< News

Ethical Consumer Conference 2019

November 15, 2019

Photo caption above: some attendees from the conference, seated, speaking and standing


Now in its 30 year, Ethical Consumer held its annual conference on 25 October 2019 at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Action Centre in London. The theme was ‘positive responses to the ecological emergency’, which was timely given the Extinction Rebellion demo in London and elsewhere in the weeks before.

I was in attendance in my capacity as SOS-UK’s Ethical Supply Chain Coordinator (SOS-UK is NUS’ new sustainability charity, launched on 1 October 2019 in light of the climate emergency and ecological crisis).

I have outlined some of the main points shared by the various speakers over the day below which hopefully give some food for thought.


Less is more

Overconsumption is one of the root causes of the climate emergency and ecological crisis we face. Given the planet’s finite resources, continuing infinite growth and consumption is not sustainable. The need to reform the current capitalist model has been acknowledged by not only campaigners, NGOs etc, but also UK business leaders and hedge fund managers.

Having a ‘less is more’ approach can help us to cherish what we already have and improve our wellbeing in the process.


A just transition

It is important that a transition to a low-carbon economy is a just one, being mindful of one’s own place in the system and that of others – and how each of us will be affected.

In a climate of polarised and often toxic debates, practising compassion, maintaining a non-judgmental approach and listening actively to others are key, as we all come from different perspectives.

Solutions should be holistic and global, recognising the millions still living in poverty in the Global South and our reliance on them for so many of our everyday products. For example, a living wage and universal public services for all humans worldwide, not just in the UK.

As well as in the Global South, issues around poverty wages and labour exploitation also exist in Europe too, with recent findings in southern Spain highlighting the plight of agricultural workers there. Amongst harassment and unsafe working conditions, some are being paid as low as seven Euros per day to produce fruit and vegetables that end up in UK shops.

Robust and transparent ethical policies are crucial for businesses, being bold about which industries or practices they will and won’t support or rely on. One example we can draw upon from history in this regard is the stance of the Rochdale workers who supported the campaign to abolish slavery, including refusing to handle slave-grown cotton in the UK mills.


Climate apartheid  

The poorest in the world – who have the least environmental impact – will be the worst affected by climate change. Thus, reducing poverty and inequality are crucial within climate solutions. In his latest report, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has talked of ‘climate apartheid’ and the importance of a ‘robust social safety net’.

“Rather than helping the world adapt to climate change, privatizing basic services and social protection may be a form of maladaptation. When Hurricane Sandy wrought havoc in New York in 2012, stranding low-income and vulnerable New Yorkers without access to power and health care, the headquarters of Goldman Sachs was protected by tens of thousands of its own sandbags and power from its own generator. Private white-glove firefighters have been dispatched to save the mansions of high-end insurance customers from wildfires. An overreliance on the private sector could lead to a climate apartheid scenario in which the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict, while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”


‘Green’ colonialism

As well as changing energy sources from fossil fuels to renewables, reducing energy use should also be prioritised, as our energy demand is ever-increasing as we continue to grow economically in the Global North.

Those with greater energy use, namely richer countries, should drastically reduce usage and consider what is useful energy. This is to prevent the further development of a form of ‘green’ colonialism, where many countries in the Global South are plundered for their minerals and metals in order to support the Global North’s expansion of renewables and batteries.

This reiterates the message that there can be no climate justice without social and economic justice.

The good life?

Is a system primarily pursuing economic growth the only way? Let us consider what we need to live a healthy and fulfilling life and build a system around that. How do we meet those needs in a constructive and low-carbon way and not be socially or environmentally destructive at the same time? Instead of thinking about what businesses can do for citizens, let us consider what citizens can do using businesses.

These could be just some of the questions to answer if we are to shift to a new, more sustainable way of living together.


A full breakdown of the conference, including the workshops, speakers and organisations represented, can be found on Ethical Consumer’s website here - including audio clips of the talks and supporting slides.