A significant outbreak of H1N1 influenza, a.k.a. swine flu, is a serious possibility in the northern hemisphere this winter. How should leaders protect their organizations, operations, employees, and customers, and ensure business can carry on if an outbreak occurs?
As a responsible leader, you care about the health of your business and the health of those involved in your business: your employees and customers.
The health of your business
As a business leader, you have an obvious responsibility for the health of your business. You will be held accountable for service interruptions, delays, quality issues, and strained client relationships, for example.
So consider the impact of H1N1 influenza on your business and its ability to sustain itself. Public health officials and industry associations are encouraging organizations to be ready for:
- Up to half of your employees being absent
- Employees requiring extended sick leave
- School and daycare closures that affect the families of employees
- Disruptions to information, telecommunications, transportation and financial services
- International border delays or shutdowns
- Heightened or reduced customer demand, depending on your product
Each of these threats, individually, could have a dramatic effect on your company. This situation is more serious because … Continue Reading: "H1N1 Influenza: A Manager's Responsibility?" »
Who can your company not live without? What roles and functions are mission critical? What resources are absolutely essential for your business to run? What will mean the difference between survival and failure?
Some enlightened managers ask these questions constantly. But for most companies, these questions only get asked in a crisis. An economic slowdown leads to dramatic cost cutting and layoffs. A natural disaster disables access to infrastructure. A national health emergency leaves fifty percent of your employees home sick. In a crisis, identifying the essential allows you to streamline, focus, and prioritize during a period of highly constrained resources.
Regardless of when you end up asking, "what is essential?" you must be prepared for it. And it can be difficult to get right.
Establish your company's function
Before thinking about your critical functions, think about the function of your business. What is the purpose of your organization - what does it exist to do? Too many people start listing the business functions that are critical to survival. But they haven't even defined what survival means. What outcomes must our company produce? What can't be sacrificed? Think about: … Continue Reading: "What is Essential? The Critical Factors of Your Organization" »
Solid reporting encourages measurement and improvement of your current CSR initiatives, exposes your brand to new groups of socially conscious consumers and social criteria investors, shows off CSR related cost savings and gained efficiencies, and acts as a method of communication between your business and its stakeholders. Honestly displaying both your triumphs and shortcomings will also provide owners and employees with a source of pride, and will motivate them to do better.
On the flip side, poor CSR reporting can make your initiatives appear disingenuous and insincere, resulting in destroyed credibility and a loss of support from your stakeholders. Without taking a number of reporting best practices into consideration, your CSR can easily be perceived to be nothing more than a public relations activity.
So how do you develop a reporting system that will contribute to your CSR’s success, rather than failure? This article series will help answer that question, as the next few articles will examine:
1. Taking action: Where to start with CSR Reporting
2. Developing your CSR reporting system: What guidelines work best for you
3. Finding your CSR reporting style: Thoughts & best practices
4. Opening the channels: Using social media and other mediums for CSR reporting communication
As a way to launch the series, I’ve decided to list the top five DO’S of CSR reporting. These are the type of actions that can be surprisingly easy to overlook, but disastrous to your program if you do so.
1) Do Include Your Shortcomings
One of the great things about reporting is that you get to celebrate your successes, sharing how you've improved lives while improving your business. But how do you communicate the shortcomings of your CSR performance? While it's tempting to just ignore these areas, this is the last thing that you should be doing. It may sting to publicly acknowledge that you've failed to achieve certain goals, but it does demonstrate honesty and accountability. In fact, you can significantly enhance your credibility by discussing what you've learned from your shortcomings and outlining the steps that you're taking to improve. But by trying to enhance your reputation by ignoring your failures, you will only hurt your program in the long run.
2) Do Obtain Top-Brass Support
A good CSR program requires leadership, which typically stems from top management and executives. However, if your company has a CSR team in place that lacks high ranking executives, top brass should openly support and champion all CSR initiatives to demonstrate your program’s importance to the company's success. When a program lacks support from a company's leaders, it becomes apparent that the business does not see CSR as an important and strategic decision, and both internal and external stakeholders will be more reluctant to buy-in. So for CSR to be successful, it is vital that at least one of your business’s most senior executives (ideally the MOST senior executive) has a presence in your CSR reporting. This presence is predominately seen through an address or letter to stakeholders at the beginning of a report, celebrating the program's successes, acknowledging the shortcomings, and reaffirming the company's commitments. Without this presence and support however, the strength of your business's commitments will come into question, and your credibility will take a hit.
