The Qualitative in the Quantitative
A lot of horrified breathtaking accompanied the checking of my finances - I’m hoping this process will help to limit that in future. This is, apart from being my first serious attempt to monitor the ethics of my consumption, my first serious attempt to monitor my finances generally. As the people at MyBnk will tell you, this in itself can be seen as an ethical action (as someone who is very much in debt, it makes sense that learning about being more responsible with money is the Right Thing to Do). But just to be clear, it doesn’t get any points, as this blog is only about the action of spending, rather than any other ethical actions I might get up to (not to say that it wouldn’t be an interesting project, just that it’s a much bigger one than I have the tool for right now).
Looking back over my spending (at least that recorded by my banks - cash is out of the equation for the time being), there were some immediately obvious big spends that are going to dramatically affect my score.
Firstly, there’s rent. I’m not absolutely against paying rent or landlords in general, but I do resent paying money for poor service - this seems to me to be rewarding bad behaviour, especially as I also secretly (well not so much any more) harbour the opinion that simply earning money from investments isn’t really an ethical way of earning your keep. I mean, maybe it is IF you are providing an ethically sound way for people to live, but our house is poorly insulated, poorly serviced, and we are reliant on some hopeless estate agents who we have to pester CONSTANTLY in order to achieve any improvements. That is neither good ethics, but sadly it seems to be good business for them. Therefore, my rent gets a score of -1. As the single biggest expense on my monthly outgoings it’s going to require some concerted effort on absolutely everything else to balance it out: the long and short of it is that I’ll have a regular score of -180 to beat.
In terms of other regular payments I make, there’s my mobile phone bill to Orange, then there’s the house broadband/phone line bill to BT. Both of these companies score less than 10 (out of a possible 20) on my go-to guide, Ethical Consumer. But with mobile networks there is no clear Best Buy, i.e. no alternative that is clearly more ethical. So let’s call it neutral for Orange, and -1 for BT.
Then there’s transport. Transport For London I’m calling neutral. My bike will be +1 as and when I spend some money on it, but for now London Transport is neither as good as a bike, nor as bad as a car. I take a mix of buses and Tubes, but given that London’s energy procurement isn’t especially green the one is probably just as bad as the other. In other transport news, I took a coach in January for the 94.8 miles to my home town and a train back, and got a coach there and back this past weekend. Although the coach and train provide different figures for carbon emmissions, I’m going to call all ‘public’ transport like this a +1. I could in theory have driven, and National Express coaches scraped into a semi-respectable score on Ethical Consumer, but also, as becomes clear from the food section, it’s a much larger and more complicated project to score individual items than to group them under categories.
As far as food goes, in theory we get all of our food for the house communally, and we’ve been trying to implement a no-Tesco policy with the food we buy, and to get a veggie box from some local organic farm. In the meantime, we get all of our veg from the local market (+1 for supporting local business?, or -1 for not knowing where it comes from and probably not buying organic?), and we get all our milk and eggs delivered (again, the eggs are free range but neither is organic, although we recycle all the bottles, so that’s worth a point, right?). But enough general background - what did I actually spent of my own cash this month?
Ahem. £37.83 at Tesco. IT’S JUST SO CONVENIENT! Damn them! As a slight consolation, no supermarkets got more than 7 out of 20. Nevertheless, Tesco are at the bottom of a bad bunch. But should I split the score between Tesco and the specific products I bought? I ask, because I know that I usually get organic milk from Tesco (which we don’t get delivered), and other Fairtrade or organic products. One of the principles behind this experiment is that spending money can count as an ethical thing to do because you are supporting the better practices- but what should you do when you support both the bad AND the good? Or the good VIA the bad? Maybe a helpful way of thinking is to go slightly beyond the money-as-votes-for-ethical-practices philosophy and incorporate what is going to be most helpful in me continuing to increase my ethical impact. As far as that goes, given that another part of the impetus for this blog was to motivate myself to do better, I think I’m going to be cruel to be kind. Tesco, if you read this - you start getting points when you top Ethical Consumption’s league table (it’s actually quite straightforward - improve wood sourcing and animal testing policies, stop using non sustainable palm oil and selling factory farmed meat, stop violating Bangladeshi garment workers, commit to sourcing gold and diamonds responsibly, erm… ok the list goes on but that surely just means it’s easier to make big improvements, non?). I could maybe give myself points for organic/free range meat and eggs, were it not for the endless list of other unethical practices that Tesco is unwilling or unable to address - by using their service it’s almost a tacit approval of their uncaring attitude…
On the plus sides, there was the meal for two at a local organic restaurant which was a lovely birthday treat to help balance the bad. And here I have to make some decisions which highlight the difficulty of quantifying ethics - does my local pub (which strives to be organic, and is always free range with its meat) get +1 or +2 (it’s better than Tesco, and better than neutral in that it’s visibly trying to do business in a more ethical way, but is it an example of Best practice?)? They weren’t offsetting any of their carbon emissions or anything, but is that a reasonable, sustainable expectation?
