Ethical Consumerism: Navigating the Minefield

The inspiration for this particular blog post was born out of the research of a planned piece about sustainable pet care. We quickly saw just how often a lot of ethical terminology is used interchangeably, despite the meanings being quite different in practice. As such, we felt that a broader post that takes a look at ethical consumerism might be beneficial. Below, we will try our best to shine some light on the basics, before sharing some of the things we’ve learned so far on our journey through the minefield of becoming [more] ethical consumers.

What does it all mean?

Ethical Consumerism: This phrase might sound like something from an economy textbook, but all it means is choosing to limit the negative social or environmental impacts of your lifestyle by buying certain goods or services, and avoiding others. Choice and limitation are the two key concepts. The consumer world is NOT currently geared towards ethical consumerism, so it is up to us to make those positive choices. Similarly, unless you live off grid and are meticulous about your entire lifestyle, the things you consume will ALWAYS have some element of negative impact. The goal therefore is to reduce this wherever possible, which is perfectly achievable. We feel it is fair then to say that ethical consumerism can be flexible, and allows consumers to choose what level of negative impact they are prepared to accept as a cost of their lifestyle. However, there are also certainties with ethical consumerism.

Ethical consumerism is becoming more important every single day

“Expenditure on ethical goods and services in the UK increased almost threefold in the ten years between 1999 and 2008”

All of the other terms discussed in this post describe elements of ethical consumerism. If you’d like more information on what ethical consumerism means, or why it’s important to you as a consumer or a business, retail education charity IGD have a helpful website.

Vegetarian: A dietary choice (although some illnesses make a vegetarian diet necessary), defined by the Vegetarian Society as

“Someone who lives on a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits with, or without, the use of dairy products and eggs. A vegetarian does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish* or by-products of slaughter.”

VEG_SOC_APPROVEDThere are various subgroups within vegetarianism, but generally speaking only food and drink can be defined as vegetarian. Being vegetarian therefore tends to have less impact on ethical consumerism outside of the food industry.

Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: A fancy way of labeling ‘traditional’ vegetarianism – eats dairy and eggs but avoids meat.

Lacto-vegetarian: Avoids meat and eggs, but consumes dairy.

Ovo-vegetarian: Avoids meat and dairy, but consumes eggs.

Pescetarian: Often not regarded as vegetarian by other types of vegetarian, pescetarians avoid meat except for fish.

Vegan: A lifestyle choice rather than a purely dietary one, vegans avoid any animal product, including leather and honey. Degrees of veganism vary greatly, as there are many complicated factors that they can consider when buying goods.

vegan logo.png


Fair-trade: Generally accepted as trade between companies and producers with secured minimum prices that protect the producer. Usually occurs between developing producers and western companies. In practice, there are in fact different regulators and standards of fair trade. Two major factions are the Fairtrade Foundation and the World Fair Trade Organisation.

Sustainable: The basic concept of a sustainable process or product is that it can continue in the future without being changed eg. a sustainable method of farming rice crops will mean that the same rice crops can be farmed in the same way in twenty years time.

Tricks and Trips

Now we’ve had a quick (read: brief, and basic) look at some of the most important terminology for ethical consumers, you might be forgiven for thinking everything else is easy – simply buy the products that advertise these logos, and you’re all set, right? WRONG.

In an ideal world it might be true, but unfortunately these labels are barely the beginning. For the most part, it’s true that relying on these labels WILL improve your ethics as a consumer. However, it’s also true that they are the source of controversy and often don’t represent exactly what you might expect. Let’s take a look at just a few of the issues.

Vegan/Vegetarian: For the purpose of this blog, we are choosing to trust branded products that advertise their product as suitable for vegans/vegetarians. The problem we have, is that not all brands choose to seek accreditation, or advertise their product as vegan/vegetarian, even if it is. To our minds, this indicates a deeper issue that we find more problematic than the simple confusion. Either, brands are scared to advertise as vegan or vegetarian friendly, for fear of losing ‘regular’ (read: omnivorous) customers as a result of the negative opinions much of the general market hold about meat free consumers, or else the brand has no commitment to meat-free produce that extends beyond their desire to create a ‘better’/’cheaper’ product. It’s a sad situation we think needs more attention, but in the meantime, we recommend checking manufacturer websites, or sites like Vegan Wiki.

A similar problem crops up from brands desire to cash in on a label with positive perceptions: all natural colours and flavourings. Carmine, or E120 in Europe is sometimes used as red dye. And it’s made from bugs. Squished, crushed bugs, farmed in their millions. But it doesn’t say that anywhere on any labels, so if you wish to avoid eating animal products, it’s down to the consumer to check for the dye. This livescience article has some more detail.

Cochineal beetles

Fair-trade: That’s right, sadly a fair-trade badge isn’t a safe bet, either. Frankly, we were shocked at the amount of criticism and question marks our research actually revealed. There’s certainly enough for a whole individual blog post, so if people show an interest we might make that happen. For now, we hope a bullet list will help.

