Mainstreaming Ethical Consumption


The above was the title of Ethical Consumer Magazine’s annual conference, providing much food for thought on how ethical consumption could become mainstream and whether in some sectors, it already is. I went along to Amnesty International’s London office last Friday to hear from a wide range of speakers representing the likes of the Fairtrade Foundation, Forest Stewardship Council, Soil Association and Divine Chocolate.

Two days later I finally got round to watching The True Cost, a feature length documentary on fashion industry supply chains that featured on my blog back in 2013 when the film was crowd-funding. I’m so glad the documentary came to fruition because it casts a powerful light on all of the key industry concerns industry, from the plight of the cotton farmers living in poverty and the carcinogenic links to cotton pesticides, to factory workers across South East Asia and the insatiable appetite of the West (you can buy the film or watch it on Netflix). I wanted to cry with frustration by the end of the film because, in the six or seven years since I started looking into ‘sweatshops’ for my undergraduate dissertation, what has changed?

Well, according to Mintel’s 2015 report, 76% of UK adults say the ethical and sustainable credentials of products and the reputation of companies or brands behind them are important when making a buying decision.

This is MEANINGLESS. It doesn’t translate into action. At least the other 24% were honest in saying they don’t give ethics a second thought. This correlates with Ethical Consumer’s research; they suggest that 5-10% of consumers are ‘always ethical’ and 20-30% don’t care. Even that 5-10% are doing better than me if they can claim to be always ethical. But then isn’t ethical a subjective term in any case?

Fairphone have tracked the minerals that go into making our electronic devices, to make a better version.

Fairphone have tracked the minerals that go into making our electronic devices, to make a better version.

A better way to measure the mainstreaming of ethical consumption is to look at sales. Interestingly, although UK sales of Fairtrade products and sales of organic products are now fairly equal, at £1.6 and £1.8bn respectively, their journeys to this point are rather different. Fairtrade sales have steadily increased over the last 20 years, experiencing their first dip only last year. Organic sales, in contrast, were severely affected by the financial crisis, losing more than £500m in sales value between 2008 and 2011.

Fairtrade is more ubiquitous on consumer products than organic. For example, 85% of tea sold in supermarkets is fair trade, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s only offer bananas that are Fairtrade and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk was the first mainstream chocolate brand to go Fairtrade in 2009. In contrast, I can’t think of many brands that have suddenly gone 100% organic, rather, that market has been serviced by less mainstream, specifically organic brands. Therefore, consumers have greater autonomy (or should we say responsibility) when it comes to choosing organic whilst the choice to buy into Fairtrade has often been made for them. I’m sure much of the sales revenue for Fairtrade comes from big business making the decision to change on our behalf. Fairtrade towns, schools and workplaces are evidence to this effect.

The mainstreaming of Fairtrade cocoa forced Divine to focus on branding and product, whilst retaining co-operative principles.

The mainstreaming of Fairtrade cocoa forced Divine to focus on branding and product, whilst retaining co-operative principles.

Certification bodies like the Fairtrade Foundation have supported business in pursuing greater transparency in supply chains, ethical business practice and sustainable initiatives. It was interesting to hear from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) who have worked very hard with big retailers like Homebase and WH Smith so that they can offer customers wood and paper products certified as coming from sustainable sources. These organisations and their logos provide a guarantee that customers trust to a far greater extent than they trust the actual business (let’s not mention VW . . .).

It’s safe to say that ethical/sustainable consumption is more prevalent when consumers don’t actually have to make a choice. Change has come from certification bodies and grassroots campaigning, but certainly not government. Retailers and brands have worked on lowering their carbon footprint and swapping to more sustainable business practices, when it suits them. For example, Pepsi-Co’s recent claim that since 2010, it has reaped $375 million in savings due to its sustainability initiatives, namely saving water and energy costs. This financial motive is no bad thing so long as we are seeing change. Other brands, like Innocent and Lush, have had sustainability and ethics engrained into their business model from the start and their profits have only benefited from doing so, appealing to the ethically conscious consumer as they do.

Lush Cosmetics has always been staffed by activists, but fear of consumer stigma meant they kept this quiet at the start

Lush Cosmetics has always been staffed by activists, but fear of consumer stigma meant they kept this quiet at the start

Ethical food including organic and Fairtrade is big business compared to ethical fashion, which is lagging far behind. It’s not that there aren’t ethical fashion brands, because there are many, but unlike in the food industry, specific ethics and sustainability initiatives have stayed on the periphery of mainstream consumption. You will find organic foodstuffs on every high street and in every supermarket, but not an organic t-shirt. There are many reasons for this including lack of supply (there isn’t enough organic cotton to meet demand), costs, complex supply chains and consumer demand. Consumers (including me) are vain, and cost conscious. This isn’t such a problem when you are choosing between two types of tea, but choosing a new coat is obviously different. Plus, although cotton can be certified Fairtrade, a t-shirt, i.e. the production process, cannot. It can be certified as fairly-traded, but there are so many different certification schemes for that, the average consumer does not have one label they can rely on across the industry.