Someone else who isn’t, as far as I’m aware, attempting to carbon offset, but who I nevertheless feel justified in giving a whopping +2, is my favourite London food store, Unpackaged. I had some vouchers from my sister for my birthday (thanks, sis!), but spent another £25 on top of that as there’s just so much tasty stuff.
Finally, the irregulars. This month, I bought a screen so that I can watch video without putting it right in front of my face, and play XBOX (there are a number of reasons I don’t want to get into scoring the ethics of my actions). I bought it from a second-hand store which, while I don’t necessarily buy their recycling-focused greenwash, did at least seem better than buying something new. And although it’s a Samsung (getting a shameful 5.5 from Ethical Consumer for their TVs and their computer screens), I was lured into buying it because it’s an LED model (I seemed to remember Ethical Consumer calling it “the technology of the future in terms of energy consumption”), and so saves on energy as well as cutting out mercury. So, although I felt pretty pleased at my energy-saving impetus at first, the corporate social and environmental irresponsibility demonstrated by Samsung means that I think I’ll have to leave it at neutral. Nuts. Oh, and then there was the HDMI cable made by … well I don’t have the packet any more, but I bought it at Pound Plaza and it seems like a safe bet that (as a search for ’ “pound plaza” CSR ’ returned no hits on Google) I don’t think I’ll be earning any points on that. And given this blog’s commitment to moving away from business as usual, and Pound Plaza’s commitment to stackin’ ‘em high and selling ‘em cheap, it makes sense to lose as many points as I dare. Double nuts.
As a consolation prize, my subscription to Ethical Consumer went through this month. Given their centrality as a resource to this experiment, I feel justified in giving them and me a healthy +2.
Utilities: MoPhone @ £26 x 0 = 0
Broadband/Landline @ N x -1 = -TBC
Rent @ £250 x -1 = -250
Gas and Electricity @ N x -2 = -TBC
Transport: Coach @ £14.50 x +1 = +14.50,
train @ £23.80 x +1 = +23.80
Coach @ £11 x +1 = +11
Groceries / Food: £37.83 x -2 = -75.66
£25.00 x +2 = +50
£30.20 x +1 = +30.20
Luxuries: 0 x £170 = 0
-1 x £5.99 = -5.99
+2 x £29.95 = +59.90
Overall score = -136.26
This score must be seen as highly partial - not only have I left cash payments out because I have got into the habit of throwing receipts away and they’re not so easily reviewed from a computer, but there are some items on my bills that (worryingly) I don’t recognise. Nevertheless, it’s a challengingly poor baseline to work with. Under the current system, knowing that I have to ‘offset’ the implicitly unethical payments to rubbish landlords (and fossil fuel burners when I work out what my bills are for gas and electricity) means that I can’t get complacent when I buy locally sourced or organic groceries - especially as these are easily counterbalanced by a convenient stop at Tesco’s or the local corner shop. On a more optimistic note, knowing that switching my consumption from a less ethical provider to a more ethical one can dramatically change the tide of things is encouraging, should be a motivator to change habits.
While using money as a key multiplier in this way has its drawbacks (does it make any sense to think of paying a landlord as 10 times more unethical than buying an electrical cable? Of course not - in that frame, quantifying ethics starts to lose any meaning), it does at least give a sense of the scale of my consumption in various areas, and draw attention to those areas where I can have a greater or lesser impact. This is, in itself, an aid to ethical consumption.