6 ways you can make your world more sustainable
You – yes, you – have the power to change things, and it doesn’t have to cost you a cent.
Along time ago, I wrote a column about tracing a product back down the supply chain. In that instance it was a can of baked beans from our pantry, traced by its number. The trace went well until it neared a farm gate in China, beyond which I could not penetrate. Did they spray ethically? Was the farm contaminated? Were the workers fairly paid? I can’t tell you.
A recent talk by a veteran journalist made me re-think the issue. In his book Michael Field, a newspaper reporter for 42 years, ranges far and wide. I went along to his presentation at the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival, coming away with a copy of the book and a head full of questions.
| Essentially, he traces tricked-intoslavery workers on foreign-flagged vessels fishing in New Zealand waters for New Zealand quota. There are examples given of NZ companies fronting these operations, but behind them lies a murky trail of shell companies distancing some offshore owner from direct responsibility.
The fish – often caught by people being paid little or nothing, working long hours in hellish conditions on rusty death-traps commanded by compromised captaincy – is routinely labelled ‘Product of New Zealand’. Most shoppers probably never question the label, even if they bother to read it. We should not be proud of this.
Jennie and I are sea-going folk. Jennie once spent a sabbatical year gleaning pass-on-able knowledge about marine mammals. She doesn’t have the time to trace every fillet she is offered so she turns the traceability problem on its head; if it is presented to her as hook-caught and sustainably fished, she’ll eat it. If it isn’t, she won’t. The onus is thus on the restaurant, supermarket or company to prove their case, and I think this is how it should be. You should be able to select - demand - ethically-supplied, ethicallyworked-for, sustainably-produced produce. Or tell them to shelve it.
The pressure - and it comes from us consumers, ironically - is for the opposite to happen. We clamour for things to be cheaper and supermarkets reflect that pressure which then goes onto suppliers. They in turn have two available options: to cut corners or to reduce outgoings. Cutting corners can be done by ignoring safety issues on decrepit fishing boats or in Bangladeshi sweatshops. Reduced outgoings can be achieved by avoiding royalties for raw materials (up to and including removal of the people charging them), or avoiding pollution costs, or by paying people less. We - by our buyer pressure - force this to happen. Sure, shareholder pressure to increase profits can be part of it, but if their product was being boycotted, shareholders would presumably come on board.
If cost-cutting happens out of sight, basically anywhere further away than NIMBY or anything which doesn’t
threaten a lovable creature of some kind, we seem to collectively ignore it.
Yet the process can happen right under our noses. Until recently, there was a proudly New Zealand whiteware manufacturer which had one of its factories near Dunedin. Then, arguably because of consumer-driven price pressure, its operations were shifted offshore to Mexico and Thailand, and there are simple reasons for its choice of those countries: lower costs because of lower wages and slacker environmental and safety regulations.
Now overseas-owned, we still regard the firm and its products as Kiwi. It may well look after its overseas workers in the best manner those countries have ever seen, and it is not uncommon for offshoring to be accompanied by a ‘we’re raising them out of poverty’ claim (I disagree, but that’s another argument for another time), but really we should have been prepared to buy their products at a price which included New Zealand wage rates.
It’s hypocrisy to claim we are ‘clean and green’ as a country or that we care for our workers, simply by off-shoring the pollution, degradation or sweat-shoppery involved in producing our consumer items cheaply. Taking Jennie’s approach, we should be asking for proof that the production of any item offered for sale actually clears those hurdles. If proof can’t be provided, we should go elsewhere. If elsewhere can’t provide it either, we should do without.
BUY LOCAL ONLY
What should we shop for? Well, given what Michael Field exposes in the way of Country of Origin and my inability to trace those beans beyond a certain point, ‘local’ is looking good. Local is going to tick the ‘fair wage’ box, the ‘safe working conditions’ box, and should represent a less-travelled item. Local supports your community and often lets you meet your suppliers face-to-face. Local means you have a greater possibility of ascertaining its environmental impact and of keeping an eye on things. Farmers’ markets are a classic example of local, usually stipulating that produce comes from less than a set distance away.