3) Do Treat Reporting as a Business Communication
CSR reporting can be communicated through several different mediums, all of which allow for some creativity in style, language and content. While this permits information to be presented in a more attractive manner than typically found in SEC or CSA filings, companies seem to sometimes forget that CSR reporting is a business communication, and should be delivered as such.
Anecdotes and employee profiles can provide for some interesting and relevant content, but you shouldn’t allow ‘fluff’ to get in the way of communicating your results. Results should be the primary focus of your report, and be sure to use clear and concise language that your stakeholders will understand. And most importantly, do not let the style of your report be distracting or unprofessional. You want to show the world that you take your CSR seriously, and that you put some time and effort into communicating your results.
4) Do Consider Third-Party Verification
Even if your reporting has clearly presented all relevant data and results, there is a good chance that the reports credibility will come to question if you lack third-party verification. Having your report audited by an external group will not only verify that all information is accurate, but it will also motivate your business to develop systems to measure and document your performance. Third-party verification can typically analyze four major areas:
- Completeness: does the report cover all the operations and impacts that an external reader would need to know about?
- Relevance: are the indicators and programs reported the appropriate ones, given the sector, type of operations, and locations involved?
- Accuracy: does the report accurately reflect your businesses CSR performance and challenges?
- Responsiveness: does your business respond to a wide range of external expectations and pressures related to sustainability issues?
Despite its importance, many small and mid-sized businesses avoid third-party involvement in CSR reporting as it is seen as expensive, time consuming, or unnecessary. We will further discuss avoidance and options later on in the series, but do currently note that a lack of third-party verification can have serious negative impacts on your CSR reporting.
5) Do ask about preferred medium(s) and frequency
Your typical fortune 500 company will release a yearly, downloadable CSR report, and might put out some quarterly performance metrics and occasional press releases. Since this is the norm, many companies assume that they should follow suit and avoid asking their stakeholders what mediums they would like the company to use, and how often they would like to see formal reports and updates. While for many, the standard yearly pdf file is fine, those who care most about your socially responsible actions (socially conscious consumers or investors for example) may want more frequent updates through various communication channels. Asking the people who want to learn about your CSR program and performance what medium and update frequency they would prefer just makes sense.
Honorable Mention: Do include benchmarks!
While I have mentioned avoiding your CSR failures, it isn’t quite the same as avoiding the use of benchmarks. Even if you’ve openly discussed how you’ve failed to meet some of your commitments, using benchmarks helps your stakeholders compare your performance to previous years. You may also have information available on how your industry is performing, and should use this to give stakeholders a clearer picture of your leadership position. Benchmarks help provide a truer picture of if your results can be considered a success or not, and should thus be used when possible.
Although they’re not always easy to carry out, ignoring any one of these items can wreak havoc on the quality of your CSR reporting, and can do much damage to your CSR program itself. The aforementioned are definitely my top five (plus honorable mention), but what other reporting practices do you think businesses should be aware of?
While in this article we focused on some general actions that are important to reporting success, the next few article will focus on the specific steps needed to begin developing a reporting system that will provide the most value for you and your stakeholders.
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We have defined ethical consumerism and learned how to be a smarter consumer. We expanded our buying criteria and empowered ourselves to shop responsibly. We also discovered the range of online resources that are available to help the sustainable shopper.
You might be interested in becoming a more ethical consumer, but none of these lessons, tools, and resources will help if you lack the right attitude.
Ethical consumption is about making smarter decisions. This series would be incomplete without a discussion of 7 key principles you should never forget as you go forward.
Sustainable consumption is a balance. You do not need to do everything possible at once. You don't need to go vegan, take yourself off the power grid, sell your car, walk to work, and completely eschew consumerism.
You don't even have to shy away from big brands. Nothing is inherently evil about consumption, but you need to make smarter choices about what you consume. So focus on what you need. Buy things that will last a long time. Buy things that will meet your needs and have a low adverse impact on the world. Buy things that adhere to your ethical criteria.
Allow yourself to find a balance and make compromises. It is okay that you still care about price, quality, convenience, and service, in addition to your ethical criteria.
Rather than changing your entire lifestyle all at once, focus on making smaller changes over time. Focus on continuous improvement.
Build new habits
To a large extent, our daily habits drive our consumption: how we get to work, where we buy our morning coffee, what we eat for lunch, the water and electricity we use, how we spend our weekends, etc. Changing these consumption patters means changing our habits.
