Thursday, February 09, 2006

lets go shopping!

Ethical shopping. It’s the new black, apparently. From the Rough Guide’s Ethical Shopper, to the Vegan Society’s Animal Free Shopper via the Ethical Consumer website, guides are available to help us decide how, why and where to shop.

Last year, Nestle were (controversially) awarded the Fair Trade status for one of their brands. Starbucks recently sponsored a Fair Trade event in Leeds, and Cadbury-Schweppes bought out Green & Blacks, the producers of divine, organic, (and, in the case of Maya Gold at least, Fair Trade) chocolate. More and more people seem to be vegetarian or vegan . Or maybe it's the circles I mix in? We are becoming increasingly aware of the effects of our consumption on people and planet. And consumer trends can equal big bucks for business.

Focussing on two of Britain’s more ‘ethical’ companies, Lush and Foo-Go, it is evident that some values hold stronger than others. It is also interesting to note that the mundane and usual is highlighted as being ‘better for the consumer’ and that underlying issues are glossed over.

Foo-Go supply sandwiches to several major retailers in the UK. Their packaging tells us that it is fully biodegradable within 14 weeks - both the cardboard and the ‘window liner‘! Well done on the non-plastic screen - the use of corn starch means that it won‘t stick around for generations to come. Here’s the snag. There is a difference between ‘compostable’ (by definition: “Eco-toxicity - the biodegradation does not produce any toxic material and the compost can support plant growth”) and ‘biodegradable’ (“there is no requirement for leaving "no toxic residue"). Although they say you can compost the cartons, the word compostable is never used.

As for the carton; all paper is biodegradable (admittedly, Foo-go’s may biodegrade faster). To their credit, they have used recycled paper, the production of which uses less energy , cuts air pollution by 95% ,and saves 30,000 litres of water in comparison to virgin paper production, tonne for tonne. Recycling paper also reduces the need for deforesting, which in turn limits the current decline in animal species and plant diversity caused by cutting down trees for paper production. An area of forest the size of Wales is destroyed each year to feed the UK’s paper and cardboard consumption - we are the world’s fifth highest consumer, getting through over 11 million tonnes of paper and cardboard per year. Some companies do replant the forests they have destroyed, but with conifer trees (which grow faster) rather than the species cut down. This leads to a completely different habitat and ecosystem. Next time you stock up on notepads or computer paper, please try and make it recycled.

They also claim that they ‘want to create a more ethical food chain’ and ‘ensure that our products represent food that is fair to farmers, producers, consumers, and the environment.’ Producing ‘only natural food that has not been fiddled with’ and ‘simple food that is good for the environment, animals, and hungry people’.

I called the number on their website to find out a bit more about what I’m eating. The woman on the other end of the phone (who preferred not to give her name if I was to quote her) told me that they are in the process of launching new ranges, so there may be future changes. So, their current policy is: no GM foods, using only free range eggs and chickens and ‘mostly’ organic vegetables. They also ‘try’ to source free range/organic meat, but could not tell me in what proportions or how successfully. Unfortunately, the lack of knowledge over what they’re actually selling me, and the meaningless values of ‘mostly’ and ‘try’, lead me to think that it’s not a terribly important issue on their agenda.

On a side note, there are whole other debates to be had over whether the definition ‘free range’ is acceptable in terms of animal welfare, and whether the egg industry - even free range suppliers - should be allowed to put three day old chicks into a grinder because they were the wrong gender, to feed back to their parents. And how friendly is dolphin-friendly tuna to, well, tuna? Is there any point in making sure an animal you’re going to kill is happy before you eat it? Is eating meat or dairy ethically responsible, in terms of ‘morality’ and of land use in the first place?

Enough of slaughter and destruction, let’s move onto bath bombs and shower jellies.

Lush are, on the surface, one of the more people-and-planet-friendly companies going. Ranked alongside the Co-op on an ethical consumer website, they treat their staff well , believe in using fresh produce and no animal testing. However, there is a small ripple of corporate bloodthirstiness under the surface. Some of their products contain cocoa powder, cocoa butter and coffee. Being #37 in the Sunday Times “Best 100 Companies To Work For”, the staff presumably get to meet the bosses in the staff-friendly-company way that many businesses seem to endorse. A (now ex-) staff member recalls speaking to a director of Lush about five years ago asking him why they didn’t use fair trade sources. They pointed out that the producers of the chocolate, coffee and cocoa could be working under horrific conditions, and effectively the company could be using slave labour. The director’s response, with not a hint of irony, was, “If we all bought Fair Trade, the slaves would be out of a job.” I find that story, if true, quite terrifying. In their mission statement, they say “we believe in making a profit”. At whose cost?

Preferring not to rely on anecdotal evidence alone, I called their order/helpline. Their response? “It doesn’t actually say on any of the products… I’m not sure. I think it should be”. Their website gives no mention of using Fair Trade, but heralds many of the company’s other green policies. Chocolate, coffee and bananas are three staple things I insist on buying Fair Trade, so I’d like to know what’s going in my shopping basket. I am (still) awaiting an email response to the same query.

