Adventures in Ethical Consumerism

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Free speech and the internet

The Global Voices Online blog has this short piece about efforts to ensure the free flow of information in a globalised world.

"Reporters Without Borders has taken a delegation of cyber-dissidents to the U.N.’s preparatory meeting for the World Summit on Internet & Society this week. Global Voices is naturally concerned about efforts by governments that do not uphold free speech to interfere with internet governance. RWB has come out with an excellent set of recommendations that the U.N. should uphold if it wants any credibility at all when it comes to internet governance"

Check out the guidelines. They are very simple and (potentially) very effective.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Pollution, congestion and the council's latest plans

Looking at the website of No Tolls (National Alliance Against Tolls), I realise how one-sided I've been in my comments about the transport referendum.

I had already done a little checking to see what the opponents to the scheme were saying, but I have to say I found it all pretty ridiculous.

On the No Tolls site I just read this:

'[I]f the council "do nothing" they estimate that due to cleaner vehicles by 2010 there will be a 40% reduction in emissions of Nitrogen Dioxide and 60% reduction in Particulates.'

It's a good point. We already starting to see cleaner vehicles on the roads and we're likely to see a lot more. This is only addressing pollution, though.

We are also seeing more smaller vehicles being used, but they aren't likely to have a major impact on congestion levels in the long term. Neither is car sharing, it seems.

Now, Edinburgh Council have announced that they may have to ban cars in some of the city's main streets in order to meet mandatory EU nitrogen dioxide targets by 2010. That may not be necessary if the cleaner cars prediction is right, but still we need to consider congestion.

I understand that drivers don't want to pay added charges of up to £500 per year (as No Tolls points out) for traveling into Edinburgh, But I don't know what other solutions there are on the table. We know congestion is going to get worse, and it's already bad enough.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Edinburgh transport referendum result


Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Participatory democracy and the congestion charge

I think referenda are great. I love the idea of moving towards a more participatory form of democracy, as opposed to the representative variety we are used to.

It was a great privilege, eight years ago, to take part in the referendum that secured Scotland's (quasi-) independence from London.

Now, here in Edinburgh, we are getting the chance to vote for, or against, the introduction of congestion charging as part of the Labour council's grand plan to improve the city's transport situation.

The result is expected tomorrow, and early indicators suggest the overall response will be negative.

I've been in favour of congestion charging ever since I saw with my own eyes the difference in central London after the £5 daily charge was introduced there. The proposal here has been for a smaller charge of only £2 per day, yet opposition to the idea has been overwhelming. The usual reasons have been given: another tax on car drivers is too much, and businesses in the city centre will suffer.

It makes me sad. I believe car drivers deserve to be taxed off the roads. I really believe that, especially when I am walking, cycling, or waiting for a bus and I can taste the poisonous fumes in the air as they pass through my mouth and into my lungs. I do not benefit from somebody else's car, yet it may help speed me towards an early grave. If someone is to be able to sit alone in a car that can carry five, listening to their favourite CD while I get sick off their emissions then yes, they should pay towards making things better. Why not?

I also think that the kinds of businesses that are obsessed with profits and nothing else should not be welcome in our city centres. If they are not prepared to accept some responsibility for the wellbeing of people and the city, I would be happy to see them shut up shop and move to the outskirts, where the car drivers can flock to them and collectively choke on each other's gasses.

So I voted Yes to congestion charging.

There has been a lot said here in Edinburgh about the transport proposals and the referendum itself. The council has been accused of trying to manipulate voters, and really the whole process has been a bit of a farce. Despite trying to do the right thing, the council may well end up with nothing but a large bill to pay after all their efforts to win public approval.

I feel the lessons to be learned from this are important, though. Certainly it has become clear that it is no simple administrative matter to hold a public referendum, and it is perhaps impossible to expect the majority of voters to actually know about the issues they are being asked for their opinion on.

Public cluelessness could be the reason if we hear tomorrow that the No vote is the winner. Or it could just be that there are more people using cars than buses in Edinburgh, and they're only thinking about themselves.

Much more information about Edinburgh City Council's transport strategy can be found here.


Today I took part in another form of participatory democracy: an online public consultation from DEFRA, the London government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Through the Citizen Space website, they are holding a consultation on how best to tackle climate change. This type of thing is a great example of how the internet is helping to change the way democracy works by providing a direct link between you and the people who make decisions on your behalf.