But building new habits can be difficult. Recent studies show it can take upwards of 60 days. So if you want to most effectively change your routines, try this:
- Write down the habit changes you want to make. What are all the day-to-day changes you can make that would lead to a more sustainable lifestyle and more responsible consumption decisions? List the ethical criteria which is most important to you and commit to using that criteria when you make future purchases.
- Understand what motivates you. Why do you care about this ethical consumption thing anyways? Are you concerned for the future of your children? Do you want to save money? Do you feel a moral obligation? Do you want more satisfaction out of what you do buy? By reflecting on your motivations, you will have a stronger push to make the lifestyle changes needed to achieve your goals.
- Start slow! Taking on too many habit changes at once dramatically increases the chance of failure. Adopt one habit change at a time, and add another only when the first feels sufficiently automatic.
- Have "triggers" for your new habits. Understand what events will trigger the behaviours that you want to change. Write these down together with the behaviours themselves.
- Achieve small wins. What easy steps and small changes can you make today to have a positive social, environmental, or ethical impact? Do them. Achieving these early victories will build momentum and reinforce your desire to build a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle.
- Plan for obstacles. What will you do when you can't find ethical information about a company you want to buy from? Or when the store is sold out of the sustainable alternative? Will you forgo the purchase? Obstacles are inevitable and, for too many people, simply encountering them can foster doubt about their efforts. By simply identifying the possible obstacles ahead of time, you will not be startled by them when they arise.
- Be consistent and persistent. Commit to your one habit change long enough for it to become automatic, and be consistent. If you do fail once, and revert to old behaviour, accept the mistake and push on. Don't quit. Remember what's motivating you towards a more sustainable lifestyle.
A special thanks goes to Leo Babauta @ Zen Habits for first introducing me to many of these principles.
Get a life!
Speaking of sustainable lifestyles, get a life! If your idea of a fun-filled day is 6 hours a shopping mall, think of the other more creative and unique ways that you could spend your time instead.
Find emotional satisfaction from activities other than consumption. Buying things is satisfying and addictive. But marketers know this and take advantage of you. Just look at the number of people that go shopping for fun, and look at the social pressures we feel to "keep up with the Joneses" and buy the latest gadgets (and cars, and houses) that our friends own already. Find other, less expensive ways to have fun - get a real life!
We each have precious little time on this earth, and I guarantee that you won't wish you had spent more of it shopping. You won't wish that you had more MP3 players, cell phones, portable video players, expensive cars, and so on.
Adopting this strategy might suddenly free up more money than you know what to do with. Instead of spending it, try growing it. Have your money work for you, rather than giving it away to marketers to have it work for them.
Remember that consumption is about more than just what you buy in a store. Take a more holistic look at the opportunities you have to make sustainable decisions.
- How you travel within your neighbourhood and to work.
- What you do with products when you're done with them. Do you recycle, reuse, give things away, resell them, or simply toss them in the trash?
- Products that will last longer, versus short-term fashions and things that will quickly be obsolete.
- Renewable/alternative energy sources.
- Renting and borrowing instead of ownership.
- How your existence affects others' consumption. For example, if you're sick of receiving useless birthday gifts you would sooner toss into a closet, insist that people stop giving you gifts, and encourage them to make a charitable donation instead. What else are people buying, just because you exist?
Don't treat sustainability like a new brand
Being "responsible," "ethical" or "sustainable" does not just mean buying things that convey these labels! Sustainability isn't some cool, new fad, and you shouldn't use it to buy your way to excess. Being an ethical consumer doesn't mean that you stop buying products labeled as "cool" and "must-have," only to buy as many products labeled "green" and "sustainable."
Just as your personal identity shouldn't be defined by nonsense consumption, neither should it be defined by an obsession with green labels. The major point is that we are over-consuming, and the sole solution is not to buy more "green" products.
Wherever possible, cut back on what you are consuming by trimming what you don't really need. In other cases, replace your consumption with more sustainable alternatives. By no means should your "commitment" to sustainability ever cause you to increase your level of consumption!
Remember the benefit
It can be hard to get started, change your lifestyle and habits, and keep going. It can be very helpful to constantly remember what's in it for you. What may seem like sacrifices at first are really tradeoffs, for which you will ultimately benefit.
- Save money by trimming your consumption to only what really benefits you and the world
- Get more satisfaction and value from the things that you do buy
- Feel more engaged and empowered in the global economy, and have a say in the activities of big and small corporations
- Support responsible companies and punish irresponsible ones, and encourage investment in sustainable products
- Be able to make a difference conveniently, in the course of doing something (making purchasing decisions) that you already do on a daily basis
- Free yourself of guilt when you do buy things
- Build a healthier, more abundant world for your future and the future of your children
- Make a positive impact
Promote sustainability, but...
