Ethical shopping: not just for the middle class

Earlier this week I read a Guardian article about Primark and Marks and Spencer. The former had reported profits the same day the latter reported a loss, and so cue the Life and Style section going wild (or as wild as you can get while sampling the latest technique for pumpkin soup).

Lauren Cochrane, the article’s writer was making the point that M&S customers tend to be moderately wealthy when she described them as having “the luxury of ethical concerns that a budget-anxious Primark shopper might not enjoy.” I thought this was interesting. It’s true, that when I have tried to shop ethically I do end up spending a lot more money than I otherwise would (£11 on a tub on Lush shampoo, £6.50 on The Body Shop Conditioner and £4 on their body wash is hardly a price match for Asda’s smartprice range, which all oddly resembles washing up liquid. But that’s another point). Ethical shopping is pricey, true, but does that mean those on a budget simply don’t have the choice to shop with a conscience? Hardly.

When I was unemployed last year (not long after starting to rent a flat) I looked for ways to save money wherever I could, and most of the things I tried happened to also make me an ethical consumer.

Rummaging market and car boot sales promotes reusing while saving money too.
Rummaging market and car boot sales promotes reusing while saving money too.

Homemade washing detergent saves a lot of money (or would have done if I’d have followed the instructions) and making it involved eco-friendly ingredients, free of the chemicals found in the main brands. The ‘old or new’ argument makes for the easiest ethical shopping around. Most of my furniture had been purchased from a fantastic charity shop furniture warehouse, reusing items and avoiding purchases of new items which usually contain high toxin levels in the materials (shopping at Ikea is also a good way to avoid this, as Swedish products are apparently great for this too). Not that I was buying a lot of new wardrobe additions back then, but perusing my local Oxfam shop found me an amazing tweed jacket for a fiver, and I love it more than any Topshop item I’ve ever splashed out on.

When it comes to food, I think we forget that today’s trend of ‘homegrown’ started off with far its roots in poverty, not weekend magazines. Chickens and goats were kept in urban yards to supply working class families with eggs and milk during the war, and can still provide cheap food now. People who keep chickens these days in a free range environment often find they have more eggs than they know what to do with, and will sell them for roughly half the price found in supermarkets. Plus, they’re tastier and better for you – not such a hard shell to crack when you think about it (sorry).

So budget-ethical shopping IS possible, and mostly doesn’t take very much thought. I would say that the one big trap though can be homemade products. While laundry detergent does work out cheap to DIY, other things sometimes involve buying a lot of ingredients you might not normally have at home, meaning a bigger spend to begin with. Still though, ‘shopping with a conscience’ is not something given to people as a choice once they reach a certain salary, but a human decision.

It’s about how much we think, not how much we earn, Lauren Cochrane.



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