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You don't have to take to the streets in protest - you can vote with your wallet by purchasing ethical products.

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Activism for Busy People Part I: Ethical Consumption

Ruth Stokes

November 9th, 2013

Keen to save the world but don't want to end up in a Russian prison? In the first of a three part series Ruth Stokes suggests ethical consumption as one alternative approach to activism that won't turn your life upside down but will make a difference ...

Knowing that a product has been sourced ethically makes it all the more valuable to me

October was Buy Nothing New Month 2013. The event, which began in Australia but now has more than 2,000 people signed up from countries as far flung as Portugal, South Africa, the UK and the USA, challenges us to think more carefully about how we consume.

While October may have passed, Buy Nothing New Month can be used at any time of year - and is a powerful tool for change. Here's why.

The problem the campaign is trying to tackle is "affluenza" - "a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more". It's that need to keep up with the Joneses, to have the slickest smartphone and wear the most fashionable clothes, the nagging feeling that we haven't got enough.

However, it's not just social pressure that drives our excessive consumption; there's also planned obsolescence, when products are intentionally made to break.

Our throwaway consumer culture, and our expectation that we should be able to have lots of products at a cheap price, is bad for the environment and bad for people. There are campaigns out there, such as the Story of Stuff, that give the big picture on this.

You might argue that a single month of buying nothing isn't going to make any real difference - but the whole point is to spark behaviour change permanently. It's about considering a more conscious type of consumption.

I first came across Buy Nothing New Month in 2012, and decided to try it out. I wanted to force myself to think what sort of impact my consumption was having, and consider how I might fight for a better, more sustainable system. It ended up being the beginning of a personal, ongoing effort to reduce the amount I consume, cut the amount I waste, and ensure that when I do buy something new it's with people and planet in mind.

The experience has helped me to see that I don't need as much stuff as I once thought I did, and to realise that second-hand networks and the "sharing economy" are powerful - and growing - movements working to effect change.

Charity shops and car boot sales are an obvious alternative to buying new, but it's also worth drawing on resources such as FreegleSwap ShopStreet Lend and Rent My Items. These are all networks that connect people who have something they don't need to those who are looking for something.

The Collaborative Consumption website brings together a range of different organisations and innovations along these lines, while an organisation called the People Who Share is currently crowdfunding for the world's first ever comparison marketplace for the sharing economy.

I found that I could get a surprising amount of the things I needed in this manner. And by opting to source items in this way, I knew I was helping to extend the life of products rather than sending them to landfill, while also putting a message out there that I was uncomfortable with the status quo.

The event also prompted me to start researching better options for when I would need to buy something new (because I think that most people would find it difficult to stop buying new altogether). Ethical Consumer magazine is a valuable reference point, since it evaluates and rates products and companies based on their environmental and social credentials. My Green Directory and Ethical Superstore are also really useful ways to find organisations working for a better world.

All these resources, which I started using after Buy Nothing New Month had challenged me to think differently, are helping me to take a stand against excessive consumer culture. And now, knowing that a product has been sourced in an ethical or sustainable manner makes it all the more valuable to me.

Clearly, this is a very different type of protest to chants-and-banners marches. But that doesn't make it any less impactful. I believe that changing the way we shop - voting with our money - can help to change the world. Because companies respond to the habits of shoppers. We all have consumer power; we just have to make sure we use it wisely.

Ruth Stokes is a freelance journalist and author of The Armchair Activist's Handbook. www.ruthstokes.com; @ruth_stokes


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