Behind the Eco Labels

Ethical consumerism in the UK is currently worth £29.3 billion, yet 60 per cent of us feel we don't have enough information to make an ethical decision. There is an ever-growing array of eco labels, but what do they tell us? Or fail to tell us? Pat Thomas explains

Click on a logo to uncover some uncomfortable truths...

It used to be easy to shop. The bottom line of being a ‘canny consumer’ was a simple matter of getting the stuff you wanted at the best possible price. Informed choice was simply about knowing which shops had the cheapest prices.

Today things have changed because we know that everything we buy, everything we use and dispose of, leaves a mark on the world. The mark can be pollution caused by manufacture or disposal, the health consequences of using products that are made with and contain toxic chemicals, or the furthering of animal cruelty or human cruelty in the form of sweatshop labour to produce ever cheaper and more abundant goods. Or it can be a combination of all these and more.

Instead of one bottom line, many of us now negotiate at least three or four more, for instance: Is it organic? Is it ethically traded? Is it cruelty-free? Was it produced locally? At times, exercising informed choice can feel like a full-time occupation. Yet informed choices are more important than ever before. There are shortcuts that can help. Eco labels such as the Soil Association logo, the Fairtrade mark and the European Energy Savings symbol exist to provide a snapshot of the kinds of products we buy, how they were produced and their impact on the planet. But the ever-increasing number of eco-labels can easily lead to customer confusion.

Shopping by labels is a frustrating process that has come about in part because of how we have learned to produce goods (by strangers in faraway countries) and shop for them (disconnected from the producer and the production process). The complexity of the global marketplace means there is still no all-encompassing label to guarantee, for instance, that our clothes and other non-food items are not made with sweatshop or slave labour. Likewise, although organic produce commands a higher price at the checkout, there are no guarantees that workers on organic farms are benefiting.

Buying Fairtrade may help support industry in the developing world, but it can leave local communities in tatters, produce pollution through air miles and manufacturing effluent and emissions, and promote waste in the mountains of primary, secondary and shipping packaging required to move goods around the globe and get them on the shelves.

The loopholes and missing information of eco labelling are important to know about, because if we make our shopping decisions based on a single variable we can only ever fulfil a single goal. Apples are good for you. But if you eat only apples, you will not have a well-balanced diet. It’s much the same with using eco labels to define our choices.

Ethical shopping is now a part of the mainstream. Intriguingly, the number of ethical or political consumers – people who make consumption choices informed by values and concerns – is increasing even as faith and interest in other traditional forms of political activity are on the wane.

Eco labels have become a kind of everyday ballot and shopping ethically a statement of intent for many individuals, an immediate way of saying ‘these are things I care about’.

In a world where the ethical production and sale of goods was a true priority, our governments would respond to this ballot. They would ban products that waste or pollute. Making the world better by restricting consumer choice may be anathema to many, but consider what’s happening in Australia. Last month, the government there announced that from 2009 it will ban incandescent light bulbs in favour of more energy-efficient, compact fluorescent bulbs.

It’s a bold and positive move. And we need to respond, perhaps by facing up to the fact that an ethical life and, by extension, an ethical world, will not evolve out of ethical shopping. It works the other way round. To really make a difference through our shopping requires, paradoxically, that we buy less and that when we do make a purchase it is based on values that mean something to us, rather than just hollow promises of good value.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2007

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