Easy access to ethical products is the only way ethical consumption can become mainstream. For that, all parties are responsible: the government, retailers and consumers. I’ve been writing about ethical fashion for six years. 124 years ago Benjamin Harrison, then President of the United States said, “I pity the man who wants a coat so cheap that the man or woman who produces the cloth or shapes it into a garment will starve in the process”.

What’s changed?

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Chilpa: Handmade and fairly traded products from Mexico


UK-based Mexican fashion brand Chilpa is producing a new range of contemporary products made with traditional Mexican scarves (known as rebozos). A rebozo is a long flat garment similar to a scarf, used since colonial times to cover up and carry babies, and for centuries they have been made in small-home based workshops on mechanical foot looms. The use of these weaving looms requires no fossil fuels or electricity so it has minimal environmental impact, and they are dyed by hand in small batches. Chilpa’s rebozos are made with a traditional ikat technique (where the cotton is tied together previous to dyeing then untied to reveal the pattern).


Unlike other new brands, Chilpa’s products champion slow fashion – moving away from the reliance on globalised mass produced garments sold at low prices to favour close collaboration with the people they work with and reinvesting a percentage of the profits to train a new generation of artisans. Chilpa treats the artisans who make its products as its own internal employees, as they believe that the fashion business’ archaic model needs an upgrade – moving away from low wages and poor working conditions, fostered by many people’s belief that fashion is cheap and disposable. As a way of changing this mind-set, every one of Chilpa’s products celebrates the artisan who made it by including their name and portrait on the label attached to it.

“I set up Chilpa because I was tired of Mexican mis-representations in the media in so many negative ways. I had also seen how fashion designers became famous by using rebozo fabrics, without acknowledging the people who made it and I wanted to do the opposite”, explains Maru Rojas, Chilpa’s founder.


Maru worked with a professional fashion designer and seamstress in London to produce a new range of practical yet beautiful bags incorporating the fabrics of the rebozos. Local seamstresses, working in small workshops rather than factories, manufacture all the bags in Mexico. Most of the bags use eco-friendly jute fabric as an alternative to cotton. Chilpa is committed to responsibly sourcing all their materials and ensuring the production process pays a fair wage to all those employed.

Chilpa is raising funds via a rewards-based crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to help produce this new range of products ranging from tote bags to exclusive silk rebozos. All items can be pre-ordered until October 7th, 2015. Check out the campaign here.

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Win a Scarf from Sancho’s Dress New Collection

Sancho's Dress Scarves

Sancho’s Dress is an ethical fashion and gift store in the beautiful city of Exeter. Earlier this year, the store’s owners Kalkidan Legesse and Vidmantas Markevicius, launched a Kickstarter campaign to set up a loom workshop in Northern Ethiopia in order to produce their own range of scarves and shawls. They wanted to create training opportunities and jobs for local women using back-to-basic wooden looms that require no electricity, fossil fuels, excessive water or heavy machinery, and have a minimal carbon footprint.

Happily, the Kickstarter was a success and they have just launched their winter collection! The organically-grown cotton is hand-picked and hand-spun to ensure it is made of the softest and most sustainable fabric. Each scarf is uniquely made with care and consideration. The colours are soft and perfect for autumn, with hints of burnt orange, sky blue and moss green. Each scarf takes three hours to make and in a transparency lost in most textile enterprises, both of the founders know exactly which seamster or seamstress made each piece. A range of ponchos (bang on trend right now) are new for AW15 and come in the same hand-woven cotton.

Sanchos - Blue Shawl

Speaking about the collection, Kalkidan said:

“We set out to create a line of scarves that are stylish and contemporary, while also being cosy and comfortable for the winter months”. We believe business creates systems of empowerment, education and ownership. We will fight hard to work with marginalised women to show them their capacity to success.”

Sancho’s Dress won Sublime Magazine’s Best Social Enterprise Award 2015. They are offering one lucky reader the chance to have their own scarf from the award-winning workshop in an exclusive giveaway. Just email by 30th September 2015 with the subject ‘SANCHOCOMP’ to be in with a chance to win! If you’re on twitter, tweet @Sanchosdresses to get a second entry into the prize draw!