  • Fair-trade protects producers of the raw materials only, such as farmers and miners. Other workers in the chain aren’t eligible to register.
  • Workers or groups of workers have to pay for a license that allows them to take part. The companies that sell the finished goods then pay a license fee to be allowed to use the fair-trade name and logo.
  • Critics of Fair-trade are quick to point out that most of Fair-trade’s positive media presence is only anecdotal .
  • Fair-trade don’t monitor the retail price of the end products, and there is much debate about how much of the increase in price actually makes it to the producers fair trade is supposed to protect.
  • Fair-trade foundation certification only requires a percentage of one ingredient to come from fair-trade sources. The rest can come from potentially anywhere.
  • Finally, and potentially critically, the fair-trade foundation award their certification based on mass balance. Cadbury were recently called out for this on UK television. There’s a great explanation here on chocablog, but basically manufacturers only have to purchase a relevant weight of fair-trade product to qualify and the rest can come from anywhere. Therefore your supposedly ethical bar can contain anywhere from 0-100%fair-trade bean.

At it’s worst therefore, the fair-trade organisation can be seen as nothing more than a profit making middle man, who facilitates increased profits for big corporations at the cost of the very workers the scheme claims to exist to protect. Of course, this isn’t true in every case, but on the facts there is every chance it could be true for some.

Paws for thought

Above are a few big issues we wanted to draw attention to, but that isn’t where the story ends. Depending on how strongly you want to embrace an ethical lifestyle, there can be potentially no end to the factors you need to consider in order to make the best ethical choice to meet your needs.

  • Some countries embrace the eco message more strongly than others, or happen to be where particularly good manufacturers are located. That they exist is fantastic, but sometimes its important to consider the delivery miles that might be associated with your purchase. If the shipping company isn’t green, or your order is being couriered as part of a small load, your choice of an eco-friendly product might actually cost the planet more than a less green, but more produced and more locally sourced alternative.
  • Recycling, recycling, recycling. Again, we’ll do a more detailed post on just this topic sometime soon, (link here), but the basic message is that recycling isn’t black and white. If it’s a cause you are passionate about, make sure you research the ‘recyclable’ materials used in your product, and also how close to you the nearest recycling facilities are for that material. Some recyclables are much cheaper and more efficient than others – glass and aluminium vs plastic for example. Likewise, the services offered in your local area vary massively, so it’s always worth checking.


  • Use, reuse, repurpose. Innovation is an amazing thing, and we LOVE it. But sometimes it’s worth asking whether buying the latest, most efficient, greenest product right now will actually save you and the planet any stress if you still have a less wonderful, but still perfectly functioning version. Cars are an easy example – sure new models have much better aluminium use and fuel usage, but a brand new car is only made one way, with a huge amount of resources and emissions.


  • Take everything with a pinch of salt. As we have mentioned, demand for ethical goods is rising. A sad consequence of this is that many brands try to jump into this growing marketplace to cultivate a premium price for their product. Keep an eye out for cost cutting and more dubious materials/ingredients hiding underneath the bits that are being advertised. Things we particularly hate are foods with only one fair-trade ingredient, bottled ‘eco water’, and supposedly green products with far too much packaging, and lots of hard or non-recyclable components.
  • The other potential pitfall that comes from these brands is that you might think you’re making a responsible purchase, but actually you are funding a brand that is >50% unethical. This can be true of everything, from where you bank, the actual shops you purchase from, the food you buy, and the products you fill your house with, right to the services you use in daily life.

Conclusion: Trailblazing

So we’ve had a look at some of the obstacles that we face in our pursuit of becoming more ethical consumers. Here are some tips we hope will help you steer the course.

  • Research everything as far as possible. This is a big one, and it can be time consuming, but hopefully you learn something interesting along the way, and perhaps even strike up some new friendships.
    • Ethical groups and individuals tend to be very passionate and supportive about the products they endorse. Therefore, asking people you know or social media can be a really useful way of finding what you’re looking for.
    • We’ve just launched an ongoing campaign #solevegan to help people with these kinds of lifestyle choices. Join in and get involved.
    • There are lots of smaller alternatives to fair-trade, so it’s worth taking a few moments to research any certificates or accreditation you see on products you like. Company websites usually include a whole page devoted to their awards.
  • Know your label. Becoming familiar with how to read all the information packaging provides can be a big help. You’ll see guides to recycling the packaging, indications of welfare, nutrition, and of course ingredients or materials.
  • Brand can be everything, but not in the way you might think. It’s no secret that CSR (corporate social responsibility) and ethical initiatives are big money now, and set to boom for some time to come. As a result, some companies have risen to the challenge and choose to provide their own certification and schemes, rather than paying ‘middlemen’ to make their product more ethical. This makes the company look good, but also allows them to create something with longevity and development, rather than simply annual licensing fees. Company websites and social media accounts are good sources of this information, and their responses can often be a good indication of how sincere they are about their ethics.
  • Consumption calculations. Websites like the Energy Saving Trust can help you compare the footprints of new and existing products you use around the home.
  • Think outside your home. If you’re tempted by a new product, consider how else you can ensure the resources and materials in your current product can be put to use. Could you sell or donate it locally and save another family from buying a new product? Can you put it to use as something else?
  • Share the knowledge. If you’ve found a wonderful product, but it’s offered overseas, do you know any ethical companies who might be interested in acting as a distributor? What might not be viable for you individually might be much more ethical if it was imported in larger numbers. If not, there’s still the chance that your information will inspire a more local company to make something similar.
  • Stay close to home. For low-tech products and food, choosing local or even homemade is often one of the best ways to maximise transparency. The more you know, and the more you can see about where a product has come from, the more likely you are to be able to assess it’s ethical value.

Of course, these are just some of the things to watch out for and steps to consider. We hope you enjoyed reading, and encourage you to share any of the difficulties you have encountered, or your suggestions for becoming a more ethical consumer, in the comments section below.

Thank you so much for your time!

The Paws



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