Sunday, 29 October 2017

Ethical Consumer Conference: challenging corporate power, constructive campaigning and ethical blogging!

On Friday 20th October I attended the Ethical Consumer Conference, to learn how I can be a more engaged and active conscious consumer! The conference is organised by Ethical Consumer magazine, which helps consumers to make informed choices based on their personal ethics by rating brands according to their ethical credentials. The theme of this year's conference was “Challenging Corporate Power” which often seems impossible as an individual consumer, so I was looking forward to meeting like-minded people and hearing some positive messages.

The day started with a short presentation by Rob Harrison, the founder of Ethical Consumer Magazine, about its work challenging corporate power. We’re all aware of the global power of big corporations, but did you know that some have an annual turnover greater than the GDP of most countries? If Walmart was a country, it would be the 22nd richest in the world! Corporations tend to focus on their short-term self-interest, and trade deals like TTIP, or media monopolies, can allow corporations to take control of democracies. 

Ethical Consumer Magazine seeks to challenge corporate power, in part by simply informing the consumer. Their ethical indexes point out companies that are engaged in political lobbying or the funding of political parties. Rob explained that the magazine’s current policy was that corporations should have no place in our democratic process, but the idea of “lobbying for good” was going to be a recurring topic throughout the day; could consumers and politicians work with corporations to achieve positive change? 

Next, we heard from Richard Wilson, the founder of Stop Funding Hate, and Sean Dagan-Wood from Positive News, who spoke about how consumers can challenge corporate media. Richard described how his campaign had come about after seeing negative headlines about immigrants on an almost weekly basis in the Daily Express, the Sun and the Daily Mail, coupled with a spike in hate crime. Even though the readership of these papers is dwindling, and most of us are boycotting those papers by default, we are still subsidising them by buying products or services from the companies that advertise with them. 

Stop Funding Hate aims to persuade companies to stop advertising in these newspapers by gently suggesting that they wouldn’t want their products to be associated with hate speech. Richard talked about the importance of debating politely, and emphasising the values that we should be promoting instead; empathy, respect, civility and neighbourliness. By running a non-political campaign based on defending basic values, Stop Funding Hate empowers consumers to make a difference as part of a wider movement, and shows companies that funding hate doesn’t make economic sense. Publicity from Lego withdrawing advertising from the Daily Mail prompted similar action in other countries, notably in the US, where the ‘sleeping giants’ campaign persuaded many companies to stop advertising on far-right websites.

Sean from Positive News spoke about the importance of having a constructive voice in the media, rather than the destructive angle taken by a lot of newspapers. The focus of Positive News is to highlight good things that are happening in the world, but in a serious and relevant way, rather than trivial or lighthearted “and finally” news stories. The Constructive Journalism project is focussed on a high standard of reporting, and solution-focussed angles to stories, framing people as resilient, rather than victims. 

Sean is seeking to challenge the assumption that news should always be about the things that are going wrong; in his view, the news should hold power to account, but a constant barrage of negative news stories is causing a drop in engagement with the news. These negative stories have a damaging impact on mental health, making us feel helpless and fearful. Positive news, on the other hand, can boost our wellbeing, giving us a sense of hope and optimism. The magazine is run as a co-operative, through crowdfunding, meaning that it truthfully reflects the values of its owners. This is a difficult time for the newspaper industry, and Sean advised us all to support the media that takes an approach that mirrors our values.

Hanna Thomas from SumOfUs gave an engaging presentation entitled "10 things every corporate campaigner should know" with tips on creating a focal point for your campaign and getting media attention, how to exploit a company’s weak points (subverting their branding, appealing to the financial interests of their shareholders and pressing the advantage of bad publicity), and how to ensure the success of your campaign. She spoke about the importance of getting your facts right so your campaign is seen as legitimate, and the advantage of forming diverse coalitions with other campaign groups to amplify your voice and get through to a corporation’s target demographic. She also emphasised the value in celebrating corporations for getting it right, as it reinforces their willingness to make positive changes in the future, and finally, the need to live your values by avoiding replicating the bad behaviours you are campaigning against.

