Ethical buying & Conscious Capitalism

Often trying to help alleviate poverty is seen as a task that is too difficult to achieve for someone who is located in the developed world. Amira Aleem discusses how we can change our day to day consumption patterns to make a change.

To the average poor student, or underpaid employee, living on their own for the first time buying choices are simple; what is cheapest? How long will it last? And do I really need it? Ethical buying means asking the questions to ensure that the products we buy create more good than harm in the world. It seems simple, but with an overly complicated web of large corporations buying out brands that market themselves as ethical – it can be surprisingly complicated.

Take for example, the issue of products that test on animals. With the kind of global campaigning done by PETA and the WWF, I was expecting a fairly limited list of products, and I was expecting fairly obscure brand names. Quite the opposite, it is shocking to see that brands as well-known as Maybelline, L’Oreal and MAC are among the list of producers that actively test cosmetics on animals and sell in markets such as China, where testing on animals is an actual legal requirement.  Surprisingly enough, it isn’t even just cosmetics that test on animals. Things as everyday as Post-It and Scotch, regularly appear on lists of products to be boycotted in the animal welfare debate. Both Vegan Rabbit and the Vegetarian Site provide comprehensive lists of products that are not entirely cruelty-free.

Tony Webster / Creative Commons License

Tony Webster / Creative Commons License


Organisations campaigning against the use of animal testing define their standards in different ways, and quite often it seems to be a trade off on different issues of ethics.  For example, in 1976, Anita Roddick founded The Body Shop, pioneering a mainstream movement to combat animal testing and investing in products that supported fair-trade around the world. The Body Shop quickly grew to a multi-national company that operated over 2,000 stores worldwide, maintaining its strong brand identity as an ethical producer, and continues to stay involved in projects with UNICEF, Greenpeace and the RSPCA. In 2006, The Body Shop, was taken over by French cosmetic giant L’Oreal – a move that Anita Roddick herself authenticated saying that “L’Oréal has displayed visionary leadership in wanting to be an authentic advocate and supporter of our values.”

At first glance, L’Oreal has been listed by the Ethisphere Institue as one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies, which they display on their website in their ethics section.  However, studies have found that the reputation of The Body Shop fell after its takeover, with significant plummets in sales from consumers who actively boycotted it, now that it chose to associate with a company that has appeared on several no-fly lists as an active tester of animal products. On a separate note altogether L’Oreal also remains infamous for its factories operating in Palestinian lands. As the Palestine Solidarity Campaign reports, L’Oreal maintains factories in the village of  “Migdal Haemek… on lands belonging to the ethnically-cleansed Palestinian village of al-Mujaydil, whose original Palestinian inhabitants are still denied the right to return to their homes”, a human rights abuse that places it squarely in the non-ethical producers list. It seems that just as one issue seems to have been addressed others arise to complicate a brand’s reputation. How then do we as consumers exert our powers to ensure that large corporations comply to policies that protect people and the planet and still ensure responsible profit?

 Oxfam International / Creative Commons License

Oxfam International / Creative Commons License


One way is to look for ethically vetted brands that cater specifically to a socially conscious market. The Ethical Consumer provides a fabulous ranking of brands within the UK and for a paid subscription even display scorecards for individual companies. With regards to animal testing specifically, The Leaping Bunny maintains an annual list of cruelty-free and vegan products and continues to provide the gold standard in the industry of beauty and cosmetics. The symbol of a leaping bunny can be found on packaging of brands that comply to the norms they measure against.

The aim is not to shame consumers for their buying habits but to promote awareness of corporations and insist on higher standards of ethics. If a market starts to demand better, chances are corporations will adapt, grow and rise to meet that demand.  It may even seem impossible at first to be entirely ethical in our purchases but by pausing to think and weighing the odds each time a purchase is made – we open the door to dialogue and negotiation with businesses and remind them that these things matter to us. Remember, the one thing every single one of us can do is buy aware.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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