..don't be a snob. You may drive a Prius or ride a bicycle to work. Maybe you ride your bicycle to work all year round. In 2 feet of snow. Uphill both ways. That's great! Nobody cares.
Condescension will get the sustainability movement nowhere. While I encourage you to feel engaged and satisfied about your sustainable behaviours, they don't convey some moral superiority to be exercised over others.
So if you feel the urge to spread the news that ethical and sustainable purchasing is the hot new thing, try a different approach. Appeal to others' self-interest. What's in it for them? Why should they care about ethical consumerism?
Don't challenge how people live their lives right now, or question why they're not doing things differently. They'll get defensive and you will push them away. Instead, suggest that some novel approach is available. There are new products, new technologies, and new alternatives, that they might not know about yet. You're simply letting them know what's available and the benefits, and allowing them to make their own decisions.
This concludes our series on ethical consumerism. I would greatly appreciate everyone's questions and feedback, so please leave your comments below!
If you have not yet done so, you can read the other articles in this series.
Thinking of purchasing ethically, responsibly, and sustainably? This list shows you the most valuable tools in the ethical consumer's toolbox.
Ethical buying can be difficult because the information you need is rarely clear and accessible. But a number of organizations now dedicate their time to making it easier for us all. I have listed the best resources that I have found so far.
If you know of other resources that are worthy of mention, please share them by posting a comment at the end of this article!
Learn about the issues
Once you decide which ethical issues are most important to you, you can empower yourself by gaining an understanding of these issues and how they are affected by your consumption.
- David Suzuki Foundation: Highly educational. Science-based environmental activism made David Suzuki famous internationally, but his newest website also includes easy-to-understand discussions of health and economic issues as they relate to sustainability. Be sure to check out the Nature Challenge: Green Living Made Easy.
- GlobalIssues.org: A large database of articles ranging from international conflict to trade to human rights to genetically engineered foods. These articles present different sides of controversial issues and include a substantial amount of data. They will help you understand issues so that you can make up your own mind about them.
- Environment Canada: This Government of Canada site includes information about green buying, ecolabels in Canada, conservation, using alternative energy, government incentives, and major environmental issues like pollution, climate change, and wildlife protection.
- Treehugger: While Treehugger is best known for the news reporting aspect of their site (see further below), their Green Basics page will give you the low-down on a number of complex environmental issues including paper vs. plastic bags, the local and organic food movements, carbon footprint offsetting, CFL light bulbs, electric cars, ethanol, and so on.
- Good Guide: The main draw of Good Guide is probably its product ratings (see below) but it also delivers information about health and ethics issues, particularly regarding food products.
- Sustainable Table also mainly focuses on food, but within that category more than 30 issues are explained and discussed.
Compare companies and products
- Good Guide: One of my favourite product rating sites, Good Guide features extensive ratings on food and personal care products, toys, and household chemicals. The criteria include detailed nutritional/health data where applicable, as well as the environmental and societal impact of both the products and the companies that make them. Some listings even include life cycle analyses. Want to know whether your pasta producer gives to charity and embraces workplace diversity? You'll find out at Good Guide. Highly recommended
- GreenerChoices: Consumer Reports is the original independent product rating agency, and with GreenerChoices they now help consumers buy products that minimize environmental impact. They are known for their critical eye and will help you separate the legit products from the greenwash. Their site also helps you understand green product labels and claims and provides tips on conserving energy, recycling and disposal.
- The Green Guide: National Geographic's Green Guide provides buying guides on various categories of household products, appliances, and home improvement materials. Their guides give information about what to look for when shopping and the environmental impact of each type of product, and also include product comparisons and recommendations. Green Guide also now includes environmental information about travel and food products.
- Ethical Consumer: Ethical Consumer offers ratings with criteria in five main categories: the environment, people, animals, politics, and product sustainability. The products evaluated not only include household supplies, but also electronics, utilities, financial services, and transportation. They also offer a paid version called Ethiscore.
- SustainLane: Offers reviews on consumer products in a number of categories, but also provides information about local events and green businesses in several U.S. cities.
- Greenzer: While it doesn't feature ratings, Greenzer highlights green and organic products and tells you why they stand out from the rest. You can also readily purchase many of the products through their online partners.
