I cannot emphasise strongly enough how essential it is that we consume less. But as we do that, we can also engage positively and, when we do consume, we can use our consumer power for good. Ruth Valerio ‘Just Living’
Recently I’ve been reading a lot of challenging books and articles; among them Ruth Valerio’s ‘Just Living’ and Erin Loechner’s ’Chasing Slow’ (both of which I highly recommend). I also have a number of friends who are much more active in making environmentally and ethically conscious decisions than I am, and I’m part of an Ethical Living facebook group. The combination of all these is that ethical living has been on my mind quite a bit recently.
Because of my faith, I think it is important to live well, treating people and creation with respect and stewarding resources well for future generations. But my question has been, and continues to be, what does that actually look like? There are so many competing definitions of what ‘ethical’ might include. If you shop somewhere like Ethical Superstore (an online retailer), you can filter products on the basis of different qualities: is it fairtrade, vegan, bee-friendly, paraben free (I don’t even know what a paraben is, let alone why it is something to avoid!). It can all become overwhelming quite quickly.
One common thread seems to be that of reducing consumption. We (in the West) need to corporately use less energy, eat less food, buy fewer things. We have far more than we need, and use far more than the Earth can sustain long term.
Seems simple enough, right? I just don’t buy anything I don’t need and make sure I turn off lights as I go.
The problem I find (of course it’s not that simple!) is how does this work in a consumer society? And what are the things I ‘need’? Food is obvious, but what about craft items or books for study?
An example that brings this close to home. The Husband works in retail, specifically in a Christian bookshop. I probably do not need to tell you that many bookshops in the UK are struggling to stay open. Christian bookshops are having an even tougher time of it. People are reading less in general, but they have not stopped buying books completely, they just tend to use Amazon.
Say I need a book for my studies. I am in town and go into the bookshop, but they do not have it (because it is a specialised title and they have limited stock space). They can order it in, but I can’t be bothered to go back into town the next day to pick it up, so I go home and order it online.
What’s the problem in that? Surely it is my choice to order online? After all I will get my book faster (not necessarily) and cheaper (not always).
Now I’m not saying that internet shopping is in itself a bad thing. There are plenty of times that I buy things online, and sometimes there is no choice. The problem is that it isn’t just about you, or me. We consume as individuals, but our choices affect many others.
If I buy mainly online, and most other people buy mainly online, then the bookshops will disappear from our streets (along with the games shops, craft dens, emporia of random plastics, tailors etc). Then, the old ladies who don’t have the internet but buy cards to faithfully write to friends and those in need of support will have less access to cards to buy; the church leader or youthworker who wants a resource on a particular issue won’t be able to browse as easily; those who need a book with a particular font, or particular feel can’t test options out in person; those with mental health issues have one less place to while away some time and find a sympathetic ear; those who don’t really know what they are looking for but want a gift for a friend will lose the access to a wealth of personally tailored advice.
And that’s before we take into account the jobs lost in the shops and the distribution firms (though I reckon delivery drivers would still be needed); the tax lost to society from businesses that don’t make use of tax avoidance schemes; and in the case of many Christian bookshops, support for projects around the world.
So it’s not just about me, and my desire for instant acquisition, whether caused by lack of forethought or just impatience.
Maybe shops have had their day, and it is just a matter of time before all retail is online, but I want to put up a fight before that happens.
So back to the ‘What is ethical?’ question: Husband and I have decided that if we want shops to exist, we need to support them. So that actually means occasionally buying more things than we ‘need’, like expansion packs for board games, and books, (of course), as well as veg from the grocers. They might not be ‘ethical’ retailers themselves, but this is the decision we’ve made.
There is more to be said of course on the topic of ethical shopping, but for me, it boils down to this: making a thought-through decision that remembers others not just yourself, rather than just being swept along in the current of consumerism.