Shopping for ideology

Can you change the world by choosing the right can of beans?

Ray Crowley

Topics Politics

Shopping is getting far too complicated for my liking. Gone are the days when all you have to think about is if your clothes fit or look nice, or if your food is tasty or affordable.

‘Eat your greens and don’t aid the arms trade: how to shop with ethics’, advises a headline in the UK Independent (1). Shopping with ethics? I’m still learning how to shop with unwilling boyfriend (I thought you said you’d be quick), unhelpful mother (Oh, you’d look gorgeous in these) or unrelenting little sister (Can I have something too?) in tow.

The Good Shopping Guide (2), based on data gathered by the Ethical Consumer Research Association, is the new bible for concerned shoppers to lug around the supermarket during their (now five-hour) weekly shop. Products from jam to washing machines are rated or slated on moral and environmental grounds, and their ‘impact on human and global survival’. If you thought this was as simple as checking that your tumble dryer doesn’t abuse your kids (whom you already feed biodegradable marmalade), think again.

Concerns flagged up by the Good Shopping Guide include: GM ingredients, animal welfare, child labour, ‘too much sugar’ or ‘too much salt’, hazardous waste, non-recyclable components, and the activities of the companies selling the products. Items which fail on these or other areas are identified with a red dot.

Yet as far as I know the fat lady has not yet sung on whether GM ingredients are a good or bad thing, whether it is justifiable to test cosmetics or medicines on animals, or if we should stop using computers because their parts may contain toxic metals.

The Good Shopping Guide claims that washing machines with the ‘smallest capacity are ideal’ – but would the mother of six who uses recyclable terry towelling nappies agree? How can a can of Coca-Cola contain ‘too much sugar’? If soft drinks contain too much sugar, what about bags of…well, sugar, for example? ‘Good shopping’ by whose definition?

Buying ASDA’s cooking oil is apparently bad shopping, as the American owner of ASDA Wal-Mart sells guns. The Good Shopping Guide will help consumers avoid such pitfalls. Rita Clifton from the marketing consultancy Interbrand says that shoppers ‘can be an unknown quantity. When they read a book or fill out a research questionnaire, they are radicals. But when they reach the check-out, they’ve become reactionaries’ (3).

But changing the brand of cooking oil you buy is hardly going to affect US gun laws. And can there really be anything ‘radical’ about picking one can of beans over another?

I wonder how the new Levi Strauss jeans, which have an anti-radiation pocket for the wearer’s mobile phone, would rate in the Good Shopping Guide. The jeans have been criticised for cashing in on consumer fears (red dot), but they also contribute to human survival (green dot).

I wonder where, on the jeans, this pocket is located? I know that yoga is all the rage, but I can’t picture Madonna and chums practising their back bends by touching their ear to their back pocket every time they want to call their Zen master…or chiropractor.

There is no scientific proof that radiation from mobile phones is dangerous, but never mind that. More importantly, how many commuters can you imagine giving up their seat on the six o’clock from London to Reading, to get up and shout into their arse, ‘I’m on the train’?

It’s about as funny as the idea that you can demonstrate your morals on a shopping trip. In my mind, good shopping is shopping that either does itself or is billed to someone else’s credit card – rather than a lazy solution for people who can’t think of a better way to change the world.

Read on:

Why consumer activists should pack their bags, by Frank Furedi

Don’t buy it, by Brendan O’Neill

Rebel without a brand, by Sandy Starr

(1) Eat your greens and don’t aid the arms trade: how to shop with ethics, Cahal Milmo, Independent, 24 September 2002

(2) The Good Shopping Guide, The Ethical Marketing Group, 2002. Buy this book from Amazon UK

(3) Quoted in Eat your greens and don’t aid the arms trade: how to shop with ethics, Cahal Milmo, Independent, 24 September 2002

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Topics Politics


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