Some of the sites listed above, such as Good Guide, incorporate the social responsibility of companies when producing their product ratings, while others only look at the merits of the product itself. If you want information about overall companies, try these sites as well as Good Guide:
- Ethisphere produces an annual ranking of the world's most ethical companies based on corporate citizenship, governance, innovation, leadership, and track record. But Ethisphere only profiles the highly responsible companies, and is not intended to provide a comprehensive list of all major organizations, so you won't find information about the poor performers here.
- The Goodness 500 is a list of the top 500 socially-responsible organizations, based on measurements of charity, equality, and environmental performance.
- Covalence ranks companies in 18 sectors based on working conditions, the impacts of the product and its production, and the impact of the organization.
- Zen Habits is the best resource online (in my opinion) for living a simple, happy, and productive life. Endless blog posts deliver practical tips for cutting waste, simplifying your life and motivating yourself.
- Mind Body Green: Want to revolutionize your life? Mind Body Green is an excellent resource for those seeking broad improvements in how they live, think, and behave day-to-day. Articles range from helping you sleep better to helping you green your sex life. Unrelated articles, of course. Check it out.
- The New American Dream advocates a departure from the society where we shop simply to accumulate more stuff. Their "new" American Dream is, in a sense, a return to the traditional values of opportunity, comfort, and security, but with a new emphasis on sustainability. Their site helps individuals who want to make this new dream a reality.
- Care2: For those that care about making a positive social impact on the world, Care2 offers reports and news about major causes, as well as advice on health and sustainable living. Their Community site allows socially-minded individuals to connect with one another and discuss areas of common interest.
- Canadian Living Magazine - Green Living: Useful articles about living and working sustainably, conserving resources, and the benefits of a "green" lifestyle.
- SustainLane's Family Living section has a number of tips for living more sustainably and healthily.
Stay up to date
- Treehugger: By the same folks as The Discovery Channel, Treehugger is simply the most comprehensive site on the internet for news and events related to the science, design, and politics of sustainability.
We will conclude this series on ethical consumerism with our next post: critical things to remember when buying ethically. That article will help you integrate ethical purchasing into your existing lifestyle in an effective and sustainable manner.
If you have not yet done so, you can read the other articles in this series.
If any of the links in this article become broken, please post a comment below and I will either update the link or remove the resource.
It can be challenging to have all the information needed to make ethical, responsible, and sustainable purchasing decisions. Unfortunately, this fact prevents many people from changing their consumption lifestyle. How can I know whether my bank or grocery store is socially responsible?
Luckily, much of this information is becoming readily available. Some companies already voluntarily publish ecological footprint data (like Timberland has for years) or sustainable product ratings (like Wal-Mart just started) for their products. Others bury this information in corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports. You might be unlikely to read those, but others are doing so and are summarizing this information and rating these companies and their products. There are a growing number of online rating agencies that produce and publish social responsibility ratings for products and companies in a wide range of categories.
If you're interested in being an ethical consumer, invest a few moments in educating yourself about the basics and find some online resources that you trust to conveniently deliver ethics information on the products you most commonly shop for. You'll be rewarded by being a more knowledgeable and engaged consumer, able to make quick and confident buying decisions. Never again will you be stuck choosing between two seemingly similar products. Their ethical ratings will always set them apart, and you will walk away with the confidence you made the right decision.
- Educate yourself. You don't need to go crazy, but learn some basics about ethical consumerism (which you've already done by reading this series!) and about the particular issues and ethical criteria that you decided were important to you. A skim through Wikipedia can be sufficient; you can seek out more detail if you really get into it. Also, have fun exploring the resources we'll discuss in the next article, and playing with the various tools we'll introduce.
- Find a reliable source for CSR data. Explore the online social responsibility rating services that are available and find one or two that best cover a) the type of products you regularly buy and b) the criteria you are interested in. Again, we will list a number of these services in the next article.
- Learn about labels. Many new product labels and certifications have become popular in the last decade, like "Organic" and "Fair Trade." Labels can be a great help to consumers looking to make ethical decisions, but be careful. Some labels represent a thorough certification process while others are mere window-dressing added by those wanting to appear responsible. Take a few moments to learn about labels.
- Read a report or two. Read a CSR report published by one of your favourite brands. Some CSR reports are quite dull, but if read right even those can give you good background on the issues and the way these companies approach them. Some of the best performers have made their reports quite engaging. You can find these reports in the About Us section of most large corporations, and they might be called something like "sustainability report" or "corporate citizenship report."
