UN Climate Summit and the Place of Ethical Consumption Research

Last week (23rd September 2014) saw the UN Climate Summit, where global leaders from Government, business, finance and civil society came together to announce their commitments to action in areas that are critical for keeping global temperature increases to less than two degrees C. The 8 proposed Action Areas were Agriculture, Cities, Energy, Financing, Forests, Industry, Resilience and Transportation. I’m not going to provide a summary of the summit because there is plenty of information online but it has prompted me to share some thoughts from two conferences I went to this summer.

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Have a look at this climate map from the Guardian (click here). Watch how, as my friend said, the world ‘breathes in and out’ as you flick between highest population data and highest consumption – or consumption and all levels of highest vulnerability to climate change. It comes as no surprise that the countries with the highest levels of consumption are not the countries with the highest population, nor those at greatest risk of problems associated with sea level rise and poverty.

The inequality is both startling and disgusting, and world leaders at the summit did appear to be concerned about the tangible effects of climate change in the form of severe weather events. In a press conference following Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli’s speech, Xie Zhenhua, vice-chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, told reporters that “weather extremes have greatly affected the Chinese people.” According to a report by the European Commission, China’s carbon emissions increased by around 10% PER YEAR in the decade prior to 2013 at which point it slowed to a 3% increase, whilst the EU had a 4% decrease.

In order to slow CO2 emissions we need a greater commitment to more sustainable consumption, at all scales, from personal to global. Whilst we do drastically need to cut carbon emissions, I think this could be framed more positively through a holistic sustainable consumption approach rather than focusing on carbon emissions per se. Lots of research is being done to try and learn more about consumer behavior and the motivation behind individual action. With climate change now regarded to be a critical policy issue, what’s the place of social science research in this agenda?

I attended two brilliant workshops/conferences over the summer that got me thinking about just that:

Ethical consumption and the globalising middle-classes: Philosophies, policies and practices, Durham University

Sustainable consumption and lifecourse transitions, University of Surrey.

They were only a week apart, so it was great to immerse myself in these overlapping topics and tease out the key themes across the two. The content of course did differ, as did many of the approaches with Durham being mainly geographers and Surrey mainly attended by sociologists, however I certainly got a sense of where future research is headed, and which directions we should steer it in.

The key theme for Durham was ‘globalising’, the argument being that most of the research conducted on ethical consumption is exclusively from the point of view of the West. Such research utilises a Western take on what it means to be ethical to consider the role of the consumer in the Global North and the producer in the Global South. Events like the UN Summit on climate change rely on a global agreement to produce any effect; therefore we cannot continue to be bound to this north/south dichotomy but should instead look at different variables and viewpoints. A couple of particularly interesting points to take from this workshop for me were –

How are ‘ethical’ products marketed within the Global South and what does this say about different attitudes and values?

What do we mean by ethics? Can we start laying judgement on ethical endeavours elsewhere without an understanding of the different cultural definitions of ethics?

As an example, a well-known chain/department store in Bangladesh called Aarong states on it’s website that it “is dedicated to bring about positive changes in the lives of disadvantaged artisans and underprivileged rural women” yet according to Prof. Nicky Gregson, there is no mention of this message in store. The growing middle-class (30m people) in Bangladesh are shopping to keep up with the latest fashions. Status as exemplified by taste is of utmost importance, and shopping at Aarong enables a form of distinction for this group. The ethics are silent though, rather than capitalising on ethics for commodity value, Aarong is an example of consumption with ethical effects not ethical consumption as a route for political action.

This is quite a different way of thinking through ethical consumption, which at least in the Global North, is considered a purposeful act to play out identities, politics and status. As discussed (but certainly not proven) during the workshop, perhaps such explicit reference to ethical production/consumption is too close to home in Bangladesh. With cheap clothes accounting for around 78% of total exports, the garment industry is both a source of ethical contention and a major factor in the increasing wealth of the growing elite. Similarly, in South Africa and Kenya locally sourced fair trade brands sell to their own middle-class not by focusing on a message to help the poor but on ‘love Africa’. Place, and therefore geography, is critical in forwarding this work and expanding the definition of what it means to be an ‘ethical consumer’.