My chosen workshop session for the morning was "how consumers and campaigners can constructively engage with corporations". Paul Monaghan, the CEO of Fair Tax Mark, told us some of the lessons he had learned over years of campaigning:
  • Framing matters: never make your idea sound radical or ‘lefty’
  • Framing matters: your image and tone are part of your message

(I’m good at one of these and terrible at the other!) 
  • You can't just be against something, you have to stand for something
  • Indexes and awards drive companies to change
  • You’re only successful if you get past the PR department!

We discussed our experiences of campaigning in small groups; I shared what I had learned from taking part in Fashion Revolution Week; I definitely didn’t succeed in getting past the PR department when I asked H&M “who made my clothes?” but another attendee pointed out the growing reach of the social media campaign since it started, as well as the fashion industry’s new transparency index which seems to be driving change. We all agreed that persistence and a positive attitude were also key to campaigning; it just isn’t possible to change company policy with a tweet!

After a delicious veggie lunch and an opportunity to browse the stalls of some ethical businesses, we heard from Paul Ellis, the Chief Executive of Ecology Building Society, about the challenge of providing financial services that serve people and the planet rather than corporate interests. I hadn’t stopped to consider ethical financial services, but as Paul pointed out, unethical banks were responsible for an artificial housing boom and the financial crash that followed, with their complex products disguising the severity of the problem until it was too late. The Ecology Building Society is working with London Community Land Services to fund affordable homes and incentivise sustainable lending. The perception that this business model is more risky is not borne out in reality, but value-based financial institutions need the support of ethical consumers! Something else to add to my long-term sustainable lifestyle to-do list! 

My chosen afternoon workshop session was Ethical Bloggers skillshare, run by Emma Oddie, and Sian Conway, the founder of the Ethical Hour Twitter chat, which has introduced me to lots of like-minded ethical consumers and has improved my experience of Twitter immeasurably! Hopefully Emma’s advice will lead to a marked improvement in my blog posts (I’m trying to write shorter sentences, I promise!), but both speakers gave great overall advice for anyone trying to raise awareness or campaign on any issue. Sian stressed the importance of being an engaged member of the community and adding value (whether that community is based online or offline), while Emma emphasised the power of a positive message; changing people’s minds by engaging readers in your passion, focusing on solutions rather than just pointing out problems. Hopefully that’s what I’m doing here; I’m always delighted when someone tells me that my blog has prompted them to take good care of their clothes or attempt an upcycling project.

The final session of the day was four short presentations and a panel discussion about corporate lobbying. First to speak was Claire McCarthy, the CEO of the Co-operative Party. She believes that mixing business and politics doesn’t have to be negative; by focusing on their values and principles rather than short-term commercial interests, and showing leadership rather than demanding action from others, corporations can make a positive difference.

Paul Monaghan pointed out the need to take a nuanced view of the role of corporations in modern life; a lot of multinationals might be a positive influence in some areas of public life (for example, environmentally friendly innovation), while being a negative influence in others (e.g. tax avoidance). He made a compelling case that ethical businesses could lobby successfully for progressive public policy.

Vicky Cann from the Corporate Europe Observatory described how big businesses have more access to government representatives than anyone else, and how they can use this influence to shape policy and evade responsibility. She wants to see more transparency and better freedom of information rules to make sure that decisions are made for the good of the citizens of a country, not for corporate interests.

Finally, Nick Dearden from Global Justice Now outlined the problems with current trade deals that enable big businesses to lower standards because they have the power when a deal is being negotiated. These deals (like TTIP) erode our democratic rights and make profit the focus, at the expense of everything else. His vision for better deals would include built-in guarantees that standards would go up rather than down, and a move towards co-ops and away from monopolies and privatisation.

The Q&A, unsurprisingly, was very Brexit-focussed, with the panellists split on the need for a second referendum, or the need to push for a positive future outside the EU that puts people before profit. The EU is vulnerable to lobbying by corporations, but it’s also where some of our most progressive consumer legislation comes from, and the lack of coherent policy on Brexit meant that there were no clear answers.

