How can we do good in a bad world?
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As corporations continue to exploit people and the planet in the name of profits, Emily Cashen wonders whether ethical consumption is ever truly possible
Last Thursday, I plonked myself down at my desk and started my day by scanning the morning headlines. Scrolling past the latest on the farcical Tory leadership race and the usual Brexit infighting, one story quickly caught my eye. "Are your tinned tomatoes picked by slave labour?" a Guardian thinkpiece asked me.
Oh no. Are they? I thought back to the can of plum tomatoes I had used to make a pasta sauce just the night before. Is my penchant for a weeknight penne all'arrabbiata propping up the global system of modern day slavery?
Reading on, I was confronted with the horrific truth behind our store cupboard essentials - immigrant workers toiling for hours in extreme heat, overworked farmhands perishing in Italian shanty towns and others losing their lives in violent traffic accidents on the way back from a gruelling 12 hour shift. Oh god, I said to myself, a pit of guilt forming in my stomach. It was just a can of plum tomatoes - how was I to know?
It can be overwhelming living in a world where something as innocuous as your weekly shop can end up having a negative knock-on impact on other people and the planet. Put an avocado in your shopping basket, and you could be contributing to deforestation and exploitation of workers in Central America. Purchase any item containing palm oil - bread, crisps, ice-cream, washing detergent, margarine and shampoo among them - and you could feeding into large-scale habitat destruction, endangering already vulnerable animals such as orangutans. Pick up anything wrapped in plastic, and that same packaging could well end up in our oceans, slowly decomposing into microplastics and poisoning precious marine life. And that's without even mentioning the environmental impact of eating meat and fish.
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Of course, it's important to understand where our food and other everyday items come from, so we can try and make ethical choices when it comes to where we spend our money. But even when we try our best to make good choices, we might be indirectly and unintentionally contributing to the suffering of others and the exploitation of the planet. After all, capitalism is driven by profits, not ethics. So how can we do good when the systems that surround us might be inherently bad?
If only there was a simple answer. It might be near impossible to be 100 % ethical in our spending, but that doesn't mean that we should bury our heads in the sand and admit defeat. It's clear that there is a growing demand for products that are respectful to human life, animal life and the planet, and in a supply-and-demand system, brands need to sit up and take notice of this. Indeed, this shift in public consciousness is already having a positive impact on big brand offerings.
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Just think of the Greggs vegan sausage roll. Five years ago, it was completely unthinkable that this traditional British bakery chain - home of the steak bake and the sausage, bean and cheese melt - would add a vegan sausage roll to its meat-heavy line up. But now, sixth months after its launch, the vegan sausage roll has proven to be a hit with consumers, flying off the shelves and helping to push profits at Greggs over £1 billion for the very first time. Was the launch a profit-motivated move to tap into the lucrative market of the UK's growing vegan and vegetarian population? Most likely, yes. But it has also helped to propel meat-free options into the mainstream, making it ever easier for consumers to cut down their meat consumption and, in turn, reduce their carbon footprint.
And the vegan sausage roll is far from the only success story. Last year, the UK government banned the sale of cosmetics and personal care products containing microbeads, in response to growing outcry from the British public. The tiny pieces of plastic - which were once found in soaps, face scrubs, toothpaste and shower gels - posed a serious threat to marine life once they were washed down the drain and made their way into the ocean. Banning microbeads might be a small step in the fight against ocean pollution, but it's a significant one nonetheless.
These stories show that consumers do have power to effect positive change. If we start to hold big brands to higher ethical standards, they may well be forced to listen - especially if we are hitting them where it hurts: in their profits. We have a chance to vote with our wallets with every purchase that we make, so let's make it count.