The ethical shopper: Buy local, read labels, think before you shop

From clothes to food, taking the time to inform yourself can make a difference

Apart from keeping it local, is there much one person can do to reduce the harm their shopping habits can cause?

We all have our own worries but even in these hard times turning spending into a force for good is empowering and can become a form of freedom, at a time when we’re all feeling imprisoned.

When it comes to the environment and ethics, clothes are an enduring problem and the lives of the young women – and it’s nearly always women – who made the shirt on your back or the shoes on your feet are often cruel, unforgiving and hazardous.

But is there more you can do other than acknowledge how terrible things are for other people? Alice Dawson-Lyons suggests we use our consumer power to ask the brands we love questions about their supply chains and sustainability. She also advises people to think about shopping second hand more in a bid to slow down fast fashion.

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According to Oxfam, Ireland dumps 225,000 tonnes of textiles every year. That’s 5,000 large truckloads of clothes which can spend up to 200 years decomposing.

The Clean Clothes Campaign, a global network dedicated to improving working conditions in the garment and sportswear industries, says three out of five fast fashion items end up in landfill within a year.

So maybe you could do your bit by decluttering your wardrobe in a more considered fashion. Charities with retail outlets, including Oxfam, “want the things you don’t” to help them fund their activities and many sell online now too, through sites such as Thriftify. You can also sell your clothes yourself online or when things get back to normal you can swap them.

Chocolate
Buying ethically extends deeper into your shopping basket. According to Reuters, more than 1.5 million children are working in the cocoa industry in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, where about 70 per cent of the world's cocoa comes from. They earn about 70c a day.

Only 6 per cent of the world’s cocoa is currently Fairtrade, the leading certification scheme that gives the farmers a guaranteed minimum price for their crops. Price stability and secure trading relationships help alleviate the poverty that has these children out of school and working in the first place.

But what can you do? You can think before you eat and only buy ethically-sourced treats while paying attention to Fairtrade Fortnight which happens, online this year, from February 22nd to March 7th.

It is also worth paying attention to the details of the brands you buy and be wary of greenwashing, which sees brands claiming eco credentials they don’t have or exaggerating ones they do.

And by buying from bricks and mortar shops (when they reopen ), including independents, and by choosing brands carefully, shoppers can make a real difference.

A look at co-operatives – enterprises owned and controlled by user members – is worthwhile too. They include credit unions for financial products, and for food and other supplies, the Dublin Food Co-op, the East Clare Co-op, the Quay Co-op in Cork, Common Ground in Bray, Co Wicklow, and Loveworks in Belfast. Great Care is a care-workers co-op and there are cleaners working as co-ops, such as the Belfast Cleaning Society.

The Dublin Food Co-op says it “strives to sell only products which are environmentally sound and socially responsible, which support our local community/ economy as much as possible, and which meet the needs of our members”.

Guides

As Dawson-Lyons from Oxfam suggests, if a few minutes of online rooting doesn’t unearth satisfying answers, then ask questions. A business with nothing to hide will be glad of the chance to set you straight.

I found the guides to ethical shopping that I trust in the Dublin Food Co-op’s manifesto and the work of the Ethical Consumer (ethicalconsumer.org). Go find yours: there are informed and well-intentioned influencers out there. You’ll probably get greenwashed at some stage – it’s inevitable – but taking the time to research and spend consciously will help avoid that.