Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Ethical Challenge

I was at Selfridges last night, happily browsing away at their delightful food hall, when I overheard the pink haired lady next to me enquire: “excuse me, are the quail eggs local? Are they organic and free-range? I can’t find the BSA label on them”.
Now, in my experience, all staff at the Selfridges food hall knows their food inside out. Go to the butcher’s counter, and not only will you be rewarded by the sight of a supremely attractive Irish man busy with his knives (I think he works the evening shift), but he’ll also be able to tell you the most obscure facts about cuts of meat you didn’t even imagine possible.

I once asked the florist there about a curious antiquey-looking rose colour and she took the time to explain to me the process by which roses are named and where I could find a catalogue of all registered colours for all roses in the world. Very impressive.

But the quail eggs lady, she managed to confuse even the very knowledgeable poultry counter man. Free range, yes. Local, maybe. Does Somerset count as local? No, not certified organic by the British Soil Association. And no, he was not able to guarantee the eggs had arrived in Oxford Street by clean fuel transportation.

Blimey! To think that it’s enough to put the Sunday papers out with the recycling to make me feel smug for the week.
This lady had taken the idea of ethical buying and added serious nuances to it.

Now, my initial and obvious reaction was to roll my eyes a bit and think, come on, lady, go and eat the eggs and get on with it. She did have pink hair and chipped black nails and Say No To Nuclear Power badges on her clearly handmade bag. Badgess? Seriously? Who even remembers what badges are in 2010? Well, quail egg lady does and wears them proudly. But my point is, it was easy to dismiss her as a crazy hippie living in a fairy world of happy quails and lorries running on hugs.

But then, as I moved on to the cosmetics and navigated through Kiehl’s, Aveda, Eve Lom &co, I kept thinking of all the thought pink haired lady had put into her shopping. Did she consider what everything she bought came from? How does she shortlist a moisturiser? What makes a pair of shoes ethical: does it have to be vegan or is it enough to attest to no child labour involved? Am I being unethical by replacing my old sofa cushions by great new shiny ones I found at TKMaxx?

At this point, I must explain that I was coming straight from the geeky world that is my work place, it was by now 20:30 and my last meal had been plastic sandwiches during a lunch time meeting – I loathe work/lunch meetings mixed together, but I’m sure I’ll have the chance to discuss that later. So, all in all, I felt rather fragile and decided to seek refuge at Frankie’s downstairs, next to the dream kitchen department. I love that place for many reasons. It is quiet and away from the noisy shoppers upstairs, the food is unfussy and lovely (is it ethical? Oh god, I can’t think straight any longer!) and you can sit there considering how the good people at Visa will feel when they see the damage you’ve just done at Laura Mercier.

This is when the question hit me. Am I a good consumer?

Feeling refreshed by a healthy-sized glass of Pinot Grigio and a bowl of spaghetti, I considered my shopping habits. Well, I don’t have any. I’m quite the impulse buyer and I certainly can’t be described as a shopaholic. I find shopping for clothes rather tedious and I’m not one of those clever people who spots a pair of shoes and immediately links it to the perfect dress they have catalogued in the back of their minds. Instead, I set out to buy specific things I need. Which is not to say I get there and stick to the list. This is when the impulse buying kicks in and I end up with often useless, unplanned purchases.

But when I see something I like, am I considering what’s behind it? Do I know where my jeans come from? Does it matter?

Honestly, I can’t answer any of these questions.
But the Pinot started talking and it gave me this idea: can I put an ethical grade on everything I buy? I decided to find out. Here’s how:
For the next year, I will stop and consider the various factors that make up an ethical scale of any product I buy.
Being new to this angelical way of consuming, I’m still confused about the exact meaning of ethical: does it have to be organic, fair trade, free-range, bleach free, vegetarian? If my breakfast yoghurt is organic, but packaged by an underpaid Ukranian working 14 hours a day in a farm in Dorset, can I still say I am being ethical?

Well, my lovelies, I shall find out. One shopping bag at a time.
To begin with, my first month will be committed to only buying fair trade clothes. I thought it would be a good challenge, with spring on the way and my wardrobe lacking quite severely of outfits that will serve the opinionated British spring.
Over the next 30 days, I will share my findings of what makes a piece of clothing ethical and find out whether I can dress with a clean conscience and still look hot. Sure, I want to do my bit. But I’m curious to know if this is possible without looking like the infamous pink hair lady – thank you for the inspiration, my friend!

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