We're used to being able to write letters and attend constituancy surgeries, but a national consultstion such as this would have meant far too much wasted paper and person-hours for it to be feasable in the days before the world wide web. We can expect to see a lot more of this kind of thing, and I would urge anyone with an interest in democracy to check this out.

The consultaion serves a second purpose in that it helps to inform people about what is happening, including information about what the goverment is doing, and what they are thinking about doing.

Even if you are not interested in democracy, it's still worth a look so you can play the excellent game of Polar Bear Parking. The opportunity is not to be missed!

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Good news

Good news from the Green Consumer Guide: the UK government is phasing in new regulations making it compulsory for car manufacturers to take responsibility for 'End-Of-Life Vehicles'.

In the coming years, manufacturers will have to start taking care of the disposal of their old vehicles, as well as using more materials which can be easily re-used.

Another big step forward for sustainability.

Czech Dream

Yesterday I went to see a film called Czech Dream, part of the Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival On Tour.

I've never seen a film like this before. Two Czech film students launched a massive advertising campaign for a new 'hypermarket' just outside Prague. They created a brand identity, a logo, tv adverts, radio spots, flyers - everything. They carried out extensive market research in order to make the most effective campaign possible. And they promised a big surprise for those attending the grand opening.

The surprise? I won't be spoiling the film if I tell you. It's clear form the very beginning that there is no "Czech Dream" hypermarket and there never will be. The whole thing is a hoax intended to expose people's obsession with consumerism.

Needless to say, there are some very unhappy consumers on opening day. But the film does an excellent job of prompting people (both viewers and consumers) to think about how easy it can be to sell something that doesn't exist. This all comes at a time (in the film) when the government of the Czech Republic is spending vast amounts of cash on a campaign trying to convince Czechs to vote 'yes' in an upcoming referendum on whether or not to join the European Union.

A very funny, short, clever, film.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Fairtrade: a good idea?

Alex Singleton posted a comment saying that Fairtrade is making things worse not better, and linking to his own piece, Is Fairtrade Coffee a Good Idea?

It's interesting. Alex says the reason for such low coffee prices is overproduction, and that giving farmers any encouragement to produce more coffee will make things even worse in the long term. A fair point, but I think it kind of misses the mark in terms of what Fairtrade is about.

As Alex says, "It is easy to show photos and case studies of Fairtrade farmers who have benefitted... But in economics, it is important to look at both the seen and unseen consequences."

I agree. But Alex sees the unseen consequences of Fairtrade as being even lower coffee prices due to increased production, and therefore more farmers needing to get into producing something else (which, for some, can be impossible). And, as Alex points out, "five people and a machine can produce the same [coffee] output in Brazil as five hundred people in Guatemala."

So Fairtrade distorts the market, artificially raising prices for some while driving others into even worse trouble than ever before. Alex makes a pretty good case that buying Fairtrade is actually unethical. That it breaks the golden rules of supply and demand.

I do not agree, however. Fairtrade is a great example of how cool consumerism can be, for all. I get a good product for my money. It's fine quality, produced in a sustainable way, without exploitation of anyone, and without anyone getting horrendously rich either. I like that. As a consumer, I'm prepared to pay for that.

If I hand over my money, I want to know that people - and the Earth - are being treated with respect. I want to know my product is GM-free. I want to know that I'm not unwittingly supporting such "unseen consequences" as: coffee farmers losing money on their crop while I enjoy my caffiene buzz; exploitative middlemen getting rich and fat and lazy; giant companies like Nescafe and Kenco laughing all the way to the bank while people starve; genetic modification; lack of respect for the Earth. I don't want to pay for these things. I also don't want a product that is grown by a machine.

Luckily, there are products I am willing to pay for (vote for, if you like). Those products are the ones certified by the Fairtrade Foundation. I always managed to find the few extra pennies required for some Fairtrade products, even in my most poverty-sticken periods.

Personally, I say no to any form of ecomonics that puts profit before people. That's not what Adam Smith was about, and Darwin (Mr Survival of the Fittest), too, understood the need for humans to take care of each other.