I consoled myself afterwards with a glass of wine and the company of other members of the Ethical Hour community. It was lovely to put faces to the business accounts I interact with every week, and to chat to other people who are living their values. If you’re interested in finding out more about Ethical Hour, you can join in the chat on Twitter from 8-9pm on Mondays using the hashtag #ethicalhour ; hope to see you there!

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Refashioning project: improving the fit of a stretchy sweater

One of my biggest problems with fast fashion is its short lifespan; so many high street clothes are destined for landfill sooner rather than later. We can extend the lifespan of our clothes by choosing selectively and washing carefully, but what do we do when the clothes we like start looking a bit worse for wear?

I bought this sweater in Primark a few years ago; I liked the contrasting knitted textures and the metal sequin details on the shoulders. Unfortunately, it inexplicably grew sideways every time I washed it, and the ribbing at the hem and cuffs went wrinkly. The sweater wasn't oversized enough to create an interesting volume contrast if I wore it with something fitted, but it looked too baggy and shapeless to be part of a 'smart' outfit. It just wasn't my style any more and wasn't working as part of my wardrobe. I knew if I took it to a charity shop it wouldn't fly off the shelf as it had obviously been worn and washed a fair few times, so my only options were to abandon it to the textile recycling, or try to transform it into something I would be happy to wear.

I unpicked the side seams and most of the raglan armhole, leaving about 3cm where the armhole met the neckline, as I wanted to leave that intact. I turned the sweater inside out and marked a vertical 'centre front' and 'centre back' line, measuring the mid-point of the neckline, the hem and the widest part (underarm to underarm). Stretch clothes can warp and twist around the body if the pattern pieces aren't positioned correctly on the fabric when they are cut out, so refashioning a garment like this can be a good opportunity to correct this problem. I marked a possible new side seam line based on my bust and waist measurements, then pinned it on my dressmaking stand to check it.

Having a dressmaking stand or mannequin is really handy if you do a lot of dressmaking, but if you don't have the money or space for one you can fit the garment directly onto yourself instead; just use safety pins instead of straight pins so the pins don't get dislodged as you take the garment off, and get a friend to help if necessary! Fit with the sweater inside out, and use the chalk centre front and centre back lines as a guideline to avoid pulling either side too tight; these two lines should remain vertical. 

I also altered the sleeves, using my bicep and wrist measurements as a guide, but allowing a few centimetres of 'ease' so the fit wouldn't be too snug.

Stretch clothing is usually assembled using specialist machines in factories, but it's possible to alter stretch clothes at home with just a regular sewing machine. I used a long, narrow zig-zag stitch to sew the seams, and a shorter, wider zig-zag on the edge of my seam allowance to stop it fraying. The seams have enough stretch to allow me to pull the sweater on or off easily, but the new fitted shape is much more my style. I can wear it tucked into a skirt for work, or with trousers for a more casual look

I couldn't resist posing with some of the wonderful willow sculptures at Wakehurst Place, then got a bit silly with the light/colour balance while I was editing my photos, but it looks like my upcycled sweater is the perfect thing to wear in a psychedelic autumnal wonderland! 

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Our fashion choices can speak volumes about us, but we all need to be part of the conversation

Our clothing is a powerful method of non-verbal communication, and can have a really positive impact if we are able to make it work for us. But what do we do if the fashion industry isn't giving us the chance to say what we want to say? 

I've written about about the limitations of fast fashion when it comes to fitting or flattering our bodies, but I've also written about the fun we can have with our clothes, even indulging in some closet cosplay to give us the confidence of our favourite fictional characters when the going gets tough. I strongly believe that clothes should make you feel comfortable, both physically and psychologically, but I also think clothing works well as armour, equipping us to deal with challenging situations by projecting an image of strength, competence or resilience that perhaps we need a bit of help to feel authentically. 

I've been dealing with both physical and mental health issues recently, and sometimes the thought of everything I need to do in a day makes it almost impossible to get out of bed. But I know that flopping around in my pyjamas will only make me feel worse, so every evening before I go to bed I lay out a nice outfit, and every morning I force myself to put it on, to brush my hair, apply some make-up. Seeing the person I want to be looking back at me in the mirror reminds me that I am more than my problems, I have the strength to cope with difficult situations and work towards the goals I have set for myself. It might sound shallow, but looking good makes me feel much better about myself; it makes me feel like I should be out and about in the world, rather than huddling at home. 

