I found myself looking for a better option for tying my hair up in a ponytail. It’s something I’ve been doing for over a decade, and isn’t likely to change soon. But the ties I’ve been buying keep breaking - it doesn’t matter what I do, they just get looser and looser until they don’t hold my hair properly, and then they snap. So I started looking for reusable, robust products designed to fulfil this purpose, and I came across these hair ties from Tabitha Eve. They come in a pack of 5, and their RRP is £10 (although they’re on sale for £6 currently). The ones I get normally are about £3 for a pack of 18 from Superdrug.
This prompted a train of thought - as much as I support sustainable and ethical consumerism - is the hope that one day all consumers will be ethical consumers completely detatched from reality?
The problematic truth is, unsustainable and unethical products are - often - more finaicnally efficient than their ‘sustaintable’ alternatives in the short term - and for many people, short term efficiency is the only real factor in their purchasing decisions as it is a choice between something cheap or nothing at all. I am quite fortunate in that I have the luxury of being relatively unconstrained on how much I spend on things (within reason). But that’s not a reality for most people - including myself in the past.
The end-game would of course be that everyone purchases sustainabily and ethically, and objects that generate unusable waste are not sold as they’re not profitable, because nobody wants them. The rich already have the option to live ethically, if they want to. But making it universal would not going to be easy to achieve.
A useful way to tackle a problematic behaviour (in this case, disposable culture) is to first understand why that behaviour started in the first place. There is a reason that we decided to stop repairing old products instead of throwing them away: new things are pleasing - pristine, perfectly functioning. Old things are dirty, suboptimal and sometimes a bit broken. They might work, but they might be a bit mucky, or not quite perfect for the job any more. When products are disposable, they’re clean and new every time. With an old product, someone has to put up with it being worn, dirty and broken for a much longer time than you do with a disposable product. Disposable products can be chosen every time to be perfect for the task at hand. Some old products can be used flexibly, but usually perform worse than a disposable product designed specifically for that task.
Consumers wanted disposable products, not just for shallow convenience, but for utility. And now we are telling to un-want them. That is not an easy task. There needs to be an advantage to using sustainable products - from a financial point of view, but also from a performance point of view too. If you don’t, there’s no reason to make a switch.
A false economy isn’t false for everyone
If you’ve got only a small amount of money available at any given time, your focus is on efficiently using that money to achieve the most comfort you can, which even in the best circumstances, will still likely be fairly uncomfortable. When making purchasing decisions, you may think to yourself “these shoes cost twice as much as the cheaper alternative, but they’ll last more than twice as long.” That logic only works if you have twice as much money available to you at the time of the need arising. If you have a fixed budget, and a fixed requirement - you have £30 and you need shoes - you are going to be going with whatever option is available to you. You might have to buy shoes more often - but when you’re on a low income it’s very difficult to justify expenses past your next pay packet. You’re not going to go without shoes for 3 months whilst you save up for a better pair. You may be paying more than you need to over the longer term, but long term planning feels like a luxury when you are struggling to feed yourself and your family.
It would be unimaginable to justify spending £20 on a ethically made dish brush if doing so means you will have to go hungry for the next week. You’re going to buy a £1 plastic dish brush from Tesco and make it last as long as you can (probably 3-4 months) and then be forced to buy another one when it snaps in half. You’re not going to save up for a better one - who wants to save up for a dish brush? Even if you did, it would take several years worth of dish-brush budget. Or considering purchasing £16 for a pack of wax wraps instead of £3 for a pack of roll of clingfilm. Rather than waste food, you’re going to go with cling film.
Bottom heavy hierarchy of needs?