This year they were taken to court and fined £3,688 by the Environment Agency over not complying with a recycling certification programme. They claim it was not being up to date with frequently changing recycling laws which led to an error on their part, but surely a company which prides itself on its recycling promotion and packaging should be extra careful to keep up to date with this sort of information?

Although some of their staff benefits are great (large discount, flexible shifts), they have a no sick-pay policy. A director, Heather Williams, points out the bright side of this: “We lay great emphasis on flexible working, so if someone felt sick one morning he or she could change his shift and take time off to be sick without being out of pocket.” This assumes a) that people are only sick for one morning; b) that sorting out an extra shift at another convenient time will be possible and c) that if they are off sick for a week, they will have a ‘spare’ week to work their missed shifts. She points out that the company cannot afford to pay sick pay, which at first seems fair enough - if you ignore that, with booming profits and new stores opening constantly, surely it’s time to stop for a moment and consider whether profit or staff welfare are more important. She then shatters any hope that this may happen by saying, “We have a lot of students work in the shops and we have many transient workers. I don't think it is something we'd introduce even if we were big and making more profit.”

It may seem strange to concentrate on two relatively ‘green’ companies, when there are so many large and far ‘nastier’ corporations out there. Quite simply, other people are doing my work for me. Amongst many others, there is currently a campaign against Coca-Cola named ‘Killer Coke’, and many people are choosing to boycott Coca-Cola. It is interesting to note that in the pub the other week, a woman near me ordered a cola, but recoiled when she realised it was Coke, citing the campaign. She decided that, as they didn’t have Pepsi, she would have a lemonade instead. The only problem with this is that the lemonade served was also made by Coca-Cola. If you choose to boycott a brand, consider whether you want to boycott them fully or just on one of their products. (N.B. I’m not suggesting boycotting Foo-Go or Lush. Unless you feel strongly enough about their relatively small misdemeanours, of course.)

I chose to look into Foo-Go and Lush because of their apparent ethical stances. I want to know if the things they sell that purport to be good for me, for others and for the planet, actually are. If a company says they have all of the above’s interests at heart, I want them to mean it. Admittedly, a company cannot be 100% perfect 100% of the time, if current practices are anything to go by. We may need to prioritise our beliefs, sacrificing one for another - if, indeed, we think any of these things are important.

Why should we bother thinking about what we buy? Well, there’s only one Earth. You’re on it right now. And we’re killing it day by day, we’re murdering and exploiting adults and children across the globe. Simply by buying certain things, we are telling companies it’s OK to abuse our trust in them and carry out these acts on our behalf. Is it better make a small difference, or no difference at all? Simply remembering to sort your rubbish into recycling and not-recycling is a start, even if you’re too skint to go shopping, ethically or otherwise.

Alternatively we could reject all consumerism, live in a tree and I’ll knit us all jumpers out of cat fur while you cook lentil soup.

Word count: 1622


Sources and links:

corporate watch
urban 75 post on shopping ethically
ethical consumer . org
green consumer guide . com
responsible shopper . com
rough guide to ethical shopping
animal-free shopper
paper recycling info
friends of the earth on paper recycling
Fair Trade
Green and Blacks
Corn starch/biodegradable plastics
Lush in Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For
Lush fined by environment agency
PETA on the chicken/egg industry
laying hens information
No sick pay for Lush employees
killer coke
Campus Coke Boycott Document


Blogger merrick said...

Really good piece; thre points that a responsible image is not the same as responsible behaviour and that a company is more than one flagship brand are really important and underreported.

One wonders how Lush can be the number 37 best company to work for when you're required to take sick pay out of your own time. Does that mean only 36 companies *do* give sick pay?

Nope. So, it means the criteria of the people compiling the list are askew. Rupert Murdoch's people not caring about poor people? Who'd have thunk it?

A company will give good conditions and benefits to the staff that matter to it. So, senior management will get nice pensions but shop-floor workers and far-distant foreign sweatshop employees are another matter. A genuinely ethical company would do right by all its workers and those in its supply chain.

The fact that Lush explicitly say they'd refuse to give sick pay to lower-level workers even if profits were booming tells us all we need to know about their ethical stance. What benefits it does give are only to keep the key workers. In other words, it's not driven by ethics at all, but about maximising profits.

The director who justifies it, I wonder if she'd find it fair if she were treated the same way?

I think this diproves the assertion that they 'treat staff well'.

The use of fresh produce doesn't denote anything with regard to being people & planet friendly (except arguably making them use more energy in the constant refrigeration fresh stuff needs).

Also, their use of ingredients shipped around the world ('cosmetics miles'?) and use of unsustainably produced mineral ingredients seriously marks them down.

