Ethical Consumerism: What Can We Do?

We live in a world where consumerism is rampant. With low budget retailers and constant competition from the high street, what can we do to be more conscious about what we buy, what we use, and where from, especially in the run up to the biggest consumer period of the year, Christmas?

It would seem that the age-old saying of knowledge is power is apt yet again in this case. I know that the world runs at an insane pace, with jobs, education, friends, family, pets, and whatever life throws at you all taking up an insane amount of time – who has time to research where their things come from, source and who has enough money to buy ethically, and why is it important?

Like you and me, the manufactures have to make a profit in order to run successfully. You take a look on EBay, Amazon, ASOS or any big retailers, you’ll see they’re off run with cheap Chinese knock offs, which probably weren’t manufactured in the most ethical way – but it isn’t just clothes, or consumer items, or even just food – it’s everything on the market. You may have heard the awful case of the Apple factories in China having to put suicide nets outside their windows, or several companies who have had messages of desperation hidden in their goods. All these goods have to be made by someone, either manufactured of processed, and cheap goods come at a price.

It’s understandable that companies have a make a profit, but this is passed down the chain one way or another. If a company charges virtually nothing for their goods, how can they pay their employees? These issues aren’t always far away either – like the voices calling for a ‘living wage’ both in the UK and worldwide, providing employees a wage they can actually live off. Giving those who work on our food, clothes, and other consumer goods is so necessary – we all need to survive.

On top of all that, there’s the carbon footprint of all goods. Everything we manufacture has an affect on the environment, even the manufacture of paper contributes a huge amount to the carbon dioxide in the environment – do we really need everything to be so disposable?

There have recently been great waves of companies claiming corporate social responsibility by offering products that are organic, fair trade, ethically produced, or somehow socially responsible, but few people actually know what they mean – so how can you educate yourself and what can we do in reality? The little steps to making the world a better place start with you.

Piles of books on a wooden floor

  •  Stay up to date – If a company you buy from has been in the news to do with their structures and policies, maybe you should probably think about stopping buying from them. If there’s a company you’re particularly interested in, think about setting up a Google Alert to stay on top of what’s going on.
Hobby Lobby boycott USA

Photo credit: Joe Brusky on flickr

  • Make the most of technology – If animal welfare is up your alley, PETA have a great search engine on their site where you can check whether a retailer is cruelty free in an instant. They also have an app for the tech savvy. Animal guilt free shopping in an instant! If only there was a similar app for conditions for humans. Oh wait, at least as far as clothing is concerned, the aVOID app helps you steer clear of products made using child labour. And there are a ton of other apps that help you become a so-called conscious consumer. Check out a rundown here.
Photo credit: Mister G.C. on Flickr

Photo credit: Mister G.C. on Flickr

  • Source your food – Look around to see where you can buy your goods from! If looking at food, see what you can source locally, from farms nearby or local markets. You’re not only supporting the local economy, it’s most likely it will genuinely taste better as well. It’s not always more expensive as the rumours have it, and if you can’t afford to buy all your food this way, set aside a small amount of money towards buying at least a certain amount of your weekly shop from sustainable sources.
beetrot turnip and radish farmers market

Photo credit: Gemma Billings on Flickr

  • Think before you shop – It’s not just your food. There are lots of initiatives which allow you to buy your clothes which are manufactured in fair conditions – in all areas. There are larger companies such as People Tree, Bibico and American Apparel – so you’re not forced to go obscure. Of course there are lots of smaller places where you’re able to go too – if you want that one off piece – search for handmade things on the net, or even sites like marketplace sites like Etsy. You’ll almost definitely be able to find anything and everything you’d ever want, and you’ll often be supporting local economies.
Second hand clothes and girl in a corn field

Photo credit: Leanne Surfleet

  •  Sell and Swap – Thanks to EBay, and many apps, such as Gone, Vinted and Craigslist which allow for you to sell your belongings, instead of throwing things away, sell them and make a few dollars. It contributes to lowering emissions and waste a huge amount. There are also car boot sales and often places where you can rent market stalls if in-person interaction is more your thing! If you’re lazy like me, there’s also alternatives – arrange a swap of belongings between friends, go to an organized clothes swap, have an open house day where people can take things – it doesn’t have to be difficult!
Jumble Sale with bunting and racks of clothes

Photo credit: Oxfam International on Flickr

  • Use only what is needed – Next time you’re in the supermarket – look at how much unnecessary packaging there is – plastic and paper galore (except at Berlin’s Original Unverpackt, of course). Not all products have it, but some companies are currently introducing lesser packaging options, bear this in mind when shopping. Think whether you need an extra plastic bag – or take your own reusable bags. It’s also in the workplace and at home – do you need to print that extra page or use all that clingfilm?
Plastics recycling waste packaging

Photo credit: mbeo on Flickr

  • Think – Do you really need it? Just because it’s cheap, if you don’t need it, it’s not a good deal. Try and be mindful about your purchases – do you really need what you are about to buy? Asking just this one simple question can help you cut down on waste and save money too. If you’re thinking about buying something like clothes or shoes, maybe take a step back and wait a few days to see if you’re still obsessing about whatever it was you wanted to buy. Often you’ll find out it was just a passing phase, and you will have forgotten all about it two days later.
the thinker, rodin, sculpture, art, culture

Photo credit: Gaby Av in Flickr

In short – find out as much as you can and stay aware. Things are constantly changing and there has been a push for companies to have better policies for their employees, consumer waste, treatment of animals, but the issues that affect what we consume is never-ending – we can no longer pass the buck and we must be more aware of how, what and when – take up the challenge to be more responsible for your consumerism and you’ll find the little things are easier than you think.

