Sustainable Living

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Advice from Which? magazine, August 2004.

I would have loved to have linked to it but first they put it in the password protected area and now I can't find it. They do have an article called Tips for a greener home.


We highlight some changes that we can all make to help reduce the negative impacts of consumer culture


You might prefer not to think about the ugly side of consumer culture when you do your shopping. After all, what can you do about the terrible working conditions endured by many people in far-flung places who produce the products we buy? And how can you personally reduce pollution or the effects of global warming? Actually, there is a lot we can all do that, collectively, can make a difference. To give us a shove in the right direction, we've asked advisers from four charities to give us tips on how we can become more ethical consumers.


Choosing to buy things that are made ethically by companies that act ethically can have a major impact on those retailers and manufacturers who don't act responsibly. Consumer pressure is forcing them to clean up their acts. A recent report by The Co-operative Bank found that consumer boycotts are now costing businesses an incredible £2.6 billion a year.


'Reduce, reuse and recycle' should be the mantra of the environmentally-conscious consumer. Before buying something, stop and think whether you really need it. Buying less reduces our negative impact on the world by producing less waste and reducing the demand for products to be manufactured in the first place.


Consider whether the product or service you are buying harms people or the environment in anyway. If it does, could you buy something that creates less of a harmful impact? For example, could you buy an energy-saving bulb instead of a standard one? Or could you opt for Fairtrade tea instead of normal tea so that you know the tea producers get paid a fair deal for it?


It's important to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill sites. Think about how the product you're buying will eventually be disposed of. Does it have excessive packaging that can't be recycled? Could you buy the same product with less packaging or with recyclable packaging?


The degrees to which we are prepared to make ethical lifestyle changes vary. Most of us could easily make small changes like these to our daily routines, but others are willing to take on larger commitments. Our advisers' tips - split into easy, hard and big impact changes - will help you decide what you can realistically achieve.


Easy Changes


Buy Fairtrade products

Fairtrade does exactly what it says on the tin - it pays producers a fair and consistent price for their goods. There are now 250 products with the Fairtrade mark including tea, cocoa, biscuits, sugar, honey, fruit juice and fresh fruit as well as roses and footballs. Fairtrade products tend to be more expensive. For example, Fairtrade bananas in Tesco cost £1.12 a kilo, compared with 74p a kilo for its standard bananas. But we think it's a price worth paying.


Say no to plastic bags

On average, we each use 134 plastic bags a year which adds up to around eight billion a year - enough to carpet the earth twice over. Most end up in landfill, where they take 100 years to degrade. Some litter the streets, endangering birds and wildlife.

A plastic bag tax was introduced in Ireland in 2002. By forcing all shoppers to pay about 9p for a plastic bag, the government successfully reduced the number of plastic bags by 90 per cent. In the UK, it's left up to us to reduce our reliance on the handy plastic bag. Most supermarkets now sell reusable bags, generally called 'bags for life', or you can simply put your shopping in your own bags - rucksacks make light work of carrying shopping by foot.

If you do use plastic bags, try to remember to reuse them and eventually to recycle them. Where possible, say no to plastic bags. For example, do you really need a bag to carry that sandwich back to work?


A whole lotta bottle

The Tetrapak may have made Hans Rausing a billionaire, but it's no friend to the environment. The cardboard cartons are laminated with plastic so they won't biodegrade and are difficult and expensive to recycle. Some councils are now offering special facilities to recycle them - check with yours. If it doesn't, consider buying your milk and juice in plastic or glass containers instead. Milkmen deliver juice as well as milk in glass bottles and they collect the empties which are then sterilised and reused. The service is more expensive than buying direct from supermarkets, but has advantages if recycling facilities are limited in your area. Check the Dairy Crest website to see whether a milkman covers your area at


Low-energy lightbulbs

Swapping traditional bulbs for low-energy ones is cheap and easy to do. Although low-energy bulbs are more expensive initially, you'll recoup the money when it comes to paying your electricity bill, and you'll help to reduce the amount of CO2 produced to make electricity. Our 60W Best Buy, the Philips Economy 6-year stick, will set you back £5 (compared with around 40p for a traditional bulb) but it should last approximately 6,000 hours and save you £35 over its lifetime.

At present, low-energy bulbs contain toxic chemicals and must not be put in the bin. Check whether your local authority or DIY store can recycle them.


Reduce, reuse and recycle

There are many ways you can put this golden rule into practice. Stick labels over the addresses on envelopes and reuse them. Borrow books from a library. Read newspaper websites instead of buying the paper. Use old magazine pictures to make your own Christmas and birthday cards - kids love it.

Try to buy only what you'll use. Global Action Plan claims that up to 20 per cent of food we buy is not used and gets thrown away. Recycle packaging whenever possible.

Buy second-hand. Buying used goods negates the need to make new products and makes best use of the resources used to make the original product. You'll also be supporting a good cause if you buy from local charity shops. Make sure that any second-hand electrical appliances are safety- certified, though.