My relationship with my clothes has changed and evolved since I became a more conscious consumer; taking part in Labour behind the Label's Six Items Challenge cemented my view of my favourite clothes as valuable and versatile rather than disposable, and while I'm thinking much more carefully about the clothes I buy new now, I also apply the same scrutiny to the clothes I already own. If my clothes aren't looking their best, or making me look my best, I alter them, mend them, or decide they weren't really meant for me and take them to a clothes swap or charity shop. I remember my dad making fun of the designer logo trend that was popular in the 90s ("they should be paying me if they want me to advertise their brand!"); it wasn't a fad I ever bought into, but I do want to be a good advert now for ethical and sustainable fashion. I want people to see that alternatives to fast fashion are smart and stylish, and to dispel the outdated and inaccurate stereotypes that occasionally still linger around eco-friendly or second-hand clothes. All the outfits I've worn this week feature clothes from swaps, second-hand shops, or are rejected manufacturing samples or things I have made myself! 

The fact that the clothes I am now choosing to buy are manufactured in ways that align with my personal values adds another feel-good factor to my wardrobe. I know I'm trying my hardest to have the smallest possible negative impact on other people and the environment; my values are lived, not performative. Ethical fashion blogger Tolly Dolly Posh makes a strong case for ethical and sustainable fashion as a feminist movement, and points out "FEMINIST" t-shirts need to be more than just a slogan stamped on a shirt that has been made in a sweat shop. This was certainly a concern for my friends at The Suffragette City, who didn't want their "Same Shit, Different Century" fundraising t-shirts and bags (created to raise money for Abortion Rights) to be asking for a better world through their slogan only. They chose to partner with Rapanui (through Teemill) a company who make their clothes and bags from organic cotton in an ethically accredited wind-powered factory.

There is an element of privilege here, because ethical products are often more expensive than their fast fashion equivalents, but there are also vast, global issues under the surface: if the average consumer's wages are so low that we are unable to clothe ourselves or our families without buying items made in sweatshops, should we be clamouring for more sweatshop-made clothing, or for global change that results in less wage inequality so that we can all have nice things? Ethical and sustainable brands are usually run by young entrepreneurs, keen to make a difference but aware that they have bills to pay. High street fast fashion brands are run by some of the richest people on the planet, who somehow still can't afford to pay their workers a fair wage. I know who I would rather give my money to! 

Ethical and sustainable fashion can be inaccessible for reasons other than cost; this Refinery 29 article features plus-size fashion bloggers discussing the problems they have faced trying to find clothes that fit their values and their bodies. I received a detailed and thoughtful email from my aunt, a savvy charity shop bargain finder (it must run in the family, my sister and cousin have a talent for it too!) who wants to find ethical fashion for older women at a price point she can afford on a pension. Although the new brands I have been looking at definitely seem to have more diverse models, it’s important for all customers to see themselves represented, so that ethical and sustainable fashion will be seen as the norm, as something for everyone, rather than as a niche purchase for people with money and the time to go searching online for the perfect piece of clothing. 

So what can we do to get the clothes we want, in a way that is good for everyone? We can ask for what we want! Contact small brands and ask if they can make something in your size (some of these brands work on a bespoke model in the first place to avoid the wastage of unwanted stock, so it might be possible without a large increase in price), or ask what their plans are for including your size in their range in the future. Sometimes a brand has to start with a capsule collection in limited sizes in order to fund a roll-out of a variety of sizes and styles later on. We should also contact bigger brands and ask them to increase workers' wages, or to use sustainable materials. We tend to demand more of smaller brands with accessible customer service when we have spent more (which is absolutely our right as consumers), but blame ourselves for buying cheap clothes that don't fit or are poorly made, and are more likely to give or throw away the offending item rather than complaining. Multinationals need to be made aware of their mistakes too; they are not going to change unless they think customers won't buy their products any more. 

