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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Original Unverpackt, Berlin: Shopping with no-added plastic

Original Unverpackt_ Jendrik Schro¦êder_ Foto3

Photo credit: Jendrik Schröder for OU

According to the German Environment Agency, there are up to 140 million tons of waste at the bottom of oceans, floating in the water, or washed up on beaches.

This shocking statistic is one of the first things you’re confronted with when you visit the website of Original Unverpackt, Berlin’s first packaging-free supermarket, that this month celebrated its first year anniversary. Original Unverpackt means something like “Originally Unpackaged” in German, and the concept is simple: they offer the same products as a normal supermarket, but they buy them in bulk, and the customers bring along their own jars, bottles, boxes and bags to put their items in (or they pay a small deposit and borrow some containers from the store). Fruits and vegetables are all free of plastic packaging, and dry stuff like rice and cereals are in big vats where you can take as much as you want to fill your container.

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Photo credit: Katharina Massmann for OU

It’s all really simple actually – the only thing you have to remember to do on your first visit is to weigh the empty containers before you start, so that the weight of the container can be removed from the total weight at the till, allowing the cashier to work out how much of each product you’ve actually bought. (I forgot to do this a couple of times on my first trip, but the workers there were really nice, and very patiently helped me empty, weigh and then refill my beloved mason jars).

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Photo credit: Jendrick Schröder for OU

And at the end of it you end up with a whole load of groceries, minus the added plastic, and for a similar price.

This is what a quick trip to a normal supermarket in Germany usually ends up looking like (particularly because I usually try and buy organic things, which until recently at least, were for some reason always packaged in more plastic than the non-organic ones, example: bananas in a “bio” plastic bag). And yes, I went to Netto rather than an organic supermarket, where lots of things are sold in reusable glass bottles, so it ended up looking pretty horrible and package-y…

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And this is what my shopping looked like after a trip to Original Unverpackt.

shopping from original unverpackt berlin

I was surprised that they even had things like tofu (pictured in the jar in the middle), that was locally produced, and lots of different sweets, nuts, cereals, spices and herbs.

Original Unverpackt_ Jendrik Schro¦êder_ Foto5

Photo credit: Jendrik Schröder

The only thing I couldn’t find that I usually buy every week was soya/rice/almond milk. I’m assuming this is hard to source directly in bulk from a supplier, and maybe it’s something that they’ll start stocking in the future. They had normal milk though, and they even sell beautifully-designed (and very expensive!) glass bottles for you to take your liquid stuff home in.

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And I was surprised that they had vodka on sale…

held vodka original unverpackt berlin

…and even red wine!

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I went there on a Saturday evening (just before they closed for the weekend – German supermarkets aren’t open on a Sunday), when supermarkets are usually really busy, and Original Unverpackt was no exception. This shop was busy. It was almost difficult to move around. And it wasn’t just the kind of people you might expect to be shopping in a place like that (women in long hippy skirts and men with manbuns maybe?), but a completely average mix of people.

inside original unverpackt berlin

I was annoyed for a second at first when I realised that they didn’t have some of the things I wanted, particularly when it came to fruits and vegetables, but then I realised that that is actually exactly how a supermarket with fresh produce should work. If their shelves had been full half an hour before closing time, they would have had to throw away a whole bunch of stuff, just so that I could have the luxury of buying that one pomegranate, or whatever it was (I can’t even remember, that’s how important it was).

Original Unverpackt_katharinaMassmann_Foto4

Photo credit: Katharina Massmann for OU

Okay, so I have to admit I haven’t been shopping there regularly since – it’s just too far for me to travel for a few things – and I tend to get most of my food from the sort-of-dumpster-diving organisation known as Foodsharing (an article about that will follow some unspecified time in the future). Doing your main supermarket shop here requires dedication, like any lifestyle change does. You need to plan ahead and have your containers ready, and be ready to transport your really heavy shopping home (there’s extra weight of course, because glass jars are way heavier than flimsy plastic trays and cardboard cartons). You basically need to be ready to not be as lazy as I am.

Despite all that, going there is definitely an eye-opening experience, and a really good reminder of how much waste we as consumers create in our day to day lives. And although I’m currently too lazy to go all the way to this shop to buy my groceries, there are other things I try to do when I do end up in a supermarket, as an attempt to minimize the amount of plastic I end up taking home. Like trying to avoid putting my vegetables in a plastic bag when I buy them – either choosing a paper one, or just putting them loose on the conveyer belt (even though this means the cashier and the other customers look at me really strangely while my tomatoes and all other round things roll all over the place), and choosing things in paper packaging rather than over plastic (like really simple bags of oats, rather than buying the fancy pre-mixed müsli in a plastic bag). Actually, even just writing this article has inspired me to go back. After all, is there a better sight in the world than a mason jar full of goodness?

Photo credit: Daniel Lee on Flickr

Photo credit: Daniel Lee on Flickr

For an interview with the owners and a look around the shop in more detail, check out the video below