04 April 2013

The Shop Ethical guide

While holidaying in southern Victoria in February, I got distracted on my way to buy lunch by the wonderfully named Cow Lick bookshop . On the counter were copies of Shop Ethical: the Guide to Ethical Supermarket Shopping. So, along with bakery goods and a pile of excellent quality mark-down children's picture books, I returned to the car with the means for our next sustainability commitment.

This pocket guide is the size of a passport. It has masses of simply presented information packed into this handy size document. 

In each product category, the brands you are likely to find on your supermarket shelves are ranked according to how their parent companies measure up on a wide range of ethical issues, from treatment of workers to appropriate marketing, from animal testing to pollution. 

Brief introductions to 25 issues of potential concern are included throughout the guide, along with some concise analysis of supermarket chains, price wars and house branded products. In order to keep the guide at a size that fits nicely into a handbag, detail and subtleties of issues cannot be explored. However, websites to follow up for more information are provided. The Shop Ethical website also has far more extensive information available.

I like having a paper document in my hand, but Tyson with his smartphone preferred to purchase the Shop Ethical Ap and I must concede that this is a very useful format, as it allows much more detailed information to be available if required, and I presume gets updated.

The Guide comes out of Victoria, and is at times east-coast centric. When I encounter WA companies not itemised in the guide (eg. Olympic, Benjamins, B Re & Sons, Del Basso) I figure if they have not come to the attention of the Guide, they are probably not nasty multinationals. All these four look pretty local to me. The Guide is also less useful at our local continental store, where nearly everything is imported, and many brands are not in the Guide.

Another limitation is that its rankings are based on the parent companies rather than the characteristics of the specific product in your hand. For example, Body Shop ranks very badly, as it was bought out in 2006 by L'Oreal (who are being boycotted for animal testing), despite Body Shop doing much work on various justice issues, including against animal testing.

Initial Time: My first full shopping trip with the guide in hand took double the usual time.

Initial Cost: $8.95 (or $4.95 for the Ap). On my first shopping trip I estimate I added about $5-$10 to our fortnightly shop by choosing more ethical brands that were slightly higher priced. However, the need to look up every product dramatically reduced my impulse buying, as I was only bothered with the process for items we really needed, so I more than made that money back.

Ongoing time or cost commitment: As I learn the brands the time taken will reduce. For example, next time I will know without looking up: Leggos over Raguletto; White King over Harpic; Bathox over Radox; D'Orsogna over Watsonia.

Also, I am not starting from nothing. We have boycotted Nestle for many years (on account of their marketing of infant formula in developing countries where subsequent dependence on the product instead of breast milk leads to infant deaths) and, less strictly, Coca-Cola (for taking drinking water from poor communities in India - we are only less focused on this boycott because we simply don't buy the sort of products Coca-Cola sells very often, if at all). I find I simply don't see Nestle items on the shelf anymore most of the time. Years of boycotting Nestle has trained my eye to consider the company's products not even there. I imagine this process will gradually emerge with other brands now too.

I am prepared to make small exceptions where there is no reasonable substitute, such as: Milo (Nestle) while pregnant and breast feeding - all other substitutes have three or four times less iron, and I need the iron!; Johnson & Johnson nursing pads (company concerns re animal testing, unethical marketing, price fixing, action on Darfur) - seriously, the other brands are useless; Butter Menthols (Allens ie Nestle) - nothing from any better company works the same.  

The biggest challenge for me is stepping away from house brands (for us, shopping at an IGA, this means Black & Gold, No Frills and Signature Range). The problem with these brands is that they don't disclose manufacturing information, so informed choice becomes impossible. Estimates say half of all house brand items are imported. Low prices on house brands squeeze local producers. I am struggling with avoiding them completely and taking it one item at a time at this stage.

Impact: I am a big believer that every small action counts. Companies that cannot attract buyers for their products will eventually have to change their practices or fold. I have not yet taken action to notify companies that I am avoiding their products, and why, but I am considering this as a future monthly action. Every action counts, and it counts a whole lot more if the relevant people know.

Some time ago Tyson and I reflected that we were reaching the limit of what we could feasibly do to reduce our global impact within our home. We surprise ourselves by going on finding ways to chip away at our domestic energy and water use and generation of waste, but our footprints now are bigger where we don't see them: in supply chains, production systems, and all the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes into supporting our lifestyle. Trying to shop ethically is a way to keep me mindful of these hidden footprints - which don't turn up itemised on bi-monthly energy bills - and make what difference I can. The Guide is not perfect, but its a whole lot better than standing in the supermarket aisle and guessing.