Heard of ‘ethical consumersim'? Rehna Abdul Karim enlightens you on how you can save the world one shopping bag at a time…

To be or not to be sounds like a thing of the past! Make way for the new line: “to consume or not to consume”. Ethical Consumerism in simple words means buying things that are ethically made. Generally this means without any harm to or exploitation of human beings, animals or the natural environment. So that brings us to the question here: How do we shop ethically? The answer doesn't come to you over night.

The concept of “Ethical” is a very subjective one. What is ethical to you might not be ethical to someone else and vice-versa. And this differentiation is liable to change from a consumer and a company.

We all have a perimeter for our own ethics and to become someone who wants to do the right thing without exploiting nature is a gradual process.

The brand new generation demands more than just pricing and quantity. They want environmental care, fairness and social responsibility too. An indication to this paradigm shift can be seen in our environmental policies and demand for information about the where and how of the products. The concept of “green brands” is creating ripples all across markets and business practises.

Understanding ethics

Madhumitha Madhavan and Ashoka Varshini, International Climate Champions 2010, conduct workshops on Ethical Consumerism at various schools as a part of their endeavour to educate youngsters. Their specially developed workshop modules help school children understand and respond to ethical consumerism.

“Our workshop usually begins with ice-breakers to get the children to loosen up. Then we do a lecture-presentation on what exactly waste is, why it is more important to recycle but even more important to reduce and reuse, what responsible consumerism means,” explain the duo. There are also various discussions on how their day-to-day activities can affect the environment.

A short film that illustrates what they teach is also used. In this way, interactive media is used to help children understand long-lost concepts like this. Ashoka explains how arts and media is a great way to engage children in topics such as consumerism and climate change, which are synonymous to “boring” in their dictionary. “This way, the message of being responsible towards the environment is not preached. It reaches them subtly but effectively,” assures Ashoka.

Conscious change

When quizzed about what the youth or the common man can do to be an ethical consumer Madhumitha replies, “Many people I talk to think that ethical consumerism means to give up all the indulgences in life and go back to a life of nature. While that might be an appealing ideal, it is simply not possible”. Ethical consumerism is about knowing where to stop. “It is the difference between owning five pairs of shoes and five hundred,” remarks Madhumitha.

The whole concept is about understanding how your purchases can directly affect the environment around you and how you can make an informed choice. Discussing feedback and reactions, Madhumitha mentions that they use a lot of interactive presentations and films to drive home the point of how climate change can be linked to their consumer practice.

And because of this, the girls seem to be receiving positive feedback with children telling them that they have been convinced to change their lifestyles. “Even after the workshop, they and their families add us on Facebook and keep in touch through mails,” smiles Madhumitha. Their advice to becoming an ethical consumer: Buy only what you need and use all that you buy.

Exercising awareness

When asked about Ethical Consumerism, a few students had this to say. Rehana Razack, a masters student from Anna University, states that consumers cannot be forced into ethical consumerism but need to be educated by appropriate awareness campaigns. “Buying a CFL lamp to replace a regular halogen lamp is a great example of Ethical Consumerism as people do it willingly; they get more for their buck in terms of looks and satisfaction,” suggests Rehana.

Media student Kaavya, on the other hand, states that the market is not “nice” to ethical consumers. “Ethical consumerism is practised as positive buying or moral boycott. Digressing from its definition is the actual buying, neither this or that”. Kaavya brings up the recent example of the organic Holi colours. “Not many opted for it because it is more expensive than its harmful competitors. Such is ethical consumerism. Not many are aware of the environmental benefits that it brings. Those who are aware do not get to exercise their choice.”

Ethical consumerism should be about using our purchase power to make the world a better place. We are far too sucked in to the pleasures of life to see through all this. At the end of it, one question remains. Have you done your part yet?

What you can do…

Recycling and buy second-hand: You don't always have to buy new. Recycled and second-hand products save precious resources and reduce pressure on landfill sites.

Shop locally: Shopping locally can reduce car use and support your local communities too. Our local shops arein decline, and our high streets are becoming a sea of chain stores and supermarkets. So shopping locally is a good idea.

Consume less: It's not about replacing good stuff with bad stuff; it's about how much you buy! Go easy on your consumption and buy only what's really necessary.

Madhumitha Madhavan graduated with a degree in B.E. EEE in 2010 and is currently employed as a Resource Mobilisation Associate at NalandaWay Foundation. Ashokha Varshini is a fourth year student of M.Sc. Electronic Media programme in Anna University. Her International Climate Champion's project involves the ‘Greencast' workshop to teach children the use of media to spread environmental awareness.

Rehna is a M.Sc. Visual Communication student at Loyola College.

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What they say

“I think ethical consumerism is a brilliant idea. Say you make things out of recycled matter and you do. Obtaining your materials will be cheaper than gathering new material and also you say you use recycled products appealing to the "green" community. So you have a valid advertisement source that actually saves you money.” - MOHAMMED ADEL AZEEZ, Student of Aerospace Engineering, Florida.

“I have heard about Ethical Consumerism before but never really paid any heed to it. I am pretty sure that people aren't completely aware about this and I think they need to know. Personally, I think it's a corporate trick to lure customers to the whole “green trend”. The only reason why people should know about this concept is so that they don't fall for brands. My advice is: try not to be swayed with the whole concept of brands!” - BALAJI MANOHARAN, Trainee Pilot, Madras Flying Club.

“Ethical consumerism to me is about empathising with our environment. It's about an individual's decision to buy a product sensibly in order to make a small yet significant difference. Take the football World Cup last year; the uniforms were made out of plastic bottles. I wear shoes that are made of recycled plastic bottles. I am doing my part. As young educated individuals, I think everyone should do their part too.”- POORNIMA RANJIT, M.Sc. Visual Communication student, Loyola College.

“It's definitely a topic that's not given enough coverage but I also think it's a practical idea. You can go organic for example. Positive buying means favouring ethical products, be they fair trade, cruelty-free, organic, recycled, re-used, or produced locally. As an agriculturist, I sometimes do feel that they are exploiting the word “Ethical Consumerism” out of corporate greed. My tip: Produce locally.”

-ROHIT KALINGARAYAR, Agriculturist, Pollachi

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