I’m thrilled to share my guest blog for ‘Hands Producing Hope’ on what ethical consumerism means to me, resources and ideas for thinking about our lifestyles in a more equitable way. I would love to hear your thoughts! ‘Hands Producing Hope’ is a great company which not only works with artisans to make beautiful products ethically, but also actively work to counter the poor conditions their artisans live in, to live healthy and full lives. Their aim is to bring about change in the lives of their producers not only through the sale of their products, but also through educating us as consumers about the need to make more ethical purchases and activate others to do the same.
They go beyond this responsibility to also provide social protection to their workers, some of whom have been rescued from being sex workers against their will. The program focusses on marginalised individuals, providing education to their children – and sometimes to the artisans themselves – and develop skills in the community which can be used in other trades, providing a sustainable livelihood. Have a look at their incredible website and beautiful items! Without further ado, here’s my post:
It might sound glib, but one of the most powerful things we can do as humans is to decide how we want our world to look – whether that’s by voting, picketing, raising awareness, joining an NGO, etc – and one of the most interesting ways to do this is to choose how you spend your money and what you spend it on. There’s nothing particularly new about ethical or sustainable living, but what I love to see is the huge number of creative ways we can live with respect for others and our planet.
There is nothing special or unique about me – no, I’m not fishing for compliments! I am an ordinary person with a normal life and income. I am not trying to preach about how to be a better consumer, because I’m still navigating through that myself. I’m in no real position to tell you how or what to buy, but I can share some ideas of where I look and how I started thinking my consumption. We are all capable of making ethical consumption choices – it’s not just for the fabulously wealthy, or for the hemp sandal-wearing, dreadlocked hippy. I’m wearing second-hand clothes as I type this and my tea comes from an organic plantation in southern India. But I’m writing on an Apple MacBook – don’t even get me started on their carbon footprint. It’s all a balancing act.
It’s important to stop and really think about whether you need the thing you’re lusting after (even if it’s the most beautiful scarf in the world). If you do, consider getting it second-hand, or repurpose an object for something else – I use chopsticks from takeaways as reed diffusers around the house – which may not directly benefit another person, but it reduces your carbon footprint and is one less set of items we need our planet’s finite set of resources to make.
If it has to be new, try thinking about who would have made it and under what conditions. If it’s likely to be mass produced in a factory by someone earning less than or just about minimum wage, I always have to think about whether it’s really necessary. For some items, like smartphones, it really can’t be helped. (There is a Fairphone, but the market is quite small and the phone itself is rather expensive – plus reviews are mixed.)
I’m also conscious of the cost of making a complete lifestyle change by buying solely Fair Trade-certified produce, or entirely handmade goods. I often tell people that we don’t need to completely envelop ourselves in a cocoon of ethically-produced goods, but it is important to try to make small changes, since they inevitably lead to bigger ones.
Simply switching to Fair Trade-certified coffee, or buying vegetables from a farmers market (or better yet, growing your own), can lead to larger leaps of changing the way we consume.
You can buy furniture from Ikea, but if the throw you use while watching TV was handmade for example, that’s fantastic – and the company you buy the throw from might have other ideas for your home that you like, so you slowly build up this habit of label- and background-checking.
I’ve learned that ethical living doesn’t mean you have to buy a lot and it doesn’t mean you have to surround yourself with ethical products either. Reducing consumption is often one of the best ways to start. You can live ethically by composting your food, growing your own herbs, recycling plastic bottles to make greenhouses, making some of your own furniture and breathing new life into everyday objects. Ethical living means not only keeping the needs of other people in mind, it also means living with respect for the planet which gives us so much already, while also forcing us to think honestly about our own needs. Look around you now and think honestly about what you could not live without – then think about creative or ethical ways you could have bought those things. I really like this flow chart:
Since I spent some of my childhood in India, I have seen what poverty looks like and what it can do, to children my age, their families and the society around them. Seeing girls your own age drinking water from a puddle on the street, in tattered clothes, playing mother to their younger siblings instead of enjoying childhood the way I was able to, is not an easy image to shift. My own family was always aware of this imbalance and like many around us, we did what we could. My first experience of an ‘ethical business’ as such is an incredible shop called Fabindia, where my mother got many of her clothes. Fabindia use traditional methods to make their beautiful clothes, often using natural dyes, and also contribute financially to the communities they support.
There are plenty of documentaries, news stories and books about the cost of mass production on people – on children, vulnerable groups like the extreme poor, or even the working classes in seemingly far-away countries.
With the collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka, many people started asking serious questions about where our clothes come from and why we need to constantly buy from the same companies known for exploiting sweatshop labour.
A great deal of much-needed publicity went to ethical companies like People Tree out of this horrible disaster. I would recommend reading some of these books or reports and watching some of the incredible documentaries available, since they will often have tips and ideas for being an ethical consumer without needing to break the bank or significantly alter your way of shopping or thinking. If you are a blogger, join this incredible Facebook group to share resources and information.
It’s because of our position as consumers with money, access to information and resources, that we have to cast this sort of vote for a more equitable future. Think about it this way – who else is going to do it? We shouldn’t ignore this moral requirement. We enjoy the lifestyles we do because someone else has worked around the clock in abysmal conditions to mine tungsten, copper and other minerals for our iPhones. Our responsibility to other people and to our planet extends beyond the money we pay for these goods. We need to go beyond that and think deeper about our power as consumers. Even if you don’t agree with the moral imperative of giving back when we take so much, we need to consider the effect of our cheap, exploitative lifestyles on the planet – it just isn’t sustainable.
But it isn’t all dismal news – there is a lot we can still do to correct the mistakes of this exploitation. I love how creative this journey has allowed me to become with regards to my lifestyle choices. Social media makes it so much easier. I started my blog in 2008, which introduced me to the marvelous wonderland of Pinterest, Etsy and Ravelry – and let’s not forget the power of a Facebook group to gather like-minded people. Even in Budapest, there are second-hand furniture groups, from which I got six hand-painted silk pillows for a steal, and met a fascinating Croatian woman.
We have recently moved into a much larger flat so I’m going a little Pinterest-mad with redecoration ideas – some of which can be bought and some of which are going to be hobby-work challenges for both of us. I stumbled upon a tutorial to make pillow covers and even though I’ve never come close to making one before, I found a fantastic fabric shop in Barcelona, got hypnotised by the owner’s stories of the hand-weavers and dyers they work with and now there’s a pile of fabric waiting to be turned into something beautiful. How exciting is that?!
So get creative – if you think you could start making some of the homewares you covet from Anthropologie, there is a wealth of information on the internet so just jump in and see how it goes. Blogs like this, and companies like Hands Producing Hope, are a great resource for starting this journey – and as you read and learn more, new and creative ways to live more responsibly, ethically and sustainably will come to you. Tap into social media networks too – we are all interested in this stuff and enjoy helping each other, so I hope to see you online!
Sanjukta was born in India and grew up in Europe and the UK. She has been involved in political activism since her teenage years and is passionate about fostering a global culture of respect for each other and our planet. She has been blogging since she was an angry undergrad and would love to connect via Pinterest, Etsy or Instagram!