Harder Changes


Grow your own

Follow in The Good Life's Tom and Barbara's footsteps and create a fruit and vegetable patch in your garden, or contact your local authority about taking on an allotment. If possible, use organic gardening methods.

Friends of the Earth adviser Helen Burley says keen gardeners can be self-sufficient in vegetables throughout the summer and autumn months. 'Rocket and lettuce can be sown so that they continue throughout the summer; carrots and courgettes also have a longish season,' she says. Organic seed suppliers include Chase Organics (, 01932 253666) and

If space is short, grow herbs, like basil, parsley or chives, in pots on your window sill or balcony.


Save energy

Burning fossil fuels to create electricity releases CO2, which in turn accelerates climate change. Using renewable resources, such as wind, solar or wave power, can help reverse this trend. By switching to a good green electricity tariff, renewable energy will be produced to meet your demands over and above the legal amounts all electricity companies must supply. Friends of the Earth ( has compiled a green energy guide to help you choose the best, truly-green tariffs. It needn't be more expensive - if you have never switched electricity supplier, you could find that a green tariff is cheaper. Visit to compare prices.

Remember to switch things off when you leave rooms and don't leave appliances on standby. Turning the thermostat down by 1 degree can reduce your heating bill by 10 per cent.

If you're buying a new appliance, make sure it is energy efficient - look for an A, A+ or A++ rating.

Give your home an energy makeover - contact the Energy Saving Trust (see 'Further Information' for details).


Buy reputable trademarks

Buy timber or wood products that carry the FSC logo - this guarantees that the wood comes from a sustainable source. Also look out for the Rugmark on rugs and carpets. This logo guarantees that no illegal child labour is used in their production.


Spread the word

Where possible, encourage others to become more ethical consumers too. Discuss ideas in this report with friends or colleagues, for example. The Which? drinks machines are now fully stocked with Cafédirect Fairtrade coffee, thanks to staff successfully lobbying for it. Our canteen now sells Fairtrade snacks too. The Fairtrade Foundation website ( gives tips to help you persuade others to convert to Fairtrade. It also offers educational resource packs, so mention them to teachers at the next parents' meeting.


Big Impact Changes


Invest ethically

If you are concerned about how your bank invests your money, ask it to tell you about its investment policies. If you're not satisfied with its answer, switch your savings, mortgage or current account to a bank or building society that invests ethically.

The Co-operative Bank is well known for its ethical stance. Its internet bank Smile offers one of our current account Best Buys. Building societies tend to be more ethical as they lend to individuals and not corporations. The Ecology Building Society gives mortgages only to people buying energy-efficient homes or to those looking to build new homes from reclaimed or sustainable materials. It also looks favourably on people who want to renovate derelict buildings, an area which traditional lenders normally shy away from.

The Ethical Investment Research Service (EIRIS) can provide details of independent financial advisers in your area who specialise in ethical investment. For more information see 'Ethical Investment', March 2003.


Use your purchasing power

Over half of us have avoided buying at least one product because of an ethical concern, according to The Co-operative Bank's Ethical Purchasing Index. Imagine the impact if thousands of people contacted a company and told it why they weren't buying its products.

The Ethical Consumer magazine encourages us to make our voice heard. 'Companies shell out a fortune in market research, so why not help them out by telling them exactly what you want?' asks the magazine's Scott Clouder. There are plenty of ways to make contact. Most supermarkets have customer comment boxes, or you can contact the customer careline numbers on the backs of packets. Ask them about their policies for protecting the rights of the workers who make their products and whether their factories are independently inspected for human rights violations.

If you are not satisfied with the answer, stop buying their products and tell your friends to do the same. Most importantly, let the company know why you have done so.


Reduce car use

Deciding to reduce your car use is the single most effective thing you could do to help the environment. There are a number of websites that offer a car sharing service such as According to, the UK has the worst congestion, longest commuting times, and highest levels of car ownership in the EU. While many of us depend on our cars, we could still reduce our car use by sharing a lift to work or taking a bus to the town centre or, where possible, by walking or cycling.


Seek inspiration

Visit the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales ( for innovative ideas on living more sustainably. You might be inspired to install a compost toilet or solar panels to heat your water, for example.


Case Study


The Coates become more ethical consumers

The Coates are eager to become more ethical consumers but need a helping hand. As Ian said: 'One of our biggest problems is just getting round to it'. We visited Ian, Adèle, and nine-year old Natasha to talk to them about some ethical choices they could consider.

The first thing we advised them to do is to establish their priorities and work out the issues that really worry them. Ian is particularly concerned about exploitation in the Third World: 'My father used to work for Christian Aid, so exploitation has always been something I've been aware of. And, for the sake of our daughter Natasha's future, we also want to learn to be more green,' he said.


Tackling exploitation

Choosing Fairtrade goods is the easy way to ensure that your choices are not contributing to exploitation in the Third World. The sheer range of Fairtrade foods now on the market surprised them: 'We've been buying Fairtrade coffee for several years, but it is only when you visit its website that you see how much else is available. We'll definitely make more effort to buy other Fairtrade products'.

