Friday, 2 July 2010

Ethical Dilemmas in the Shops

posted by Rhiannon

This theme may be old to many f/Friends, but I am feeling it afresh, spurred on in part by a green issues home group in Leeds and in part by reading about Cat Chapin-Bishop's plastic fast. In seeking to be ethical consumers, how do we make choices?

Here are three considerations - not the whole picture, but enough to get us started.

On the one hand, I believe in social justice, and that movements such as Fairtrade are worth supporting.

On the other hand, I see good reasons to think that we need to reduce our use of fossil fuels, and hence of fossil fuel powered transport, plastic, and other related products.

And in a third corner, sitting behind me because I am reluctant to admit to it, I have a need to look after myself to a certain extent: to feed myself healthy food at a reasonable price, to travel sometimes, to use products which come in plastic packets.

Now let me tell about my local supermarket. It's the cheapest place with the widest selection within a walking distance which is reasonable at my present level of health. They sell, for example, two kinds of bananas: fairly traded bananas in plastic bags, and ordinary bananas which are loose. (Should I be sad or thankful that they don't complicate this further by selling organic bananas?)

Sometimes I want to buy bananas - I like them and they're good for me. I want to buy fairly traded bananas because, well, I want to be fair. However, I don't want to buy a plastic bag. Which kind do I buy?

For bananas, I have developed an arbitrary mechanism. I like my bananas greener than most people do, and it takes me a week to eat a bunch, so I buy the greenest ones. This seems to produce about the same result as if I flipped a coin to choose between the two kinds.

Needless to say, I find this solution intellectually unsatisfying and non-transferable, although it satisfies the hunger better than not buying bananas at all. Almost every food comes with a similar dilemma: all fresh fruit and veg in the shop is a plastic/fair trade/organic/food miles toss up (I'd grow it, but I rent a house which only has a tiny concrete garden). The frozen veg is in plastic, and though it might be brought by boat rather than plane, freezing requires fuel. Putting things in tins takes energy, too. Pasta, rice, many potatoes, and bread all come in plastic, and who knows how far? I'm vegetarian, but milk and cheese come in plastic, possibly a long way; even if I went vegan, the rice milk or soy milk (which might be GM...) would come in a Tetrapak - as does my fruit juice now. I can drink water but I can't swallow tablets with it, and when you take them every day, you get through juice. In any case, water's good but it's hardly full of vitamins and doesn't count as one of your five a day.

Sometimes this makes me want to throw up my hands in horror and give up eating entirely. Other times, it makes me want to move to a smallholding in Wales and try desperately to grow everything for myself. Mostly, I just sigh and feel a bit guilty while I eat my banana - whichever kind it is.

Which bananas would you buy? Why? What buying choices do you struggle with?


Kathz said...

I make things easier for myself by having a lot delivered, once a week, by a company with a focus on organic, fair-trade, sustainable goods and smaller farmers. But I'm not sure I do that out of principle. It's convenient and means I avoid the horrors of supermarkets. But that also means I keep away from human interaction. Apart from that I go to shops which produce ethical goods (like Out of This World) and markets (where I enjoy the liveliness and wit) but I also go to shops which are cheap and convenient (Wilkos and very occasionally Primark) where the price suggests some level of exploitation - probably a long way away. Since plans were approved for the horrid Tesco - currently rising whitely in the midst of a vast building site which is scarring Beeston - I've boycotted all branches of Tesco everywhere, but this may be informed partly by my dislike of large supermarkets and shopping. However there's more about Tesco and supermarkets at:

Stephanie said...

This link should take you to my view of this dilemma:
Stephanie Grant

Bush Quaker said...

Why not buy the fairtrade bananas, but leave the plastic bag at the till after you pay for them? Let the staff know why you are doing so.