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.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - The Good Life - MUR­RAY GRIM­WOOD Buy lo­cal.

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.

1

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.

2

BUY LESS

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.

3

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.

4

CHOOSE LONGEVITY

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.

5

GET VER­I­FI­CA­TION

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.

6

ASK!

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.

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