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.

carbonmap

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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Oxfam Posts: Three Key Reasons for Second-Hand Shopping

Clothes rail

For my last three blog posts for Oxfam Fashion I looked at why we might choose to buy second-hand clothes and accessories. Reasons and motives are more complex than you might first think and vary depending on an individual’s priorities and circumstances. I used an academic study as my basis and fed in elements of my own research (I should write a PhD update at some point). I then pulled the reasons into three key points:

Buying clothes second-hand (with a focus of charity shopping):
Saves money
Is more ethical/sustainable
Is fun!

If you want to read more about these reasons click on the links above to the respective posts. I’m always keen to hear about why people choose to buy things second-hand and what you buy, so let me know by leaving a comment or tweeting me @EmsWaight

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Ethical High Street Spotters: I need YOU!

You may have noticed that I have a new project. I haven’t talked about it much until recently, but it’s got to the point where I can’t shut-up about it now. I already had a vague idea when I went to the Innocent Inspires entrepreneurship event at the end of July, but it was Innocent co-founder Richard Reed’s simple advice ‘just start’ that got me going. Just take one step and things will start rolling forward (what d’ya know, it was true!). For me, that one step was to contact a web developer to find out if my idea had legs. It does, and I’ve done a lot over the last few weeks although I don’t feel like I have much to show for it yet.

I want to create an online resource to help consumers navigate everyday shops with more of an ethical conscience. I’ve been involved with ethical fashion for the last few years and have seen it grow exponentially but am astonished when I talk to some people that it still has hippie connotations. Shoppers think ethical fashion is expensive, unattractive and not easily accessible. They just don’t know where to start. People often tell me that I should start an ethical brand, but I think the market is saturated right now. Until more people are going out looking for that thing, we need to go back to basics.

Most of our shopping is done in the same chain stores and supermarkets, so rather than have this them-and-us divide I want to fill the gap in the middle. I think it’s better to get 50 people to make one change rather than one person change their entire life. Not least because over time those 50 people will hopefully go on to make one more change, and another, and another. I want to encourage shoppers back to independent stores with a bricks and mortar street presence, because ethical stuff shouldn’t just be online. I want to tell people that it’s ok to buy things from chain stores if you’re thoughtful about it. I want to give shoppers easy to understand and positive information about retailers rather than focusing on the politics of ethical consumption. And I want to do this across the whole high street, not just for fashion but for home and gifts too. Oh, and I want it to be stylish, not like some of those other ‘green’ websites.

There is plenty I can do with Ethical High Street; I’d like news features, shopping guides and an interactive community. I’ve since met up with another developer who had some really exciting ideas. I have a pen and notebook glued to me right now, but there is a load to do. This is where I need your help. I can’t be in ten places at once so I need all of you lovely people to keep your eye out for great products. If you’re reading this then you’re already part of those ‘in the know’. A fashion chain has launched a charity tee? A stationer has started selling recycled cards? A new ethical indie has opened in your town? Please let me know! I need a team of spotters who can tweet me or email me (pictures!) so we can start sharing tips as a community. I am also looking for contributors to write for Ethical High Street so if this is you then please get in touch.

Want to be an Ethical High Street spotter? Want to blog? Email me: emma@ethicalhighstreet.co.uk
Or Tweet: @EthicalHighSt

Still shopping; but better.

PS. Have you seen my competition? It’s not very often I just give things away you know . . .

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Ethical Fashion Futures Workshop: Changing Habits in Retail

Back in the summer of 2012, fellow PhD retail researcher Ellie Tighe and I decided that there was something of a gap in the ethical fashion conversation. There was quite a lot going on in London; a number of ethical fashion events, but not academically or student centred. We came up with an idea to put on a small ethical fashion workshop, bringing together a number of academic fields (bearing in mind we are based in human geography) to try and debate the key issues and work towards some possible, practical(ish) solutions.