2:56 pm  
Blogger zoe said...

very good points merrick, thanks for the comment.

i should have made it clear that when i referred to their use of fresh produce being good for people, i meant in terms of health - fewer synthetics and evil preservatives in their stuff. or so they claim. i haven't looked into that one properly (yet).

and they've still not replied to my query. i am taking their silence as a no. a friend who works in one of their stores at the moment has confirmed that all the stuff above's correct, and there may also be some nasty stuff about lanolin to come (which i know nothing about - again, more researching to do).

and i've realised i shouldn't have taken foo-go's anonymous telephone lady at her word. sure enough, they have the (agh can't work out how to put pics in comments) ...

.. that recycley arrowey logo on their packaging. all that means is that it is recyclable. if it has numbers in the middle, that's the amount of recycled material the packaging already contains. there are no numbers on their logo. or mention of recycled materials being used on their website.

dammit and blast.

and correct me if i'm wrong on the recycling logo thing.

6:43 pm  
Anonymous paige said...

Hi Zoe,

Just read your comments about Foo-Go and thought I'd defend the 'creating a more ethical food chain' aspiration at Foo-Go - where I work.

The facts are pretty harsh for any food company these days and the smoke and mirrors are everywhere. Consumers are told to buy British meat, but those animals consume 10 times their weight in feed that is shipped from Brazil - a cheap producer of the soya based feeds these animals eat. So would it be better in food miles to just raise the chickens or beef there and ship the meat to the UK? As for the veggie side - tomatoes are so energy intensive (food miles+cultivation methods) that any environmentalist of integrity should really avoid them completely as they travel long distances more than most and the nutritional energy value delivered to the end consumer is next to nil.

We are hoping to start a blog soon to inform people on the crazy world of food production from the point of view of a company *trying* to make the best of what is sometimes a bad job.

p.s. the logo means the paper is from sustainable forestry sources -recycled paper is not allowed anywhere near food products by law.

10:02 pm  
Blogger zoe said...

thanks for that, paige!
(and the lady on the phone told me you use recycled paper - oops)...
let me know when the blog comes out. i promise not to spam it with 'foo-go are bad' comments.

1:32 pm  
Blogger merrick said...


you're right to raise the ethical conundrum of Brazilian meat vs British meat fed on Brazilian soya.

Contrary to what's often portrayed, Amazon deforestation is not primarily about logging, it's clearance for cattle ranching and soya to feed cattle.

this article is enough to make anyone with a conscience vow to never touch the stuff again.

However, it's not the binary choice you imply. There is meat raised without any rainforest soya. There's beef raised on pasture grazing over summer and bioregional dry-feeding over winter. Surely that's the more ethical option.

But even then, cattle burn off or shit out most of the nutriment they eat. Surely we should be growing food to feed people rather than growing it to make a mountain of dung for every lump of meat.

It takes a far larger area of land to supply someone with an animal-based diet than a plant-based one. So eating meat means more wild land - Amazonian or otherwise - goes under the plough with all the associated loss of habitat and extinction that implies.

I'm not sure how this tallies with Foo-go's claim to be good for the environment.

Then of course the animals are kept in unnatural groupings that cause great psychological distress before being strung upside down and killed while only a small way into their natural lifespan.

That - along with the encouraging of wild land to be cultivated and so killing wild animals - is at odds with Foo-go's core value of being 'good for animals'.

I find your singling out of tomatoes a tad peculiar. You're dead right that cultivation methods need to be taken into account (I read something somewhere about how field-grown Spanish tomatoes driven to the UK are less energy intensive than greenhouse domestic ones), but that doesn't make them the worst offenders.

They certainly have not 'travelled long distances more than most'; way the majority I see are EU grown, mostly Spanish. Compare this with any other fresh produce and if anything it comes out as relatively favourable.

And seeing a foodstuff as merely its energy value is frankly bizarre. As I'm sure you know, there's a whole lot more to nutrition than calories.

Tomatoes, the food mentioned, are great for vitamins A and C, and potassium (lowers blood pressure). As a source of lycopene I understand they're unsurpassed. This gives a marked reduction in the likelihood of cardiovascular disease and a number of cancers (colon, cervix, ovaries, lungs, mouth, pancreas, stomach and oesophagus).

These benefits are surely more than 'next to nil'.

11:26 am  
Anonymous Paige said...

Have you all seen this?

We are trying to work with small producers to avoid this continuing...

9:40 am  
Blogger merrick said...

Paige, when you say Foo-go are 'trying' to work with small producers, what does it actually mean?

As Zoe's original piece says about what one of your colleagues said, They also ‘try’ to source free range/organic meat, but could not tell me in what proportions or how successfully. Unfortunately, the lack of knowledge over what they’re actually selling me, and the meaningless values of ‘mostly’ and ‘try’, lead me to think that it’s not a terribly important issue on their agenda.

beyond this, whilst they break the stranglehold of agribusiness, small producers are not necessarily more humane. They still use antibiotics, they still mutilate chjickens to stop them pecking one another, the egg industry still kills three day old male chicks, the dairy industry still sends male calves to veal crates. And, as I said above, they all keep their animals in distressing unnatural groupings then kill them when still young.

Have you any reply to the points raised above?

11:00 pm  

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