The fisheries issue is also an example of the over-use of a resource. Those boats have to go far away - as far as Antarctica is from Russia - and have to reduce their costs using cheap labour and decrepit boats, partly because the easy pickings have gone. That goes for a lot of other things too.
Abstaining from buying them is guaranteed to relieve resource-depletion pressure. It will also reduce your chances of inadvertently supporting the unethical and/or the unsustainable.
LOOK AT THE LABEL
Carefully. Sometimes we will find complete nonsense, like the classic ‘Made in NZ from local and imported ingredients’ which tells us precisely nothing.
Sometimes the ingredients are clearly listed, but it makes no mention of spraying regimes or of proximity to industrial pollution. No consumer goods blurb is likely to mention ‘assembled by a worker who had his meagre wage withheld while he recovered from workrelated injuries’. The trend is towards less-specific labelling, but we should be pushing for exactly the opposite.
When I was young, my Dad was fond of saying: “Buy something that was good quality when it was new, something that can be easily repaired, and don’t buy it new.”
Many products have defects which show up in time. The rusting mudguard arches of mid-1960s Holden cars come immediately to this petrol-head’s mind.
But some prove to be virtually indestructible, like our treadle sewing machine. The trend has been towards shorter-lived, throw-away consumer items. But what if we demanded that a product included a guarantee that parts and servicing would be available for 10 years? Or longer? We can start by only buying stuff which clears that hurdle now.
Fair Trade products are a step in the right direction, but the best guarantee is buying from Trade Aid.
There are various outfits which we can turn to when we want to verify whether something is ethically-produced. All are probably better than nothing, but some are better than others.
Most of you will recognise Fairtrade, Trade Aid, and the likes of Oxfam. Less of us will be familiar with the Marine Stewardship Council, and even less with other product stewardship advocates like the Ellen Macarthur ‘Circular Economy’ or Japan’s ‘People Tree’.
Browse a supermarket shelf, and there are brands of chocolate bearing the Fairtrade logo. For folk shopping in a hurry, this ticks the conscience box and they’re off down the aisle. But that logo only requires raw materials to be Fairtrade, if they are available; the rest could be slave-labour-supplied. Worse, a particular chocolate bar may actually contain barely any Fairtrade material at all! Read the fine print, and a package may claim anything from 20-100% Fairtrade content, but all carry the logo because its power as a brand is worth carrying.
That said, it’s clearly better - by far - to support Fairtrade than not. The key to verification is personal contact, farmer/ grower/artisan to at least the retailer.
Naturally, there is a cost to this. It’s the opposite of the ‘don’t ask why it’s cheaper’ approach.
According to Oxfam, the two main groups in New Zealand are: • Fairtrade Australia New Zealand (FANZ, www.fairtrade.org.nz), a member of the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation (FLO) • The World Fair Trade Organisation ( WFTO, www.wfto.com)
The only New Zealand supplier of WFTO goods is Tradeaid (www.tradeaid. org.nz). Both have slightly different, but similarly valid approaches to fair trade, and both have also agreed to a core Charter of Fair Trade Principles.
Trade Aid ticks all the boxes. It’s an entirely transparent, not-for-profit, independently-audited organisation with personal relationships spanning the whole product journey. Forty years after it started, it has 30 shops in NZ and has just built a new chocolate factory in Christchurch so it can bypass large scale commercial processors and buy directly from the growers. You can walk into any of their stores and scan a product to learn who produced it and where. This is good stuff.
Which brings us to the best action of the lot.
If we go up to a counter and ask whether something is made with slave labour (there are an estimated 27 million who currently qualify, twice the number back in what we think of as the days of ‘slavery’), or by degrading the environment, they may not be able to answer us, but the concern may be noted.
Better, follow up with an email or letter to the firm producing the product. If we show enough concern, they’ll do what it takes to retain our custom. Consumer power is perhaps the last remaining and most powerful tool for inducing corporate change. They simply can’t survive without us, and asking costs nothing.