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Supermarket Checkout !

Five principles for ethical shopping

by Nick Ray

Manna Matters November 2009

Most of us either love or hate the business of shopping, but few view it as an opportunity to make a difference in the world. We are encouraged to get what we want, when we want it, at the very cheapest price. That would be a bargain.

Even in the light of the call to love our neighbour as ourselves and care for the earth, we often find ourselves blind to the very nature of the consumer culture of which we are a part. A reality that sees the fingerprints of our global neighbors all over our food and clothes. Their hands have picked our coffee beans, sewn our denim jeans, and mined the coltan for our mobile phones. Their struggles, hopes and fears are masked behind elaborate systems. Yet they have a story, as do the other processes behind the essential things that sustain our daily life.

Can we actually take responsibility for the wider impacts of our everyday purchases? It can seem as difficult as moving a camel through the eye of a needle.

Where to start? Perhaps with some basic principles.

1. Every purchase makes an impact, your choice makes a difference.

Being stuck in a very long checkout queue the other day I was reminded that I'm one person in a world of 6.5 billion. It seemed in that instant my small purchase of a tub of yoghurt wasn't really going to make any difference at all. Especially compared with that guy up ahead with the 12 slabs of Red Bull. It took me a moment to remember that we are actually in the present environmental crisis because each small purchase does count and together these small impacts all add up to one big impact. A very heavy footprint!

To shop with a conscience is to start to see the connections and see your own choices as a means to enact change for a better world. It might be choosing an orange that's grown locally and traveled only 500kms from Mildura rather than 21,000 kms from California, or avoiding a company that has a boycott call.

2. Avoid unnecessary consumption: do I really need it?

In the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21) Jesus draws a sharp distinction between life and possessions, between being and having. The man, though rich because of his many possessions, is a fool because he assumes that those possessions will secure his life.

Although Australians' real income per person has risen by more than half in the past 20 years, almost two-thirds of Australians believe that they can't afford to buy everything they really need.*

There is nothing more counter-cultural, nor more difficult, than the defiant expression of contentment: 'I have enough; I don't need anything more.' As G.K. Chesterton said, "There are two ways to get enough. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less."

3. Learn about the issues, one at a time.

Fairtrade, food miles, packaging, waste, genetic engineering, multinational ownership ...

When we start to delve deeper into the stories behind our 'stuff', it's easy to be struck by just how little we do know and how easy it is to be overwhelmed. Sometimes we are left with questions (what does a 'free range' label on my eggs actually mean?) and at other times there's just too much information and it's difficult to know where to start.

The first thing to remember is to take on one issue at a time. It's good to ask, "what issues are connected to the products I buy?". You'll find there are certain issues that relate to specific product types. For example, fair wages and fair conditions is one issue that is particularly relevant to coffee and chocolate.

Coffee is the most traded commodity in the world after oil and illegal drugs. However, the farmers who grow the beans often receive as little as three cents from a $3 cup of coffee.  By sourcing Fairtrade chocolate you can ensure a fair deal for farmers (a minimum price of $3.80 per kilo compared to the normal price of about 65 cents).

So think about the products you buy, and start with one issue relevant to them.

4. Seek out a best buy: what do you value?

There are no right or wrong purchasing decisions. Rather a 'best buy' will depend on what you value - which criteria you think are most important.

Some products you'll find meet many criteria. SAFE toilet paper is a 'best buy' brand for me.  It is made from 'post-consumer' waste paper, which is paper that has been out amongst us as copy paper and then been collected for recycling into this new product. Each ton of post-consumer-waste recycled paper saves 17 trees, 4,100 kwh of energy - enough to power the average home for six months - and a whopping 26,000 litres of water. SAFE is also paper-wrapped and non-chlorine-bleached; it's also made in Laverton, close to where I live, so it hasn't traveled far. Lots of positive features on many levels.

This, however, is not going to happen for most products most of the time. You'll be making trade-offs - so it's important to prioritise what you value. You might decide to buy local over organic, or choose to buy with minimal packaging over local.

Think about what you value. What are the issues that you really care about, the things that motivate you to action? Animal welfare? People's wages? Multinational control?

5. Make lasting change

Celebrate good choices and create good habits. It can seem like a huge task to change your shopping patterns, but once you've found a best buy, remember it, and move on to the next product-type on your list or issue to address.

Share your discoveries. Change starts with you but it doesn't end there. I was extremely excited to discover I could take my tupperware container to the local deli at the Footscray market and have them put in cheddar cheese without plastic packaging.  I annoyed family and friends for about a week. Perhaps you too can seed some new possibilities for those around you?

Nick Ray is the project coordinator for The Ethical Consumer Group, who produce the pocket-book 'Guide to Ethical Supermarket Shopping' and run monthly 'Shopping with a Conscience' public workshops and supermarket tours. To find out more about how you can make a difference in your everyday purchases, check out their website at

* "Where does the buck stop?", Research Paper No. 53, May 2008, The Australia Institute.