The personal sustainability challenge identified in my previous blog surrounds minimising my own environmental and social footprint despite the demands of a busy lifestyle. The busier I am the less sustainable I seem to become as I lean towards the fastest, most convenient and comfortable lifestyle choice with less consideration for its broader impact.
But this is no excuse. If every busy person delays responsible living until ‘once things have calmed down’ the cumulative and unnecessary negative impact would be immense. I have since challenged myself to consciously note areas for possible lifestyle improvements. While not exhaustive, the top three sustainability issues for me – which perfectly correlate with a hectic lifestyle – are as follows:
- Transport choices : avoiding the convenience of cars/taxis and using public transport wherever possible.
- Reducing consumption: It can seem a lot quicker to substitute a faulty appliance or torn garment with a brand new replacement than to fix or mend the existing item.
- Shopping responsibly : whether this be for food, clothes, furniture, tourism or other goods, taking the time to identify and support retailers that embrace a responsible business model.
Since challenging myself to improve my own sustainability ‘score’, I’ve found that with a little effort the first two bullet points are relatively easy to improve and in some cases have even saved time despite expectations. These depend upon personal decisions which I have the ability and power to control (particularly given that public transport where I live is pretty good).
The third bullet point, however, I have found much trickier since it feels beyond my immediate control and requires a great deal of time and commitment to research. It transpires that shopping responsibly is extremely difficult to achieve when mainstream retailers in the UK, on the whole, don’t seem to register or publicly acknowledge their impact on the environment and broader society. If you dig deep, there appear to be niche stores on the margins that are geared towards attracting the growing tide of responsible consumers, but that’s where it ends. In the case of clothing, for example, niche retailers tend to be either highly expensive designers (a la Stella McCartney) or small, quirky outlets with a hippy vibe – neither of which are suitable for my, more mainstream, needs.
Should it be quite so difficult to find responsible retailers which operate profitably and which mitigate their negative impacts on the planet and society ? I’m not expecting high street businesses to invest in the latest efficiency and/or renewable technology, nor to become pioneers of a new, circular economy…all I ask is that at their core they recognise and abide by a basic moral code which takes into account broad societal considerations. Clearly, as evidenced by Volkswagen, BP, Rana Plaza, the horse-meat scandal…the list goes on….consumers can’t assume responsible behaviour as standard.
For example, I want to know that : steps have been taken to reduce emissions where possible ; ingredients are clearly and honestly labelled ; produce/material has been sourced from local and sustainable suppliers; appropriate standards (human rights and other) are adopted throughout the supply chain ; waste has been reduced and efficiency enhanced at every opportunity ; minimal (and recyclable) packaging used. Measures such as these aren’t demanding anything out of the ordinary but should be common practice for all companies regardless of; where they sit in the supply chain; the current legislative climate or whether they negatively impact profits.
Once businesses (and their supply chains) have reached the milestone of ensuring responsible operations throughout, I then ask that they broadcast it far and wide (and fairly !) so that shoppers like me know which companies to support. In the meantime, its up to policy makers and other stakeholders, such as, investors and consumers to use their power to engage with companies and pressure them to fully embrace sustainable and responsible business practices as standard. The irony is that companies will likely find such a shift beneficial to their profit margins. This is afterall, where the growth in consumer preference is heading not least since millennials are far more aware of their environmental and societal impact than older generations.
Next step is to dig deeper into the leads that I’ve found so far to identify which of the responsible retailers out there can cater for the mainstream responsible consumer. Ethicalconsumer.org appears to be a good starting point – this rightly identifies companies such as M&S, Co-op, John Lewis as mainstream leaders (but still with considerable room for improvement). Able & Cole (seasonal and organic produce…albeit expensive !), Prêt a Manger and Patagonia are examples of smaller businesses that can be proud of their business models… but from here I find myself scraping the barrel and with limited time to keep digging. As my search continues, any suggestions would be much appreciated…