Sanchos - Green and White Scarf

For more of the range see

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Sweet Cavanagh: Making jewellery to combat eating disorders

making jewellery

Over 725,000 men and women in the UK are affected by eating disorders including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. Although serious, eating disorders are treatable conditions and full recovery is possible once the sufferer gets help. I don’t think eating disorders are spoken about enough and for a sufferer, one of the hardest steps to recovery is admitting that something is wrong. Even then the cost of inpatient care is staggering and the strain on the NHS means that many people do not get the help they desperately need or leave treatment early.

Free Me is a charity working to bridge the gap between the recovery services offered by the NHS and getting back to everyday life. Based in London, Free Me owns the jewellery brand and social enterprise Sweet Cavanagh. Free Me open their doors to women recovering from eating disorders and additions. Through Sweet Cavanagh they teach the women how to make and design jewellery and then sell it on their website. Not only is the process of making jewellery therapeutic in itself, but the members are given the chance to learn about the business side of the enterprise, boosting their skills and confidence. If an eating disorder has dominated your life for quite some time, perhaps causing you to drop out of school or postpone exams, the creativity and purpose generated by being part of a productive group can be a lifeline at a time of feeling lost and alone.

The therapeutic benefits of jewellery making are enhanced by the weekly support groups and nutrition counseling. All of these services are free of charge. Research has proven that jewellery making can augment one’s wellbeing by increasing self esteem and reducing stress and anxiety; all of which can decrease risk of relapse. Sweet Cavanagh also gives women an opportunity to become self-employed as jewellery designers and creators by paying each woman a living wage for each piece of theirs that sells.

So, what do they create?

Necklaces, bracelets, beads and upcycled vintage pieces. Browse online by type or individual designer.

I love this necklace made with a vintage scarf clip, £34.99
. . . this bracelet, £25. What a beautiful shade of green.
. . . and all of the Mala beads (prayer beads) which have been used in meditation for centuries.

See more at

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Tips for a Westerner traveling to Beijing

Firstly, don’t be afraid!

This summer I went to China for the first time, spending a few days in Qingdao and Nanjing and three weeks in Beijing. I was there for work (see this post) so I hadn’t chosen to go there for a holiday (mainly because I couldn’t afford it), but I still had plenty of time to be a tourist. More and more people will be travelling there for work of course; I have friends who’ve been flown over for less than 72 hours to ‘do business’, so whether you’re visiting for sightseeing or networking, I hope these tips will help a first-timer in China.

Getting around

I flew into Beijing and got trains between Beijing, Qingdao and Nanjing. Their city train stations are bigger than our local airports. You need your passport to buy a train ticket. In fact, you need your passport for a lot of things. Check your train time online before you head to the station to make it easier to spot on the board and arrive at least 45 minutes before it leaves. You will queue to buy a ticket and queue to get through security – yes there is security.

The Beijing Subway is incredibly easy to use and works much like the UK tube. You can buy a top-up ‘smart’ card for CYN20 deposit from one of the ticket desks and top it up at a machine at any station (although the machines don’t always work). You have to go through security at every subway station but this never held me up, rush hour might be different. Journeys usually cost CYN4-7 depending on how far you’re travelling, so measured in pence rather than pounds. There are Subway maps at the stations and all announcements on the train are in English as well as Mandarin. You’ll find toilets at the end of every platform. Don’t expect people to wait for you to get off the train before they barge on.

Finding your way around when you get off the subway is a different matter. There are basic ‘you are here’ maps at the exit of every subway station but sometimes I found these entirely wrong! There are few signs to help you around the city, even for the main tourist attractions, so do take your own map. It can be difficult to find a taxi when you need one, but they’ll always be rickshaws outside the tourist spots.

Expect some attention

My little sister went to China years ago with school and describes how she was bombarded with folk wanting to take her picture. She was blonde (her hair now changes from pink to blue to purple, they’d probably think she’s from a different planet). I didn’t get this at all when I was with Chinese people, but it was a different story when I was on my own or with other Westerners. Generally I got teenage boys telling me I was beautiful and wanting to pose for a photo alongside me. It probably happened once at every main sight I visited and usually I didn’t mind apart from the day I had an awful cold and felt very unbeautiful. I had a cold because I got run down by not sleeping, which brings me to a brief point that I can’t help with because I failed to manage it – Don’t underestimate jet-lag.