If you briefly consider Maslow’s hierarcy of needs (and only briefly - it’s extremely unscientific and problematic on many levels (pun intended)), it’s natural for a person to try to minimise the amount of finances they plough into the lower levels (food, water, warmth, safety, security) and allow them to spend that money higher up the hiearchy to enable them to attain better life satisfaction. But a lot of products that are marketed as “ethical” or “sustainable” are serving this fairly base level need, but with an increased cost as compared to their unsustainable and potentially unethical (but not nessecarily) counterparts. In the extreme case, you’re expecting someone to spend more of their money servicing their base needs than progressing their lives in a way that they desire.
The unexploited value of guilt
In reality, I think these products are not as they appear. Whilst their apparent function is to service a base need (e.g. doing the washing up), their actual function is really to absolve guilt in the wealthy. A wealthy person’s washing up would not likely be made easier or more performed more effectivly by a ethically sourced dish brush - but they’d feel better about using it knowing it wasn’t made with slave labour and wasn’t going to pollute the oceans with microplastics. And being able to aleviate that guilt is a privilege that is granted to those who can justify the expense of these products.
I think this was crystalised perfectly when I visited a “bulk foods” shop at some point last year. It offered a huge array of various things from pasta to oats to dried fruit, which you can put into your own container and pay for what you take - zero waste! A clever idea: except when you realise that all of the products are horrendously expensive by weight. Bulk food stores used to exist to save money (and they surely cost less for the store operators), but started to fall our of favour as health concerns made shoppers prefer factory-fresh produce (see Desire above). And yet, here we find one that sells expensive porridge to guilty local hispers.
What, it’s all pointless then?
We have collectively realised something: cheap products are cheap because it’s easier to be efficient when you don’t take into account the consequences. This gave us the license to make products that are much more expensive than they used to be, because “they’re ethical and sustainable” and that makes it justified, and paying more for something somehow makes people feel better about it. Whilst this gives an incentive to popularise this “movement”, whcih is undoubtably positive, the desire to capitalise on it is an unfortunate side effect.
Products that last, and are sensitive to the environment, and don’t exploit humans, are still important. But I think there’s another challenge that will make a bigger difference - products that are inexpensive enough to be universally accessible, but aren’t unsustainable or questionably ethical. This can be partly achieved with aggressive value engineering of the products. But that’s only one side of the equation. Unsustainable products would need to not be economically viable. Products made without ethical certificates would need to be taken off the market.
Are you going to tell your neighbour that they’ll have to wait until their next pay packet before they can wash their dishes with a vegan, plastic free, palm oil free, made in the UK soap, because liquid dish soap has been outlawed? And that when they do have soap, they’ll still have to rub their plates clean with their hands because they can’t a dish brush costs as much as a day’s work of their part time minimum wage job?
It’s no longer a decision between cheap shoes now or more expensive shoes later. You just don’t get shoes until you can afford expensive “ethically produced” ones. We used to live in a world like that, where the class divide was so stark and living conditions for those who weren’t fortunate enough to be born into a family that owned a factory were abisymal by today’s standards.
Does it have to be like that?
No. Companies need to stop thinking of the “ethical sustainable” label as a license to make unaffordable products, because rich people will buy them to offset their guilt.
Smol laundry detergent capsules cost the same or less than all but the most basic of laundry detergents. And they work very well! There is no trade off here between price and quality. It may well be that a large amount of the value engineering here was to reduce their overheads to the bare minimum, complex plastic packaging, branding, advertising, distribution.
Although I’ve lampooned them slightly above about their dish brush, Zero Waste Club are trying to do the right thing. From the front page of their website:
Our goal at Zero Waste Club is to make eco-friendly products more accessible to more people and to make it the number one consumer choice as opposed to buying plastic or unsustainable items.
And several of the products they offer do tick the box of being almost the same cost as the unsustainable options - particularly their coconut scourers and hair ties (finally, found them!)
We need more of this - products which not only compete with existing ones, but offer similar or better value and are accessible to all. But, realistically, I think something else is required too - pure capitalism will only get you so far. Saving the planet can’t just be an excercise in profit.
Either that, or we eliminate global poverty … 🤷♂️