- Be skeptical... but not cynical. Don't take marketing messages about being "green" and "responsible" at face value. Ethical consumers must be wary of "greenwashing," the growing tendency for companies to market themselves as socially responsible even if their actual performance does not measure up. Listen to what companies say, but defer to reliable, independent rating agencies or certifiers if you doubt a company's authenticity. That said, don't be cynical. You will severely limit your options, and create many headaches for yourself, if you believe all corporations are evil liars with no intent to do any good, but at the same time you still try make ethical buying decisions.
Stand up for your ethical beliefs
Finally, if a company you buy from falls short of your ethical expectations, respectfully let them know. Your favourite candy company might really overdo it when it comes to packaging, simply because that's what they have always done. They might be attributing their declining sales to a poor economy. Let them know they risk losing your business not because of the economy, but because of their outrageous packaging. Give your ethical beliefs a voice. As more people do so, companies will be compelled to change.
Tomorrow's article will contain an extensive list of resources that you can use to be a better consumer, including online rating agencies and information you can use to educate yourself about the major issues.
In the first two articles of this series we introduced ethical consumerism and one of the core strategies of the ethical consumer: only buying what you need. Today we look at the second strategy: expanding your buying criteria so that social responsibility becomes a factor in your purchasing decisions.
Price, quality, service and convenience are important. But what about the environmental impact of the product? What about the social and human rights record of its manufacturer?
Rock the vote!
Purchasing a product is like casting a vote and supporting everything embodied in that product and the organization that makes it. When enough people "vote" in this manner, we decide which products succeed and which products fail, which companies flourish and which companies close down.
When we buy a product, we are supporting either a sustainable approach to business or an unsustainable one. We might be supporting human rights and dignity or else the use of child labour and exploitation. Typically, we do this inadvertently. But the responsibility of an ethical consumer is understand these purchasing side-effects and only support things that match their personal values and beliefs.
Understand what matters to you
The first step in buying responsibly is to understand your personal values and beliefs as they relate to the products and services you consume.
Just some of the questions you can ask yourself include:
- How do you feel companies should treat their workers?
- Is animal testing ever acceptable to you, and if so, in which situations?
- What is a company's responsibility regarding climate change and the environment?
- What is a company's responsibility to help solve the world's social problems?
- What social issues do I care about the most?
It's not just about what you buy
It's also about when you buy it. The marginal impact of buying a brand new product versus a used product is very different. Your decision to buy a recycled or used product is just as important as which product you choose to buy.
And it's also about who you buy it from. Remember that when you buy something, you not only support that product, but also the company that manufactures and sells it. Not only should you evaluate the product, but also the social responsibility of that company as a whole.
Major issues and social criteria
Below are just a few of the criteria you might use when making your ethical buying decisions. It is important to make your own determination about the importance of each issue. Weigh each issue more or less important when you decide what to buy. As you become more involved, you will likely discover other criteria of importance to you.
If the environment and issues like climate change, sustainability, and pollution are important to you, then take a look at the environmental impact of the products you use and the companies you buy from. Consider:
- Do these companies openly report their environmental impact?
- Are they contributing to climate change or attempting to reverse it?
- Are they destroying, degrading, over-exploiting and polluting the environment?
- Are they using resources sustainably or non-sustainably?
Environmental impact can be driven by a number of things besides production. One of the worst is the creation of garbage. Some ways to minimize garbage creation through your purchasing decisions:
- Look for products that minimize packaging and avoid products with extravagant, unnecessary packaging
- Buy products that are recyclable or reusable when you are finished with them
- Choose products that will last for a long time
- Avoid products that are notoriously difficult to dispose of in an environmentally-friendly way, such as certain batteries and computer parts.
Adverse environmental impact is also caused by transporting goods far distances, so many people now attempt to buy things produced closer to home. But this issue is complex because the environmental impact of transportation not only depends on distance, but also the mode of transportation used. For example, it can sometimes be cleaner to ship a product across an ocean than to truck it across a state.
Many people are choosing to support companies that believe in more than just making money and that stand for some higher purpose. Generally, a "higher purpose" means that, in addition to earning a profit, a company is also committed to making the world a better place and improving quality of life in some specific way.
Higher purpose organizations should be seen to be acting on their commitments. They might get involved in the community, support local or national charities, or build innovative new products that tackle some of society's greatest challenges.
Before buying from a company for the first time, take a moment to learn what that company stands for. You can often find this information, if it exists, on a corporate website, but there is a much more effective way: quiz the company's staff. When you are talking to a salesperson or customer service representative, ask about the company's reason for existence and what the company is committed to. You will either hear confusion, a vague response full of platitudes that sound good but mean nothing, or an impassioned and enthusiastic account of the company's underlying values by an employee that clearly believes in them. This will tell you a lot.