It used to be normal to be demanding when it came to our clothes: if we were having an outfit made by a dressmaker or tailor we would select specific fabric, fastenings and trims, have our measurements taken, come back for fittings, and insist on quality materials and finish. The price we pay for low cost fast fashion isn't just the damage to the environment or the exploitation of workers, it's that, unless we are very lucky and exactly the same size and proportions as a shop's fit model, nothing will ever fit us perfectly. Fast and cheap also has an impact on innovation and vision; it's hard for designers to produce unique and inspiring work that pushes the world of fashion forward when they are being asked for eight collections per year instead of two, with high street brands following suit and cutting down on design details to save time and money.

We can support the brands that help us to look and feel like the best versions of ourselves, and ask the brands that are letting us down to do better. I'll leave you with this quote from author and sustainable living advocate Anne Lappe:

“Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want”

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Upcycling project: Make Do and Mend meets modern technology!

I like wrapping up warm in cosy layers for autumn and winter, but I always end up with cold hands because I'm having to pull my gloves off to use my phone. Some shops do sell smartphone-compatible woolly gloves, but I prefer fitted leather (or faux equivalent) gloves, and I already have about a dozen pairs, so I really don't need any more! (Please don't judge me, some of them were gifts!)

I have a couple of older pairs with worn fingertips, so I decided to darn these with conductive thread, to make them stronger as well as smartphone friendly. I bought a bobbin of conductive thread online, there's enough thread on it for several pairs of gloves. I have a vintage tool for glove darning (to fill out the fingers so I don't accidentally sew them closed), but a chunky pen, or a spoon handle, would work just as well.

The thread needs to come into contact with your fingers as well as the touch-screen of your phone, so I needed to make sure my stitches went all the way through the fabric of the gloves. As well as darning over the hole in the thumb of this pair of gloves, I stitched a patch on the other thumb and both forefingers as well. I spent a couple of minutes swiping through some apps on my phone first, to work out which part of my finger came into contact with the screen to make sure I stitched the right area of the fingertips on the gloves.

To strengthen the worn fingertips and ensure the conductive thread patch would definitely work, these horizontal stitches also run parallel on the inside of the glove.

The vertical stitches catch the longer threads firmly to the glove, creating a dense patch that will make contact with my finger and the phone, and won't unravel or get caught on anything.

It was really satisfying using my phone with gloves on when they were done! I might not have quite enough dexterity to type a text wearing gloves, but I can use the camera, change my music or answer a call.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Ethical Brand Directory Live: showcasing a stylish and sustainable eco-friendly lifestyle

One of my favourite things about the ethical fashion community is finding out the 'origin story' of new brands and businesses; the lightbulb moment or slow realisation that led a person to their understanding of just how broken the current fashion system is, and their decision to do something positive to fix it. 
For Roberta Lee, a stylist and self-confessed "former fast fashion junkie", it was the realisation that brands making beautiful clothes with ethical values and sustainability at their heart were much harder to find than their fast fashion counterparts. Tired of wasting time searching online, she set up the Ethical Brand Directory, a site that showcases stylish ethical brands and the people behind them.   
The Ethical Brand Directory Live event was an opportunity to hear from ethically-minded entrepreneurs who don't want to compromise on style or sustainability, and to hear words of wisdom for anyone who wants to be a more ethical consumer.

Roberta Lee chatted with Bel Jacobs, a fashion journalist who now focuses on ethical fashion and sustainability.Bel emphasised the importance of buying from ethical brands if we want to see them succeed, and how worthwhile it is to keep increasing our knowledge of the subject, as it inevitably leads to us making positive changes in other aspects of our lives as we become more environmentally- and ethically-minded consumers. 

I'm always impressed by the positive and supportive atmosphere the ethical fashion community has created on social media, so I was really pleased to hear Bel talking in terms of respect and compassion for everyone, including ourselves. While she was fashion editor at the Metro, she promoted trends that she now considers unethical, and she described the guilt she felt when she first learned more about ethical fashion. Roberta agreed that we need to make more thoughtful choices once we know more, but throwing away all our high-street purchases doesn't help as that only adds to the problem of clothes going to landfill. 

