and even if they do, they will only store carbon during their lifetimes, once they die it will be released back into the atmosphere, leaving problems for future generations.

But I don’t want to be all doom and gloom, I think carbon credits are a step very much in the right direction, the schemes themselves are great, and buying carbon offset credits is certainly better than doing nothing (especially for big business). But I do not subscribe to the ‘dump, burn & offset’ philosophy, carbon credits should not be used as a cop out for cutting emissions, and will not reverse damage already done.

What would I do? Try to fly less, turn off my unused lights and plant as many trees as I can in a personal capacity.

Thanks for reading

Lucy

Daily dilemmas – metal teaspoon vs wooden stirrer

Every day I have the same dilemma, should I use a metal teaspoon to stir my tea or a wooden stirrer?

I try to live in an environmentally friendly way, I buy local produce where I can, try to avoid air freight, turn off my unused lights, try not to waste food – the usual. But our preconceptions of how to be ‘green’ may not always be right. For example, most people would agree that it is more environmentally friendly to use public transport than a car, BUT what if you are one of only a handful of people on the train? It then becomes more complex.

Anyone who tries to be environmentally friendly, may -like me- find the same questions arising in the mind on a day to day basis. Should I use a hand dryer or a paper towel? Local produce grown in a heated greenhouse or shipped in from abroad? Gas fire or electric heater?  Which brings me back to my original question.

The environmental impact can be calculated for any item by looking at the energy and resources required to create it, (if it is reusable) the energy required to maintain it and the ecological cost of disposing or recycling it.

Wooden stirrers are disposable, requiring relatively low amounts of energy to manufacture and will biodegrade. However they are only usable once. Metal teaspoons on the other hand, require significantly more energy to manufacture. The ore must be extracted, smelted and then shaped which requires extremely high temperatures and a huge amount of energy. They cannot be properly disposed of easily and are not biodegrade, but they could be recycled, are reusable and last for decades (the teaspoons at my Gran’s house are about 60 years old!).

So teaspoons are looking like the winner, but now the plot thickens, what about when you wash your teaspoon? Do you run it under a little cold water or wash it up in hot water? Do you wash it up by hand or in the dishwasher? A full, modern dishwasher is more efficient and saves more water when compared to the average person washing up.

So if you already have a teaspoon, you should probably use it, just make sure to fill up your dishwasher properly!

But what about cafe’s and coffee shops? Here you are frequently left with only the choice between a wooden and a plastic stirrer. Wooden wins for energy consumption, generating only small levels of pollution from production and biodegradability. BUT for ecological impact and consumption of resources, plastic wins.

So to some extent it comes down to personal preference, are you more concerned about the destruction of trees required for wooden stirrers (which may or may not be replaced), or the pollution and disposal problems of plastic? Nothing is straightforward.

I think I might stick with stirring my coffee with the end of a pen (not the end you write with, the other one) and wiping my wet hands on my jeans rather than tackling the whole paper towel vs hand dryer debate.

Thanks for reading

Lucy