Ellie then went off to Dhaka, Bangladesh for a few weeks to continue her research and on her return we picked up the idea once again. Before we knew it, we’d been granted a small sum of funding from the faculty and there was no going back! As it was, it was one of the best things both of us have ever done. The workshop/conference day went ahead on Saturday 9th March, in the School of Geography, University of Southampton. It was great for networking and we had a really enjoyable day full of presentations and discussion. We had around 25 attendees including fashion, management and geography students, academics, and a couple of people with their own businesses. Charlie Ross, founder and director of the Offset Warehouse kicked things off by going to the start of the supply chain with a thoroughly engaging presentation on ethical and sustainable fabrics (with samples to touch and feel!).

First to admit that labelling a fabric as entirely ethical is a tricky business, Charlie talked us through some of the main problems in sourcing fabrics and what alternatives are available. Cotton for example, is heavily reliant on chemical pesticides and vast amounts of water. Organic and Fairtrade cotton is the obvious option, but other more unusual fibres are available to us including bamboo, banana and even milk fibre! One of Offset Warehouse’s ethical fabrics was recently taken on by Comme des Garçons for their high fashion collection. We later heard from Jeff Bray that sales of organic cotton have actually decreased, not a trend experienced by Charlie, whose business is growing year on year.

I spoke next, fusing my PhD research interests on second-hand stuff with fashion, I posed the question ‘Is vintage fashion elitist second-hand clothing?’ What is the distinction, and has the trend for vintage improved the street cred of second-hand clothing from charity shops and the like? The point in part was to shift our thoughts to the end of the product life cycle; to debate the view that if we are discussing ethics and sustainability, the best thing we can do is actually make the most of what we have. To consume less, and get the most use out of every single product. Simple really, but we like shopping. So if we can’t help ourselves from buying, and the retailers can’t help themselves from selling, who can step in?

For our third speaker, Tania Phipps-Rufus, that other influence comes from the Government. Tania, a law lecturer at Hertfordshire University raised concerns over the terminology used in the fashion industry as commonly used terms like ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ have no clear definition in a legal framework and are therefore open to misuse. Tania offered a fairly unique opportunity to get a legal perspective on the issues as she presented us part of an on-going project on eco-fashion, culture and law.

After lunch, we turned to social development issues with presentations by Dr Kanchana Ruwanpura of the University of Southampton, Dionne Harrison, Business and Capability Director at Impactt, and Ellie Tighe, PhD candidate at Southampton who is researching the Bangladeshi garment industry. All three speakers have seen the garment factories for themselves and spoken to garment workers and factory managers. These are the people with ground-level insights into the industry and labour practices. Dr Ruwanpura presented results of an ethnographic study in Sri Lanka and Pakistan where she had interviewed factory managers and workers on code of conduct awareness and compliance issues. In Sri Lanka, workers don’t earn a living wage and, as found in this study, workers thought that codes were violated nearly 40% of the time. You can follow up Dr Ruwanpura’s publications here.

It was fantastic to have Dionne from Impactt speak next. Impactt is a leading consultancy specialising in ethical trade, human rights, labour standards, gender and international development. Working with major brands, retailers, governments, academics and NGOs they strive to maximise the positive impacts of global trade. It is interesting to note that they are a business, not a non-profit enterprise and they have a wealth of knowledge and experience having worked with a diverse range of clients with offices in the UK, China, Bangladesh, India, Spain and Australia and a wide network of Impactt associates across Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Poland, Romania, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Thailand and Vietnam. I was quite surprised to hear Dionne talk of a labour skills shortage particularly in China, if this is the case why don’t wages get pushed up as a result of demand? Whilst an increasing number of brands are hiring in-house ethical trade teams, many prefer to call on Impactt for complex issues and/or to get a third party perspective.

Ellie’s presentation shifted focus to Bangladesh where she had carried out six months’ ethnographic work and interviewing. Ellie found that the main problems cited by garment workers were production demands (ie. It is a high-pressured job) and communication (general disrespect between management and workers), wages were cited as a third concern, whilst hours worked fell into the least discussed category. Outsourcing of orders is a serious problem, as these are the factories which fall under the radar and out of the retailer’s ‘selective’ vision.