Lastly, I do not understand the suggestion that Fairtrade is encoraging more people to produce coffee. I always thought it was more a case of getting a better deal for those that are already in the business, helping them to have a decent standard of living and encouraging effective, safe, mindful production. Long term, the Fairtrade model can be applied much more widely, including in 'developed' countries like Britain. It's about people getting a fair deal. Having too many coffee farmers in the world could be blamed on many things, but Fairtrade is surely not one of them.

I think the type of analysis Alex is offering is very valuable indeed. Fairtrade is not solving all the world's problems. There are still many, many trade issues that need to be addressed. Progress is slow. But I look forward to exploring more of Alex's blog. Looks like a very enlightening read.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Organic growth unstoppable

Two stories from offering some insight into the develpment of organic farming in Britain and the US...

Scottish Farmers to Receive Organic Certification Support documents the recent explosion in organic farming in Scotland, and why it's a trend that's likely to continue:

The Soil Association claims that the organic food market in the UK is worth an estimated £1.12 billion per year, with sales of organic food growing by £2 million a week.

US Court Gets Tough on Organic Ingredients is about plans to tighten up organic standards in the US. If the plans - which bring standards into line with the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 - are approved, it will become harder for Americam farmers to achieve official organic status. The proposed new measures do not seem unreasonable, however, and while they may temporarily slow growth in the organic sector, the net result is likely to be better quality food in the long term:

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) said it will work with the USDA to address these issues.

“OTA is proud that in the two years since national organic standards were implemented, US organic acreage and production have grown substantially, organic product sales have increased, and there have been many environmental benefits as a result,"said Katherine DiMatteo, OTA’s executive director.

"The court decision may hamper that growth rate in the short term, but OTA is optimistic that its members and others in the organic community can pull together to maintain the momentum for organic agriculture.”

The organic food market in the US is estimated to be worth $10.4 billion and it shows no signs of tiring – it grew by 20.4 percent in 2003 – and sales are expected to reach $16.1 million
[sic - shouldn't that be billion?] in 2008, according to a recent report published by Euromonitor.

"Sales of organic food have outpaced those of traditional grocery products due to consumer perceptions that organic food is better for them," said the report.

It seems there are many people who still believe there is a limit to how much organic agriculture can compete with the more industrial variety we have had thrust upon us. Yet looking at these figures, it would appear the organic movement is on course for world domination! It's no surprise that non-organic producers are starting to get scared.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Towards global sustainability

It wasn't so long ago that most people in Britain felt there was no point in recycling our waste since nobody else did it and it was too inconvenient anyway. But people showed an interest in recycling, and slowly we have seen the introduction of all sorts of facilities to make it easier.

Along the way, we had to realise that just separating our waste isn't enough. We learned that it's also necessary to buy recycled products in order to help industry close this particular loop of sustainability. Now, recycled products and materials are becoming much more common, and cheaper too.

This article, Paper Recycling Chase in Asian and European Markets by Pete Grogan, shows how the recycling movement has grown legs of its own. There is now so much demand for recovered paper - especially from "hungry tiger" China - it is driving the need to recycle more than ever before:

"The paper industry will need to encourage city governments not currently providing residential recycling services to their citizens to do so.

"Those providing lackluster programs will need paper industry encouragement and assistance to develop effective recovery programs. The industry will also have to develop creative methods for providing recycling services to small businesses that are presently underserved."

Carpet, Fabric & Apparel to Get Greener
is another article from which shows how consumer demand is driving industry, which in turn is driving more environmental practices:

"The Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability (MTS) has taken on the charge to make it happen. Their goal is to transform manufacturing and retail practices worldwide so that by 2015 sustainable products are available in 90% of the global marketplace. Daunting? Yes, but since the 100 largest companies account for more than 90% of the world's products, MTS believes its mission is attainable."

This initiative has serious potential. The MTS looks like more than just an industry mock-up for pulling the wool over people's eyes.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Global 100

You've read about the Ten Worst Corporations of 2004, now check out the Global 100, which aims to list the "Most Sustainable Corporations in the World".

The fact that GlaxoSmithKlein made it onto both these lists is a good indication of how contradictory ethics in consumerism can seem to be. I'm sure it's very nice if they have the "ability to manage strategic profit opportunities, that is, their ability to profit from recognizing new environmental and social markets", but what about letting people know the truth about their products. Does that count for anything? Is it possible to measure truth in dollars and cents?

The WorldChanging blog has this excellent wee piece about the Global 100.