The more I learn about the world of food production, corporate supermarket operations, and the environmental implications of modern lifestyle, the more thought I have to put into my shopping. The maxim about “voting with your dollar” is largely true, and there are a lot of factors to take into consideration. That being said, it doesn’t need to be difficult, and we all choose which factors most strongly influence our buying.
One of the biggest factors, which I don’t discuss below, is having the income to be able to make ethical shopping purchases. I am on a pretty damn low income, but I have made buying quality (and conscionable) food/products a priority. I don’t buy much (other than books, second-hand mostly), I don’t “eat out”, buy new clothes, etc. To me it’s worth saving my pennies elsewhere in order to eat well!
As a side note, I am surprisingly lucky in terms of access to local (and often organically) grown produce, and local businesses to support. For a small country town, the access to ethically sourced foods is amazing. Not to mention said local produce is usually MUCH CHEAPER than the produce available in the supermarkets!
Now we’ve gotten the preamble out of the way, here is a brief guide to the things I consider when buying a product.
- Where am I buying it? Especially with products in the major supermarkets, I always ask “Can I get this from a local business instead?”
- Is it vegan? Any animal ingredients (including E numbers)? Is it tested on animals?
- Animal-derived (i.e. non-vegan) E numbers:
- 120 Carmine
- 441 Gelatine
- 542 Bone Phosphate
- 631 Glutamic Acid
- 901 Beeswax
- 910, 920, 921 L-cysteine
- 913 Lanolin
- 966 Lactitol
- Is it Australian made? Check for products made from LOCAL ingredients only, not a mixture of local and imported.
- Is the manufacturer Australian? Even if the ingredients come from Australia, the parent company itself may be a multinational/international corporation. So it’s always worth checking.
- Does the manufacturer have a “black” listing? Has the company been accused of any unethical practices, code violations, human rights violations, etc.?
As a quick guide, the 6 major companies you should boycott on this basis are;
- Nestlé (aggressively marketed infant formula in developing countries; dependency on these products leads to infant deaths, workers’ rights, pollution)
- Coca-Cola (murders, kidnappings and torture of union leaders in Colombia, pollution of soil/groundwater in India)
- L’Oréal / Procter & Gamble (ongoing involvement in animal testing, with no interest in stopping; L’Oréal is also part-owned by Nestlé)
- GlaxoSmithKline (animal testing, adulterated drugs, $3b fine for fraud)
- Unilever (animal testing, BPA policy, price fixing, worker exploitation in Kenya and India)
- Johnson & Johnson (animal testing, unethical marketing, price fixing, action on Darfur)
- How many ingredients? Is it mostly whole foods, is the ingredients list a mile long, how many artificial ingredients are there? I try and avoid unnecessary processing where possible.
For example, quick oats have one ingredient, oats. Pre-flavoured quick oats often have up to FIFTEEN ingredients, even for flavours as simple as “brown sugar”. I’d rather just add some brown sugar to the oats myself; with soy milk that’s a total of 3 ingredients!
- How much packaging is involved? Can I get a version with less packaging? Is the packaging recyclable?
I buy my cat tuna in tins for this reason; the individual sachet pouches aren’t recyclable, but tins are!
When buying produce there are a few extra considerations;
- Can I get this locally? A lot of farmers are happy to sell the produce that supermarkets reject because it’s not “perfect”, with the bonus of it being fresh (and did you know those rough brown spots on the skins of apples usually indicate a sweeter apple?). It’s worth hunting around to find out if you have this option.
Obviously, if you live in a city (you poor thing!), this isn’t very practical; I’d suggest trying to find produce that comes from within your own state, if possible. The aim of the game is to select produce with the lowest food miles; there’s also nothing like fresh produce!
- Should I buy organic? This is a tricky one; as a general rule, I first consider whether the item is one of the “Dirty Dozen” or the “Clean Fifteen”. These are general guides indicating which foods are grown using the greatest amount of pesticides and petro-chemicals. They are:
- Dirty Dozen (buy these organic where possible)
- Spinach (and kale and other greens)
- Clean Fifteen (minimal pesticides used in production)
- Kiwi fruit
- Sweet peas
- Sweet potatoes
So there you have it, a (reasonably) short and sweet guide to ethical shopping considerations! Now, this is a lot to remember, especially when you’re busy grocery shopping. I use several reference materials, in handy pocket form, that ensure I can look all this stuff up on the fly. They are;
- The “Shop Ethical” guide, a new pocket-sized guide book that I am absolutely NUTS about! It provides you with information about products and companies, including animal products/testing, human rights violations, companies accused of ethical violations, the country of origin of companies, and a very useful guide to what is Australian owned/made. (And it’s only $9! I actually have two of these, one for each of my bags, so I’m never without!)
- A list of animal derived E numbers; I have written the above list out on a post-it and taped it to the back of the Shop Ethical guide.
- “The Chemical Maze”, which comes in a bookshelf or pocket size, and gives you a complete list of all E numbers and common chemicals in cleaning and costmetic products. It tells you what they’re derived from, what their function is, whether there are any health/safety issues associated with the chemical, and common uses.
As always, questions and comments are more than welcome!