Dr. Jeoffrey Bray led a fabulous end to the day with, in his words, a ‘controversial’ summary of discussions. A retailer by background, he came to the subject of ethical consumption due to academic curiosity rather than a desire to elicit change. He posed the common question, is ethical fashion an oxymoron? This needs a post of its own. We spent the day talking about clothing; ethical fashion has come to be the recognised vocab for these issues, I don’t see a need to get fastidious! Jeff brought a new dimension to the table, stating that sweatshops are fundamental to development. A job is better than no job.

The consumer should lead, the brands will follow. Do M&S care about ethics? – Jeff questioned – no, but they think their customers do. It is a shame that we didn’t have a high street retailer there to give their side of the story. A speaker had been lined up from a major young high street clothing chain, but couldn’t make it at the last minute. If we are to get into the mind of the shopper, we are very underequipped to understand ethical consumer behaviour. Studies to date have focused on a sample of already ethically-conscious consumers. Jeff’s recently completed PhD study aimed to add to this literature by surveying the general public, sending out questionnaires to 3000 households. Look out for future publications currently in review.

And a final point, many of us buy free range eggs, even students, so why not free range (ethical) clothing? Do we need a Jamie Oliver type figure of the fashion world to bring the issue to the mainstream? I pointed to Livia Firth and Emma Watson, but was reminded that outside of my ethical bubble and my desire to sniff out anything ethical fashion related, the average consumer is not confronted with these issues on a regular basis.

Follow up the day’s presentation slides here.

Proof that the day happened! I was too busy to remember to take photographs

Proof that the day happened! I was too busy to remember to take photographs

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Politicising Consumption: The Ethical Consumer

“Ultimately everyone thinks about themselves I think and it saves you money, affects your local environment, you go for it, but it’s very hard to see the effects of fair trade; you don’t know . . . They are all selfish acts really, ultimately, because you’re doing something to make you feel better, even you said didn’t you that you felt better for it. That is a kind of selfish act isn’t it? You make yourself feel happy about an issue.”

(Barnett et al. 2011 pg. 135)

This text is taken from the book, Globalizing Responsibility, and is a quote from one of the interviews set up by the authors to tackle ethical consumption. One of the authors is my supervisor, and I went to a seminar that he run last week, in which he discussed his findings.

This quote really jumped out at me because I found myself feeling quite defensive about what the participant was saying. Is ethical consumption a selfish act? ALL of it selfish, as the subject states? I don’t think anyone can deny that making ethical choices makes you feel good, but I would argue that when I make ethical choices it is less to make me feel good, and more to not make me feel bad. I would argue that there is a difference. I know I feel guilty when I don’t make the ethical choice, so I guess that it is still a selfish decision because I don’t enjoy feeling guilty.

But there is also the political stance behind my decisions, because by making an ethical purchase, I feel like I am making a point. I want to show the retailers that there is a demand for ethical choices and do my bit for the good of society. It is this political aspect which Barnett et al. focus their study on, looking at the way in which consumption can be a vehicle for political action. Organisations like Ethical Consumer and Traidcraft don’t just want to help individual consumers; they use this link to consumers as a way to influence policy. They generate data sets and use them to get stories into the media, aiming to become involved with global trade policy at the highest level.

A number of studies have proved that consumers find it very difficult to relate to the concept of fair trade, because the producers involved are simply so far away. That said, the majority of people will understand that something marked FAIRTRADE is good. The biggest consumption of Fairtrade actually comes from situations where consumers aren’t given the choice. The Fairtrade cities campaign works by targeting procurement officers in schools, museums and tourist attractions so that all of the products sold to consumers are Fairtrade. This is probably the best way forward as it boosts the demand for Fairtrade and helps to boost the reputation of the organisation. But with consumers struggling to understand the full significance of Fairtrade, the biggest challenge still remains.

Barnett, C., Clarke, N., Cloke, P. and Malpass, A., 2011. Globalizing Responsibility: The Political Rationalities of Ethical Consumption. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

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