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The Good Shopping Guide (10th Anniversary Edition)

Mark Newton

22nd December, 2011

Did you know that Green & Black's aren't quite as ethical as they'd like you to think? Nor did Mark Newton until the Good Shopping Guide came his way

The view that altering shopping habits can make a significant difference to the environment is bound to generate a lot of debate within the green movement. Some might argue that consumption is in itself environmentally destructive, and that simply by purchasing something else instead of, say, reducing or reusing, contributes to damaging our planet. However not everyone has the stamina to engage in environmental campaigns or to abseil off company headquarters in protest at corporate behaviour. For those who simply want to make small changes, their only means of expressing their preferences for a more sustainable lifestyle comes from changing what they buy or who they purchase from. And as The Good Shopping Guide suggests, if enough people actually change their buying habits, it hits companies and shareholders where it hurts the most: their profits.

It sets out some of the success stories, where consumers have made an impact on government and corporate ethics. However, it does seem rather spurious to reduce all of these to being successes of ‘ethical shopping’. One example is the claim that ‘ethical consumerism’ encouraged the phasing-out of the worst ozone depleting greenhouse gases, with no mention whatsoever of the Montreal Protocol international treaty. For a decade The Good Shopping Guide has sought out to help consumers know which are the UK’s ‘most ethical companies and brands’ and has, over that period, built up a substantial database of companies and certain types of goods. Ethical shopping is, according to The Good Shopping Guide, ‘buying products that are made in an ethical manner by companies who do not cause harm to or exploit humans, animals or the environment.’ This overall criteria informs the approach the book takes in guiding our purchases. It expands from that core ideal across a whole range issues, including animal welfare, human rights, armaments, political donations, carbon performance, eco schemes, workers’ rights, genetic engineering and so on.

For each of these criteria, it provides a couple of paragraphs discussing how the authors have reached their conclusions on what receives a top rating (indicated by a green circle on tables) a middle rating (an empty red circle) and a bottom rating (a full red circle), all of which amounts to a very simple method of saying whether a company is succeeding or failing in meeting the appropriate ethical requirements. It’s pretty basic as it needs to be, in order to accessible enough for anyone to make use of it.

So just how wide-ranging is The Good Shopping Guide? Remarkably so. It covers the basics such as energy needs and financial services but goes into a lot of detail on the home and office, food and drink, health and beauty, as well as fashion. Pretty much every part of a modern consumer’s life is covered here, from cookers, DVD players, fax machines and paint, to ethical mortgages, cold remedies, ice cream and jeans. For each of these consumer items, which are given a mini-chapter of their own, a table of a dozen or so companies and brands is listed, using the green and red criteria to separate the saints from the sinners. Alongside this there is also rigorous yet concise environmental report on the state of industry for that particular item, and this covers the nitty gritty elements of toxic ingredients, chemicals used in production, labour laws in the place of manufacture,  shareholder power, dodgy lending and so on.

There are plenty of surprises along the way, and one can’t simply state that big corporations are evil and small ones are bad. For example, with batteries, one of the largest brands, Energizer, are much more ethical than their rival, Duracell, where one might think there was no difference. What we take for granted in our knowledge of a sustainable company is not always the case. Another surprise was that Green & Black’s was in the red and considered to be not ethical at all. Given that it’s a company which claims to combine the highest ethical standards, this was very revealing indeed.

The bulk of The Good Shopping Guide is dedicated to this item-by-item coverage. To cover such a wide array of products and services, in an appropriately in-depth manner, is a fine achievement. It is worth noting that book also comes in the form of an iPhone app and there's a companion website - www.gooshing.co.uk - which is a useful resource to help consumers save money as well as quickly judge an ethical rating when shopping online.

It seems a remarkably modern ideal to suggest we can change the world by shopping but The Good Shopping Guide is without a doubt the best guide out there for anyone who wants to give their spending an ethical overhaul and for environmentalists to genuinely put their money where their mouth is. Even if such gestures make little difference in the face of, say, climate change, surely we should do what we can to see we are not handing our money to some of the world’s most destructive companies.

The Good Shopping Guide by Charlotte Mulvey (£14.95, Ethical Marketing Group) is available from Amazon

Mark Newton has a degree in Environmental Science and is a genre novelist for Pan Macmillan. He blogs at markcnewton.com, or you can find him on Twitter at twitter.com/MarkCN

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