Donate and spend wisely, but don’t forget to apply pressure at the top
The catch-22 with trying to be ethical in how you spend your money is the more you educate yourself to make the right choices, the less appealing those options can become. But making an honest attempt at it is worthwhile, and an important lesson, as it’ll reveal to you a more grown-up strategy for ‘doing good’.
Take ‘ethical consumerism’ for example, the idea you can have a positive impact by spending your money in the right place. Buying good products from good businesses helps them grow, and avoiding unethical products and unethical businesses stalls their growth and, hopefully, pressures them to clean up their act – the thinking goes.
So, off you go, checking labels, changing habits, and spending considerable time becoming knowledgable and researching the companies you buy from, making sure what you’re spending your money on won’t support sub-standard, often illegal working practices in the UK or abroad, that a product is environmentally friendly, that no animals were harmed in the making of it, and that those companies pay their taxes, et cetera, et cetera.
It’s a solid idea on the face of it, and I’d argue (though some would disagree) that it works, to an extent. Ethical consumer markets in the UK (across fashion, food, transport and others) have grown nearly four-fold over the last 20 years* from £11.2 billion in 1999, to £41.1 billion in 2019. That means there’s nearly four times as much financial life-blood flowing to ethical enterprises, because there’s demand from consumers who are willing to put their money where their mouth is – often at a premium cost. And we’ve all seen with our own eyes the explosion of recyclable products, vegetarian products, low-carbon alternatives, among others, made possible by a matched consumer demand.
Social and environmental agendas such as ‘corporate social responsibility’, the ‘triple bottom line’, and others, have also made their way into boardrooms, mostly because it’s good for business. It’s not the most noble motive, but who cares how you dunk the biscuit?
However, suffering this responsibility as an individual consumer is incredibly hard. You’ll quickly discover you need to be an expert in everything from global geopolitics to biochemistry, and learn the advantages and limitations of labels like fair trade, fair tax, organic, free-range, and the dizzying range of others, in order to make an educated choice.
And even if you can find products or business which tick every box for you, a challenge in itself, your range of options will become considerably more limited, and considerably more expensive. If you are lucky enough to be able to afford it, can you get those goods where you live? This is easier for one-off online purchases, but what about for daily essentials like food? How much time, energy and money can you sacrifice for these choices? Quite frankly, the whole exercise can be anxiety-inducing, who has the time? You, as an individual consumer, shouldn’t have to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders.
The final blow is the creeping realisation that, even if you were up to the task, your wallet alone isn’t hefty enough to make a dent. It’s as simple as that. That £41.1 billion figure I mentioned above as a sign of progress is a drop in the ocean compared to the value of the UK retail industry alone, £394 billion in 2019.
But all is not lost, we just need to realise there’s another part to this puzzle. The reality is that long-lasting and permanent positive change is a slow, slow grind, and happens through organised, collective action, through progressive legislation, and through international co-operation and multilateral agreed standards for business practice. As cliché as it is, the system needs to change, to take away unethical options in the first place.
That means that voting, engaging with your local MP and the democratic process, donating your time or cash to NGOs and charities that campaign and lobby for the laws you want, and supporting scaled protests, like boycotts, on social media and otherwise, are often more effective ways of directing your time and energy. Supporting good causes like this one, which make an immediate impact to peoples lives, and spending wisely where you can to keep good businesses in business, are important for the right now. But if you want lasting change, don’t expect it to be enough.