Sometimes, individual products might even be branded to support a particular cause or issue (this can be a form of cause-related marketing) and if those causes are important to you, then you might wish to seek out these types of products.
Dignity and working standards
Even in 2009, far too many of the products we consume on a daily basis are produced by workers that completely lack the basic employment standards we take for granted in developed nations such as Canada, the U.S., and the U.K.
Buying from "less-developed" countries can be an excellent way to support the economies of these nations and contribute to their development, but we also risk supporting companies that exploit workers, employ child labour, and systematically discriminate.
Luckily, public outcry in the last few decades about human rights abuses has led to an increased amount of information being publicized about the working standards of major corporations and their suppliers and subcontractors.
International movements and standards have also surfaced which aim to identify products that are "fairly" traded - products for which workers receive decent wages and are not exploited. The most prominent standard today is Fairtrade / Fair Trade Certified which is applied to more than $4 billion in global sales each year.
For quite some time now, certain major corporations have been criticized for engaging in corruption, bribery, price fixing, and working with oppressive regimes overseas.
But recently, with the 2008-2009 global economic recession, the criticism that many companies are actively engaging in "economic injustice" has come close to home. Now more than ever, consumers are upset about excessive executive bonuses and pay differentials between top executives and factory floor workers, illegal activities such as tax evasion and insider trading, avoidable layoffs, and the mishandling of risk that helped launch the recession in the first place.
Choose your criteria
Once again, we have only touched on a few of the major issues that today's ethical consumers are using to making buying decisions. The point is not to use each of these criteria because we say so; you may feel that some of these issues are not issues at all, and that is okay. The point is to pick those that are most important to you and consistently apply that extra criteria when you shop.
The difficulty for many people is getting credible information about this extra criteria with regard to the products they buy. How should I know whether my grocery store, or my bank, or my food producer is socially and environmentally responsible?
The next two articles of this series will cover how you can empower yourself to make ethical purchasing decisions and what resources are available to help you do so, no matter what criteria you decide is important to you. Among these resources will be online ethical rating agencies, that rate consumer products on a number of the above criteria.
Ethical, sustainable, responsible consumption is the most powerful strategy that individuals have to promote sustainability. It allows us to "vote" democratically for socially responsible companies by using our dollars to make purchasing decisions. It shows companies that we value a broader range of criteria, such as human rights, environmental protection, and health. If they want to earn our business, companies must excel in those areas as well as the traditional ones: price, quality, service and convenience.
But sustainable consumption also allows people to save money and lead happier, simpler, and more fulfilling lives. Our traditional consumer culture manufactures need and encourages us to spend money to satisfy emotional desires. We would not have these desires but for the advertising we see and the comparisons we make with our neighbours. Increasingly, the solution to insecurity, depression, uncertainty, anxiety, and fear is more consumption.
Ethical consumerism is not about rejecting consumption. It is simply about making rational decisions about what we really need to buy, and choosing products by using criteria that account for the full cost and impact of the product.
In our first article of this series, we introduced the concept of ethical consumerism as a philosophy and a strategy. Today, we look at the first core strategy that you can use to become a more sustainable consumer: be selfish.
It may seem odd that a series on ethical consumerism begins by suggesting selfishness, but this is where you must start. Stop buying things because someone else told you that you should. Instead, be selfish! Buy things only when they truly fulfill a need that you have.
Do you need it?
A look around many households will turn up a ton of purchases that were unnecessary or that have never been used. Are you guilty of buying things only to have them collect dust? Great for the company that sold them, but not so great for you, and terrible for the resources and environments that were degraded while producing such a useless item. Next time, consider whether you truly need something before buying, and you will be better off.
Challenge the purpose of shopping.
Shopping was once a way to acquire things that we needed. Now it has become a national pastime, a source of pleasure, and a way to overcome our insecurities. Challenge your insecurities and challenge the purpose of shopping. It is okay to have less stuff than other people; at the end of the day, that stuff won't make you happy or keep you company.
Start with financial sustainability.
Many people have realized that spending more than you earn is like shooting yourself in the foot. Selfish people know better! If you can't afford something, you probably don't need it. Avoid consumer debt at all costs, and even try to avoid car loans and mortgages. Remember: do you really need it?
Embrace simplicity and minimalism.