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Escaping the city: weekend trips to Rügen

baltic sea camera sunset over the ocean

In another attempt to practice the art of “slow travel”, and not get in an aeroplane in search of exotic adventures, I went for sun, sand and slightly sustainable instead. Yes, this summer, after more than five years in Berlin, I finally got around to visiting Germany’s famous Baltic Coast, the Ostsee, as some people (German ones) call it, otherwise known as Brighton for Berliners. In fact, I actually ended up going to the same island, twice, doing pretty much the same trip in about 10 days and travelling back to Berlin for about three days in between. Why? Well 1) because I am a ridiculous person and not good at organization and 2) because a trip to the Baltic Coast is the perfect weekend trip from Berlin. It is SO NEAR. (How did it take me five years to get there? Well, see point 1))

More importantly, I only saw a tiny bit of the island of Rügen and the weather was pissy 50% of the time, but it was still pretty much all-round aceness. So everyone should go.

Rügen Part 1

The first trip took place right in the middle of this summer’s two heatwaves, when it was rainy, windy, and cold, with a few little splashes of sun in between. The weather was so schizophrenic, even on the one whole sunny day we had there, at one point the sky went dark and there was a massive insane hailstorm. But there is of course one obvious advantage to clouds, at least broken ones: sunsets. This is the one that greeted us on our first evening (after it had stopped drizzling).

sunset at rügen in august after rain

apocalyptic clouds at ostsee rügen

last rays of august sun on rügen The next two days were mixed too, meaning we saw the beaches greyish and ominously dark…

grey ominous clouds over rügen

And also some Simpsons style sky…

strange clouds at rügen

But it wasn’t enough to stop people walking down to the water and jumping (most of them naked, we are in former East Germany after all) into those (really big and crashy) Baltic Sea waves.

swimming in the freezing baltic sea in august

The first night we just parked in a road near the beach and actually slept in the car that we came in (Please don’t do this, apparently this is not legal. But it only cost us 30 euro when we got caught, so, actually cheaper than a campsite...)

The second night we stayed in the aforementioned expensive campsite which was only about 10 minutes from a beach, in a place called Thiessow in the most south-easterly point of the island. This sign lists the different types of beach you can find on this part of the island: nudist, dog, and “textile”. A difficult choice. Take your pick.

textilstrand ostsee rügen sign

Here are some of Rügen’s vigorously fenced-off and really quite lovely dunes.

sand dunes on rügen

This trip also took us to the most northerly point of the island, the lighthouse at Cape Arkona. The weather was the grossest. I’m posting one picture and that’s it. Here.

kap arkona in the wind and rain

Right? We got back in the car and left quite soon after this assault of wind and rain and grossness. FYI, this is kind of what Germany (almost always) looks like from the motorway.

wind turbines in germany

Rügen Part 2

The second trip was to the neighbouring corner of the island (the most south-westerly point), to a place called Zicker. Only three days later, but the weather was slightly different.

rügen cornfield

rügen zicker strassenschild

One day I took a walk down to the very very southern-most point of the southern-most part of the island, to a place called Palmer Ort.palmer ort pfad schild

After about two kilometres of pretty much deserted road, heading towards the sea and about 100 metres from the beach, you run into something really cool (if you’re into this kind of thing) and completely unexpected.

verlassene sommerhäuser rügen

abandoned houses rügen

Abandoned houses! A whole group of them! Inspired by the beauty that is Abandoned Berlin, I tried to capture them in all their crumbling, faded glory (and failed). They were incredibly cool though, pretty much open still, and with lots of retro fittings (see 70s print curtains at the windows).

verlassenes haus rügen

abandoned houses rügen

The beach when I finally got to it was pretty nice too. Yes, amazingly, this is Germany.

Palmer Ort Rügen in the sun

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Walking down to the very tip of the island and seeing the waves lapping on each side was pretty special too. Access to the island is usually over a bridge, not via ferry – so it’s easy to forget you’re on a piece of land surrounded by water, Rügen just doesn’t feel like an island most of the time, and it’s massive too. Here you were reminded of the amazing geography of the place.

IMG_3220

Getting to Rügen from Berlin

I’d recommend getting the train from Berlin to Rügen – it doesn’t take much longer than driving, even with the regional trains, as getting out of central Berlin can take forever in a car.

There are direct (!) regional trains to Stralsund from Berlin Hauptbahnhof that take about three hours. From there you can change to another train depending on where you want to go on the island.

When I go again I’ll head for Sellin with its huge and crazy pier:

sellin pier rügen germany

Photo by xuxxy on Flickr

And to see the ancient ruins down by the beach in Heiligendamm:

heiligendamm abandoned houses rügen

Photo credit:
PercyGermany on Flickr

Our thoughts go out to you

Our hearts are bleeding for our fellow travelers that are fleeing through Europe. It could have been you or me. It is hard to grasp the kind of reality out there, it is such a different journey. We are all just trying to find a safe enough place to live. I try to imagen that this is happening to me. And in the bigger sense – it is! We’re all part of this world.

Right now I am thinking of how I can prepare for a more long term solution in helping and making a better place for all of us. These thoughts are of course to be continued …

… A way of learning more about the situation and to maybe help in a small way is to read more at the websites of UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross or any other big aid organization. Let’s try to make this world a place where everyone is welcome.