Eating out is cheap and you will find something for all tastes but there isn’t quite as much diversity as other big cities. If you go to a local Chinese restaurant you can eat for £1 but you shouldn’t expect an English menu. I’m veggie and although it made it more difficult it wasn’t impossible. It helped that I’m not too fussy in that I was happy to pick meat out of noodle dishes. They have Starbucks, KFC etc, and they do have some good vegetarian restaurants if you search for them, many are in the University enclave of Haidian.

Using the facilities

On the plus side, you’ll find public toilets everywhere in Beijing. Unfortunately they vary greatly in what you get. More often than not they are squat toilets. You do get used to them, but you can also look out for disabled toilets if you want a seat. The public toilets in the Hutong are very basic – no cubicle doors, nowhere to wash your hands. Always carry tissue in with you because they rarely have any, and take hand sanitizer.

Finally, do take a good travel guide. I used Lonely Planet Beijing (there is a smaller pocket version too), and . . .

if you visit one major sight . . . it has to be the Forbidden City. There is so much to see and it is beautiful.

It was raining as we entered the Forbidden City

It was raining as we entered the Forbidden City

if you visit one park . . . go to Beihai Park and hire a boat to take to the lake circling Jade Islet. With 1000 years of history there are temples dotted around and places to grab a drink. You will pay a small amount to get in, as with most of the parks.

Jade Islet from our boat on Beihai Lake

Jade Islet from our boat on Beihai Lake

If you visit one museum . . . go to the Capital Museum. I didn’t visit many museums but the Capital and the National Museum of China are the big ones. They have very similar artefacts but the Capital is more modern and includes interesting installations such as a floor depicting Chinese festivals and folk traditions. The National is centrally situated, right near Tiananmen Square, so I’m sure that’s why I queued for half an hour to get it. There was no queue for the Capital at all.

Celebrating festivals at the Capital Museum

Celebrating festivals at the Capital Museum

If you visit one temple . . . you could visit the Lama Temple as all the guidebooks tell you to, it is the administrative centre of Buddhism. I really enjoyed visiting the White Cloud Temple though, once the Taoist centre of Northern China. The architecture is much the same, but the White Cloud temple was quieter, less shiny and more peaceful.

Incense ceremony at the White Cloud Temple

Incense ceremony at the White Cloud Temple

I’m lucky that I was able to spread out my time in the city because the summer heat was tiring. Some days I walked 12 miles. I’d definitely go back to China – Shanghai, some of the national parks, and Hong Kong are on my list.

If you’re traveling to Asia or beyond, Lonely Planet are offering 3 for 2 on all their guides.

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Top tips for completing your PhD

hat Phd graduation pixabay

I started my PhD in June 2011, went nominal in June 2014, submitted in November 2014, passed my viva in January 2015 and had my corrections approved in June 2015. There are many end points when you’re working on a PhD, but I think I can truly now say I’ve ‘finished’. Last month my Facebook was filled with pictures of friends graduating, some started before me, some after. And next year I will go through the ceremony with other peers who made it to ‘finish’.

In all honesty, it does feel like a massive accomplishment. At the moment I feel like if I do nothing much more with my life, I’ll be content to have got my PhD. Of course, for a career in academia a PhD is just the start, but right now, I’m happy to cruise for a bit. Because it was hard. And in some ways it’s only now looking back that I can see how hard it was, because at the time I was grateful to be doing something I thought worthwhile, to be learning (and getting paid for it), and to manage my own time and schedule. Now I’m relatively ‘free’ and can see friends going through the angst of writing up I can see how all-encompassing the process is and how, at times, it made me a little bit crazy. My thesis was the centre of my universe, and now I’ve set it free I’m able to think about other areas of my life.

That said, I wouldn’t change anything about my PhD experience and I certainly don’t regret doing it. I think others often saw me as hardworking, in control and not easily flustered. A lecturer once asked me to cover a lecture for him because he knew I’d ‘stay calm’. That’s all very nice but I had the same insecurities as everyone else. Should I be working this weekend? Why haven’t I heard of that theorist? Is that even a WORD?

I think there are two key traits that have got me through my entire education though and they are a consistent work ethic and organisation skills (note not immense intelligence!). Before I share some of my tips however, I think it’s essential to highlight the importance of a positive attitude and general wellbeing. I learnt to accept when to cut my losses and call it a day. On those days it is more productive in the long run to leave your desk and go to bed, or go read outside. Oh and do yoga and/or exercise – you DO have the time.

Consistent work ethic

As soon as I moved back to my University town three months in, I was in the office five days a week working. Some people can only work under pressure. They cruise along for a few weeks not doing much and then stay up three days straight to meet a deadline. Not me, not if I can help it.