The need for consistent terminology also came up at the Surrey conference and is particularly important if we want ethical/sustainable consumption research to successfully span different countries, cultures and disciplines. We discussed whether more interventionist research is indeed ethical as I proposed it as a helpful way to move forward in understanding how to change consumer behaviour. It’s one thing trying to find out why we act the way we do, but what about ‘nudging’ individuals to do things differently? As the title of the workshop suggests, we discussed lifecourse transitions, moving into the metaphysical realm of postulating how views of life after death may alter what we do in life. Maybe its philosophy we are missing? There are many ways to approach research on sustainable/ethical consumption/lifestyles and I think we’ve only reached the tip of the iceberg. The important thing, is to keep sharing ideas not just with each other but with policy makers and society at large too – globally.

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Pants to Poverty Discount Code

Pants to Poverty

Pants to Poverty is planning a relaunch for 2015 amidst exciting plans to live and work with suppliers in India. The brand, which is a familiar one to conscious consumers, are furthering their work to support sustainable business relationships by moving operations to their farmer’s office in Odisha, India, for a few weeks. The trip aims to let the Pants to Poverty staff document and assist with the harvest of the organic cotton that goes into making Pantabulous products. It’s a wonderful chance for the team to be fully involved in the ‘cotton to bottom’ process and whilst the relaunch won’t involve a significant change in product offering, the trip will no doubt inspire the team to develop new shapes and styles.

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You can buy Pants to Poverty online, plus they have a wide list of stockists across the UK. The lovely team have offered an exclusive discount code to readers of Ethical High Street, you just need to quote ETHICALHIGHSTREET (in caps) online to get 10% off. Why not stock up on new undies for winter? They make great gifts/stocking fillers too!

Read more on Ethical High Street (which, by the way, now features the indie ethical shop directory)

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I was on BBC Radio!!

Ahead of this weekend’s Festival of Thrift, the Mark Forrest Show looked at second-hand shopping, status and sustainability. I’m featured in a brief interview focused on my studies on second-hand consumption, very exciting! The first part is about the Festival of Thrift, my section starts 4:45 minutes in.

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The Corner Shop – Felt Groceries by Lucy Sparrow

I met Lucy Sparrow in Southampton last month and was really interested to hear about her forthcoming shop opening in London. She’d been busy planning the launch of The Corner Shop for months, but this was a shop with a difference; all of the groceries were to be made from felt!!

As a textile artist, Lucy mainly works with felt and wool creating over-sized soft versions of existing objects and major art works. The Corner Shop is her latest project and has received wide-spread media attention, and for good reason, it’s brilliant! Felt fruit and veg, newspapers, tins of soup, packets of biscuits and pick-and-mix sweets are just some of the goods you’ll find there. You can buy items online made to order or by filling out an order form in the ‘store’. Open until the end of the month, you can visit this cute corner shop in Bethnal Green at 19 Wellington Row E2 7BB. It will then be moved to Brighton in October 2014.

You can find Lucy at: sewyoursoul.co.uk/

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“Dead White Man’s Clothes”

Did you see the ‘Secret Life of Your Clothes’ last night? The BBC2 This World documentary followed the fate of your charity shop donations, showing that most of your old clothes don’t end up on the rails of your local Oxfam at all, but thousands of miles away in Africa. This has never been something charities wanted to admit but it is a massive business. It’s also something I had mixed feelings about – charity shop prices aren’t that cheap anymore, they always seem to be begging for donations, and to think that they have all this surplus that they are shipping out to the poorest countries of the world not in aid but to sell to them (the bales are always tightly packed and wrapped so it’s pot luck what traders end up buying).

In the programme Ade Adepitan follows the trail to Ghana, the biggest importer of our castoffs. One million pounds’ worth of our old clothes arrive here every week. Ade meets the people who making a living from our old castoffs, from wholesalers and markets traders to the importers raking in a staggering £25,000 a day. They call them ‘dead white man’s clothes’. The documentary really did show a story of two-halves. On the one hand, people are building businesses selling second-hand clothes (the size of the markets were astonishing) and trade is booming; but on the other hand, local traditional textile businesses are struggling to compete on the low prices of second-hand fast fashion. The second-hand clothes are simply much cheaper, and not only that but many young Ghanaians want to wear Western clothing. It shows that they ‘know what’s out there’.

