Ethically and sustainably sourced items may be a little more expensive, but it depends on how we judge the true cost of our purchases.
We’ve all been there – stood in the toothbrush aisle of the supermarket, confronted by hundreds of options in a brain-frazzling array of colours, with nothing to really differentiate between them except price. Obviously, you instinctively reach for the cheapest one, perhaps available for a grand total of 50p.
But then you catch yourself, silently scold yourself, and reach dutifully for the only bamboo toothbrush on the shelf, pretending not to wince when you see that it’s £3.50…on sale.
Although living sustainably is so much cheaper in so many ways, the fact of the matter is that if you want to buy new products that are good to both the planet and the people on it, there’s a bit of a premium attached.
Well, there’s a number of reasons, most of which come down to materials and processes.
First of all, the widespread commercialisation of sustainable products like bamboo toothbrushes is a fairly recent occurrence, and as such, neither the consumer demand nor the infrastructure for sourcing the materials is as readily available as it is for more traditional items. For all the countless factories that make plastic, there are sadly only a limited number of bamboo farms thus far.
However, as demand grows for sustainable products, so will the infrastructure around their production. This means you get to feel twice as good when you do buy ethical alternatives, because on top of saving the planet, you’re also helping to build a future in which they’re the norm. So good job!
The second reason, whilst similar, is a bit more complex. It concerns greater problems relating to the state of capitalism and commerce as a whole, and is the primary reason why you should buy from small, ethical businesses.
The standard argument for free market capitalism reads a bit like this: increased competition pushes prices down, which is better for consumers because then they pay less and lead happier lives.
In an idealistic haze this makes a lot of sense, but we all know that in reality it doesn’t quite work like that.
In an effort to reduce their costs, big companies will outsource production to developing countries with lax environmental and labour protections, poisoning the local environment and running sweatshops with horrific working conditions that essentially amount to slave labour. This is particularly prevalent in industries such as high-street fashion. It also means that they will use low quality – ergo environmentally harmful – materials like polyester or plastic, both of which are made from fossil fuels.
Take a moment for that to sink in. When you’re wearing a cheap t-shirt, you’re actually wearing reconstituted oil.
Most small businesses don’t take this route; in an effort to create high-quality products that represent their work as artists, they will take the time and effort necessary to source good materials and create their pieces with loving care.
This is especially true for small businesses that are specifically devoted to a more ethical and sustainable means of production, as they will make sure that they use high quality organic materials, and either pay their workers fairly or make the items themselves.
This translates to a higher price-tag, but its cost is significantly lower. Allow us to explain.
If we begin framing our purchases within the context of its cost rather than its price, we begin to see that in actual fact, ethical and sustainable products cost a lot less.
In monetary terms, if you buy one high-quality item for £50 and it lasts for years, does that actually cost more than buying a low-quality £10 version if you have to keep replacing it every few months?
But more importantly than that, what is the true, larger cost of the materials and processes behind these ‘cheap’ products?
What is the cost of a changing climate and complete ecological breakdown?
What is the cost of inhumane working conditions, where children are forced to work 16-hour days for 11p per hour in a building that can collapse and kill over 1,000 people?
What is the cost to a society that can justify the reprehensible consequences of our actions in the name of fast fashion and cheap products?
These may not be the quantifiable, numerical costs of our purchases – but rest assured, it’s the people and planet who pay the price. So, in the end, are ethical and sustainable products actually that expensive?