A simpler lifestyle is one with less stuff. Buy fewer things and instead buy higher-quality items that you will truly enjoy. Everyone I know that has embraced simplicity has found this to be tremendously liberating. As a bonus, you avoid clutter and can create more peaceful and productive environments.
Analyze how much you throw away. Wasted food, paper waste, wasted heating and water: all of these have significant financial and environmental impacts. Avoid waste by not consuming these items in the first place. You'll save money, make your life simpler, and reduce trash.
Look beyond what you buy.
Consumption is about more than just what you buy in a store. Consider the utilities (water, gas, electricity) you consume, the garbage you create, and the services (like transportation and financial services) that you use.
A crucial part of ethical consumerism is expanding the criteria you use to make purchasing decisions, and, indeed, expanding it to include impacts on other people besides yourself. Tomorrow we will cover the key things you need to know about the most common ethical purchasing criteria.
For some time now, it has been widely-understood that our current system of extracting resources, producing goods, and discarding waste is unsustainable.
But perhaps it required a widespread economic recession to realize that the problem is more fundamental. The underlying problem is that we allow ourselves to make decisions with an overwhelmingly short time horizon. We are placing too much attention on the present implications of our decisions while ignoring the implications in the future.
For example: a household accumulates excessive debt in order to finance their current desires, rather than save for the uncertain future; or a CEO maximizes short-term earnings in order to satisfy shareholders, at the expense of long-term investments. Often these decisions not only hurt the person that made the decision (eventually), but they also hurt society at large.
Our purchasing decisions are intimately tied to the time horizon problem described above. Consumption, by definition, refers to the purchases we make to satisfy a need or want that we have today, in contrast to "investment" which satisfies future needs. Consumption today costs money and thus reduces our ability to consume tomorrow.
But this isn't the only way that consumption transfers resources from the future to the present. Our current systems of production and consumption have many negative effects on society and the environment, and thus will reduce our capacity to innovate and produce in the future.
Ethical consumerism is a philosophy that argues we must overcome, or at least mitigate, these problems. It is a strategy to encourage our systems of production and consumption to be sustainable and to have low adverse impact on society and the environment.
In this series on ethical consumerism we take an in-depth look at one of the major decisions we make on a daily basis: what we buy. We will investigate:
- What is ethical consumerism and what does it try to achieve?
- How can I make smarter and more effective purchasing decisions by focusing first on what I really need?
- What are the major criteria that people are using to make responsible purchasing decisions?
- How can I empower myself to be a responsible buyer?
- What resources are available to help me make ethical purchasing decisions?
- What fundamental things should I remember if I will be buying based on ethical criteria?
What is ethical consumption?
Call it what you will: ethical shopping, responsible consumerism, sustainable consumption, green buying, or moral purchasing. In general, all of these terms are about one thing: broadening the criteria we use to decide what to buy and who to buy it from.
For example, a traditional consumer might choose a product based on price, quality, service and convenience. An ethical consumer might also consider the environmental impact of the product and the social responsibility of the manufacturer. And they would seriously consider whether they need the product or not in the first place. The types of criteria most commonly considered will be discussed in the third article of this series.
As a philosophy, ethical consumerism involves certain beliefs:
- Consumption is inherently beneficial to society, but because it is accompanied by negative side-effects, it must occur in moderation
- Buying decisions are about more than just the short-term impact on me; they should also be based on their impact to society and the world at-large, now and in the future
- Individual consumers share responsibility for the world's social and environmental problems
- The price of a good should include the full cost of its resources, adverse side effects, disposal costs, environmental impact, etc. (note: this often implies difficult value judgments about resources and nature)
As a strategy, ethical consumption is about:
- Minimizing the waste and negative by-products caused by our buying behaviour
- Ensuring the sustainability of our economic, ecological and social environment, and finding compromises and creative solutions that facilitate this
- Rewarding companies that behave responsibly, and thus encouraging a Darwinian "survival of the responsible"
- Encouraging investment and innovation designed to mitigate the negative effects of production and consumption
In the second post of this series, we will introduce an extensive list of quick and easy strategies that you can use to make better purchasing decisions.
In the meantime, what is your philosophy about consumption? Is it a critical component of our economic system or is it the root of all evil? Or simply a necessary evil? Will we be able to make compromises and find creative solutions to our problems of sustainability?
The Sierra Club has an extensive essay on "Why Consumption Matters" available on their website. I highly recommend it for anyone that wants to understand the social and environmental impact of our purchasing behaviour: http://www.sierraclub.org/sustainable_consumption/tilford.asp