The Coates normally shop at their local Asda in Warrington, where we found a small range of Fairtrade bananas, fruit juice and chocolate, but they may now look in other supermarkets to find a wider choice of products.

Ian and Adèle are keen to spread the word about Fairtrade. 'It's surprising how many people don't realise that there's an issue. I was talking to my boss about it and he immediately went out and bought some Fairtrade coffee,' said Ian. We suggested they also talk to their church group about converting to Fairtrade tea and biscuits.

The family holds current accounts with two banks but we recommended they switch to a bank with a good ethical policy, such as The Co-operative Bank. They liked this idea. As Adèle said: 'I hate not knowing what our existing banks invest our money in. I wouldn't knowingly spend my money on armaments or animal testing so why should my bank?'


Becoming a greener family

The Coates are keen gardeners and grow some of their own fruit and vegetables. Adèle said: 'It's really rewarding for Natasha - I think it is good for kids to see how they can be involved in growing, cooking and then finally eating their own food. And I can be 100 per cent sure of what she is eating.' They have become more suspicious of mass-produced food and are particularly concerned about genetically modified foods.

The Coates have a large garden compost bin and make full use of local recycling facilities.

The unusual shape of low-energy lightbulbs has always put the family off buying them, as they look unattractive dangling from their light fittings. They were pleased to discover that you can now buy traditional globe-shaped low-energy bulbs, and they're keen to try them out. But, as we found when we tested them, the stick-shaped variety is still more efficient than the traditional shapes (see 'Sound lights', January 2004).

We also recommended they switch to a green electricity tariff.


Making the changes

We spoke to the Coates a couple of months after our visit to see how they'd been getting on. As we found, they were making more ethical changes day by day.

'We were particularly struck by how easy it seemed to switch to an ethical bank. We are now proud holders of a Co-op credit card and have applied for a current account too,' said Ian.

But it wasn't all easy. They asked the Co-op for a Christian Aid affinity card (where the charity receives a percentage of the money you spend). They were initially sent a Save the Children card, and there was a lot of toing and froing before the right card was received.

'It was worth it, though. We now know exactly how our bank invests our money, and our favourite charity also benefits,' Ian told us.

The Coates were keen to switch to a green electricity tariff but couldn't find one that was as cheap as their current Powergen tariff (Powergen offers Greenplan but it's £9 a year more expensive for the average customer and is not one of the tariffs recommended by Friends of the Earth). 'We will switch in the future in the hope that prices will fall as demand for green energy increases,' said Ian.

Plans are now afoot to expand their current fruit and veg plot, as Adèle is determined to grow some salad crops and potatoes. But, until that time, the family has found a company that delivers locally-grown organic fruit and vegetables to their door. This reduces food miles (the distance food travels before it's sold), reduces packaging, and means they are eating foods grown without pesticides. 'We've also recently tried organic milk, but couldn't get used to the taste. It made the tea taste funny - almost too creamy,' said Ian.

Ian wrote an article for their local church magazine about Fairtrade goods. 'Since then, Tea Direct has mysteriously appeared at Church,' said Ian delightedly.

'We haven't managed to achieve everything we set out to do, but we are on the road to being more ethical consumers. We're not satisfied yet, though - there is so much more we can do,' said Ian.


Further Information


Using consumer power positively

In the past year, Which? has looked at the corporate and social responsibility (CSR) records of mobile phone and jogging shoe manufacturers and banana producers. For further information on the ethical policies of companies in other industries, you may want to invest in one of the following:

Ethical Consumer magazine compares the ethical records of retailers and manufacturers in many industries and reports on campaigns and boycotts around the world. See or call 0161 2262929.

The Good Shopping Guide, £12, published by ECRA (see below for contact details).

Ethical Shopping, £7.99, by William Young and Richard Welford, published by Fusion Press.


Our ethical advisers

Ethical Consumers Research Association assesses the social and environmental records of manufacturers and retailers. Its research is published in Ethical Consumer magazine.

Fairtrade Foundation exists to ensure better deal for marginalised and disadvantaged Third World producers. The Foundation awards the Fairtrade mark to products that meet internationally-recognised standards of fair trade.

Friends of the Earth is represented in 68 countries and is one of the leading UK environmental pressure groups.

Global Action Plan encourages environmental sustainability at home, at work and in the wider community.



Centre for Alternative Technology 01654 705950

Chase Organics 01932 253666

Energy Saving Trust 0845 727 7200

Ethical Consumer Research Association 0161 2262929

Fairtrade Foundation 020 7405 5942

Friends of the Earth 0808 800 1111

Global Action Plan 020 7405 5633

Henry Doubleday Research Association 02476 303517

The Co-operative Bank 08457 212 212

Ecology Building Society 0845 674 5566

Ethical Investment Research Service (EIRIS) 020 7840 5700

Triodos 0117 973 9339

Smile 0870 843 2265