Bel spoke about the need to reach out beyond the sphere of people who are already enthusiastic about ethical and sustainable fashion, wondering "how can I have more dialogues without freaking people out?" She had managed to get a discussion going about fur at a mainstream fashion event, which felt like progress, but had noticed how defensive people could get if directly confronted about their unethical fashion practices. She thinks gentle conversation is the way forward; we are all on a journey towards becoming more ethically-minded consumers, and we are all at different points on that journey, discovering more as we go along. Bel described the ”epiphanies” she had experienced that had led her to change her diet and lifestyle alongside her fashion habits.

When Roberta asked "how can we have a meaty discussion (without the meat)?", Bel was full of useful suggestions; she emphasised the power of social media in getting a positive message out to more people, and letting products speak for themselves. Beautiful design will appeal to customers in a way that scare tactics won't: too many dire warnings about the environment, and people will feel overwhelmed and won't do anything. She also spoke about the importance of collaboration over competition, especially with other women who are setting up other ethical businesses. At first Bel felt disheartened when she saw that someone else had set up a similar online ethical magazine to the one she was working on, but realised she could see the differences in their ventures as well as the similarities, meaning there was potential for wider audience reach and collaboration.  
Roberta reminded the audience that comparison can be a confidence killer, to remember our purpose and see the success of others as an opportunity.

Bel was honest about the distance that ethical fashion brands have to go to compete with high street chains; she and Roberta discussed the necessity of being able to make a profit as an ethical brand. Even though the current fashion system isn't working and has led to great environmental destruction, the founders of ethical businesses still need to make a living so that they can continue to have an impact and disseminate their message. Bel also emphasised our power as consumers, advising us to ask established brands to make the changes we want to see, and encouraged us to complain more!

We heard from two ethical business owners: first up was Julie Kervadec, the co-founder of AmaElla lingerie, an underwear and nightwear brand that launched their first capsule collection of organic cotton clothing with a crowdfunding campaign.
Julie listed the top three selling points of her brand: the fabrics are responsibly sourced and earth-conscious, they are free from toxic dyes and chemicals, and the brand is focussed on long lasting quality. Her business idea was inspired by the lack of good quality, beautiful organic cotton lingerie available. She and her business partner were both frustrated with their corporate careers and wanted a more meaningful life. She had worked as a buyer for fast fashion brands and had experienced bad practice, so she wanted to set a higher standard with AmaElla. 

Julie discussed the pitfalls of starting up a new small business with Roberta: the need to be resilient because everything that could go wrong, will go wrong! She described the challenges of finding factories to work with when she wasn't an established brand and wanted smaller minimum orders than high street shops, and the technicalities of textile manufacturing that can lead to product development taking longer and costing more money. 
Ethical and sustainable business practices are at the heart of AmaElla for Julie: she has visited the factories she uses for manufacturing, and has checked every aspect of the supply chain, so she knows that every piece of trim on her products has been sustainably sourced. She operates a paperless office, and even cycles to work! She uses official organic cotton certifications for her products, and keeps consumers informed by detailing the company's story in their website. She is hopeful for the future of fashion, and described her dream of an industry where far more products are made to order (similar to the pre-order model of a crowdfunded collection) so fewer materials are wasted, and less unwanted clothing ends up in landfill.

We also heard from Charlie Ross, the founder of Offset Warehouse, who was shocked to learn the realities of the fashion industry while watching a documentary as part of her fashion degree. She wanted the fabrics she used and the clothes she made to be beautiful, but she knew that couldn't come at the expense of people or the environment. On top of her regular studies, she began to research the textile industry, to find out how and where she could source fabrics that had been manufactured without exploiting anyone. At the end of her degree she put her research online, and was amazed by the response it got; she was inundated with requests for help with buying ethical fabrics. Often these would-be customers wanted fashion forward fabrics in smaller amounts, so realising how much her expertise was needed, she set up Offset Warehouse. Roberta emphasised how important good fabrics are when it comes to making desirable clothes, but it is often the area of fashion that we think about the least. Charlie agreed; as well as sourcing ethical fabrics that don’t compromise on beauty, she is also obsessed with new fibres and the technology behind them. Surprisingly, H&M is the biggest buyer of reconstituted polyester and organic cotton (although it’s still only a small percentage of their total output), and zip manufacturer YKK is using reconstituted plastic in its products. In order to ‘close the loop’ of production and stop waste going to landfill, new fabrics are being developed using coffee grounds, banana fibre, reconstituted microfibres (from the washing of polyester) and even hagfish slime: the secretions of a deep sea creature that has elastic properties! 