I think we’ve actually become used to seeing Africans wear Western clothing, haven’t we? Where did we think they came from? At one point Ade visits a professional factory that have specialised in uniforms and exporting garments to the US. The factory manager describes how Africa has become a dumping ground for stuff – ‘when will it end?’ she says. I understand her frustrations but it’s hard to deny that the second-hand economy is thriving and these are clothes that still have plenty of life left in them. Yes we should be consuming more sustainably in the West but part of me is pleased that these clothes can be loved and used after we’ve discarded them.

Ade makes the point that these clothes go full circle – from being manufactured by some of the poorest people in the world they come back to some of the poorest people in the world, via a few months in our UK wardrobes. In Ghana it’s so difficult for their own factories to stay afloat they have to specialise (funeral wear was the example they gave) and/or export. In the UK we import African-produced products via fair trade groups and Western-based social enterprises/businesses who sell their wears to the middle-class ethics conscious consumer looking to divert from the fast fashion mainstream. These networks of trade are astonishing, clothing perhaps more than any other product really do link the world together within this evitable thing we call globalisation.

You can catch up with the show here.
If you are interested in the academic debates on this topic I recommend the work of Dr Andrew Brooks.

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My New Job! Supermarket service design for elderly consumers

EmpressWalk supermarket

I’ve been in my new (postdoc) job for six weeks now and am really enjoying it. Getting a position, either academic or non-academic, post-PhD is real worry for most doctoral students. Just as there are too many undergraduates passing through university for not enough graduate-level jobs, we get constantly bombarded with the fact that there are too many doctoral students chasing a handful of academic posts. Whilst you become highly qualified as a doctoral student, your area of expertise is always extremely specific. To give yourself the best chance of getting an academic job, you’re expected to have a brilliant PhD thesis, journal papers, teaching experience, admin experience and evidence of outreach work. Ideally, all within 3 years.

To be honest, I never bought into the pessimistic outlook. Whilst competition is tough, I knew I’d done everything I could do to improve my chances (although I never saw it that way – I just like going to conferences, teaching, tweeting etc) and a good PhD from a Russell Group university. Plus watching fellow doctoral students go before me, it always seemed to work out for people in the end. Luckily, it worked out for me very quickly and I got offered a great research fellow job at Winchester School of Art (part of the University of Southampton still, but under the business faculty) to start the day after my doctoral funding ended. The post is for 18 months working on an ESRC project. It is a perfect match for my multi-disciplinary social science/design background and uses the same methods as my PhD work but working on a different problem.

The project I’ve joined is called ‘Silver Shoppers: Designing a better supermarket service for the older customer’ with Dr Yuanyuan Yin and a research team at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The aim of the project is to investigate the problems older shoppers face when grocery shopping and to come up with some new design solutions. Some examples of previous design ideas can be found on the project exhibition website. The ESRC funding creates the opportunity to expand the research across the UK and across China, so we’ll be running a parallel study out there next year. My main role is to assist with the shopping-with-consumer observational research and conduct face-to-face interviews. The Chinese team will conduct the research in China but I’ll be over there for three months next year to oversee the process and ensure the methods we use match up. Exiciting! After the qualitatative research has been completed and data analysed we will be designing a large quantitative postal survey with shoppers aged 65+.

Whilst the project is predominately design-focused, I’m really interested in the social side of the story. Already in the focus groups, respondents have talked about the supermarket as the ‘community hub’ – the place where they bump into friends, get to know the staff and stop for coffee in the café. There is also a strong co-shopping theme, where the older but still very able respondents shop for their friends and neighbours, or give them a lift to the supermarket. With an aging population this research is timely and much needed, hopefully the ‘inclusive design’ outputs will be of benefit to all shoppers. I’ll try to provide project updates here as the research progresses and will be developing the project website in due course as well.

Image: “EmpressWalkLoblaws” by Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine – Own work

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