• Do take holidays, but not for too long. Even when I went on holiday I usually took a bit of reading to do. I know some people who took weeks off over the summer which might be ok but do that every year and you’re unlikely to finish in three. Holidays or some kind of break are really important though, and much more productive than not taking one (says she who panics about taking more than a week off work).

• Stick to deadlines. Again, deadlines seem to mean absolute zilch to some people. The world can’t function like that and nor should you, for one thing it’s disrespectful to your supervisors or whomever you owe work to. It’s likely they’ve blocked out time to read your work and handing it over late means they won’t give it the attention they would have done. This links to the next point.

• Ask if you need help. This is so important and there are so many places to get information: your peers, supervisors, library staff and the wider community (Twitter for instance is great for reading recommendations or to join weekly chat groups like PhDchat). Don’t be the annoying person in the office who has to ask someone else how to use the copier every time you need it, but do ask for help about the big things. I asked to join undergrad lectures in my first year because I’d moved to a different subject area and felt I lacked some of the basics. I asked the library staff when I wanted access to a particular report and they directed me to a better one. You can also learn a huge amount from your peers.

• Make Uni your second home (but do go home!)*. It’s clear to me that PhDers working remotely miss out. Because they aren’t there for the informal chats, the impromptu staff tutorials over coffee and the post-viva celebrations of others they miss out on key information, like what actually happens in a viva. Again, because I was working in a subject area different to my previous degrees this probably benefited me most because I needed to soak up the discipline – the terminology, the big names. Yes there are distractions in the office, but I genuinely think my thesis and overall experience is better because I was there participating and listening. Also, even in academia, ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ holds some weight. Honing social networks can lead to opportunities for teaching and part-time work, and people are more likely to help you out when you need it. This is how I justified my coffee break chats, but you don’t need to be a social scientist to know it’s true!

books phd pixabay

Organisation: It’s obvious, but organisation is essential to completing a PhD.

• Make productive lists. I love lists. I have annual lists (a timetable really, or work plan), monthly lists, weekly lists and daily lists. Even out here in China away from the pressures of a regular workday I have a list (write blog – tick). A PhD friend once said to me that when he wakes up in the morning he doesn’t know what he’s going to do that day. I find that astonishing. My problem is over-ambition. I write long lists and can’t do everything, which then makes me feel bad. So I make a real effort to focus on the positives; at the end of the day I run through what I have achieved rather than what I haven’t. You will never reach the end of your to-do list; just accept it and keep ploughing on.

• Keep your files organised. Save file names with the date and back them up. Organise your folders. Keep track of all bibliographical references! I wasn’t great at this, but it really saves time in the long run. Use software to keep track of your references. I had a love-hate relationship with Endnote (it froze my PC just before I was about to print and submit) but I’d still recommend it.

• Don’t put things off. It’s easy to say don’t procrastinate but we all do it. However, I do feel like I’ve had a break through of late. Every time I feel a twinge about not wanting to do something, I do it. Before I have a chance to think about it, before it becomes a big deal. This works for the small stuff, like when you’re anxious about making a phone call. For the big things, break them down into manageable sections and treat each section like the small stuff. To borrow from a well-known sports brand; just do it.

So consistency, organisation and attitude are vital. You don’t need to work 24/7 to get your PhD, in fact that’s counterproductive. In my first year particularly I was often in the office at weekends but I wasn’t working on my thesis, I was blogging. To earn extra cash I was writing about boot and bodices rather than Bourdieu. I spent a lot of time working on stuff that wasn’t my thesis, so I’m sure I could have finished quicker had I wanted to but that’s another nice thing about doing a PhD, you do have relative time and freedom. These other interests provided balance, variety and stopped me feeling suffocated by the PhD, because sometimes distance can do wonders.

I know this all sounds very virtuous but good habits can save so much pain in the long run. Don’t compare yourself to others. Every PhD project is different and every person is different. Life doesn’t stop because you’re studying either; both happy things and tragic things will justly cause you to take time out at some point. That’s ok. You will still make it to finish; if you want to.

* I understand this isn’t possible for all. For a start some Uni’s don’t give doctoral students their own office space. For others family commitments mean they can’t move close to uni but that doesn’t stop you making the most of it when you do go in. You have to go to supervision meetings right? I’d also really recommend the supportive and abundant academic community Twitter (try #PhdChat).

Other resources:

10 steps to PhD failure (Article)
The Thesis Whisperer (Website/blog)
How to get a PhD (Book)
Guardian PhD network (Online)
Planning your PhD (Book)

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