Akhil Sivanandan, the founder of Green Story, joined the live event from Canada, and gave a presentation on how businesses can increase sales by emphasising their green credentials in a way that draws the consumer in and makes them feel connected. Echoing Bel Jacobs’ point about the unhelpful nature of too many statistics, he outlined the reasons customers might not make a purchase based on the company’s ethics or sustainability: a lack of understanding about the specifics of a vague claim of ‘sustainability’, a lack of understanding about the impact their purchases might make, and the price of the product being sold. Although most consumers have good intentions about buying ethical or sustainable products, most of the time that doesn’t translate to actual purchases. 

Akhil advises his clients to calculate the environmental impact of the raw materials and utilities they use, and compare this to a less sustainable business model. These studies are unlikely to be of interest to consumers in their raw data form, so by converting this into units of measurement a customer will understand it’s possible to draw them in and get them thinking about the impact their purchase will make. This makes perfect sense to me: “1 ton of C02” is a fairly meaningless measurement to me, but by reframing it as “20 cars off the road for a year”, I would feel that my purchase was going to have a positive effect on the world. Centering the environmental impact of a sustainable business is also key to success in terms of sales; emphasising ethical credentials in social media or marketing will draw more attention. 

Although I’m not running an ethical business myself I found the presentation really interesting, and made me think about what drives my online purchases; according to Akhil, the average consumer only looks at each product for 7 seconds! I really liked the idea of interactive visuals illustrating the impact a customer’s purchases will make; it’s easy to feel powerless as a consumer and this can lead to inaction, so hopefully this positive message will leave consumers feeling more empowered.

The final speaker was Vicky Smith, the founder of Earth Changers, who spoke to us about ethical tourism, appropriately enough it was World Tourism Day! Vicky pointed out the parallels between the worlds of fast fashion and package holidays; both are global industries that employ huge numbers of people, and both are responsible for pollution and the exploitation of workers. She set up Earth Changers to research and promote positive impact tourism, after working in the travel industry for 20 years, and realising that holiday-makers were almost completely detached from their environment while on a package holiday. Working on community development projects gave Vicky a good understanding of how conservation tourism could support local environments, but sadly what should be a force for good usually isn’t. She wrote her thesis on the online volunteer tourism industry, and exposed the exploitative practices of a number of companies, and their negative impacts on the communities they claimed to be helping. Vicky emphasised the importance of thorough research when it comes to ‘voluntourism’: there are great grassroots organisations to volunteer with, but it’s not always easy for consumers to know which ones to trust.

Earth Changers is growing slowly and organically; Vicky’s definition of ethical is that every decision in the supply chain should be made with environmental and social impact in mind. This is logistically complicated, and a lot of people don’t want to think about these complex problems while they are on holiday! However, it is worth thinking about: almost 10% of the world’s GDP comes from tourism, 1 in 10 jobs worldwide are in the tourism industry and it is a huge growth area. 2017 is the international year of sustainable tourism, but making sustainable holiday choices isn’t as simple as choosing not to take a long-haul flight. Tourism is an important source of income for many countries, and people aren’t going to stop going on holiday, so Vicky gave us her top tips for sustainable travel: Book a local hotel directly, take public transport and frequent local businesses!

As well as finding the speakers interesting and inspirational, I also really appreciated the message of respectful advocacy for the causes we believe in, and letting beautiful and useful products speak for themselves! Online resources like the Ethical Business Directory are so helpful when it actually comes to finding these fab new businesses, so in keeping with my promise to put my money where my mouth is, this will be my first stop when I need to replace any of my old clothes.