This morning my colleague, Dr Anna Casey-Cox, and I ran a workshop on making more sustainable/ethical procurement choices. It was at a conference called Thriving in the 21st Century and the audience were mainly representatives from different organisations, not-for-profits, and social services. I mention this because often organisations like these do not have spare money to spend on non-essentials, so the aim of our workshop was to engage participants in making more sustainable/ethical procurement choices within financial constraints.
We began by showing the clip MAN by Steve Cutts, to reflect on the way we use nature and resources.
Anna introduced the idea of environmental and social externalities that occur when we produce ‘stuff’. These are unintended (and almost always unaccounted for) costs that arise during the production, processing, use and disposal of goods.
Having recently visited the USA and reflecting on food culture there, she used a burger as an example of a product where there are many environmental and social externalities that are not factored into price.
She said on average a good burger costs $4. This was for a bun, a bit of beef, a bit of cheese, a bit of lettuce, a slice of tomato, and a bit of relish.
A small selection of things the $4 price does not take into consideration are:
- the cost of pollution to waterways as a result of cattle farming;
- the environmental cost of the methane and other greenhouse gases that are emitted,
- the environmental and health effects of the use of pesticides and fertilisers on the lettuce and tomatoes, and
- the long term individual welfare and broader social implications of paying less than a livable wage to the people involved in preparing the food (growers, processors, cooks, wait staff).
Conservative calculations suggest that by the time externalities are taken into consideration, the $4 pricetag on the burger is probably less than half the true cost of the burger.
Anna observed that here in Aotearoa New Zealand, the dairy industry is seen as a huge industry on which we all depend (which might well be true). It is hailed as one of the essential parts for our economic success, domestically and internationally, contributing $8 billion to the GDP each year. Yet if we factor in the environmental and social externalities, it may not even cover its own costs!
What we would like to see is the price of our commodities better reflecting the true cost of their production, use and disposal. This will help protect our communities and environment, but will also give us the opportunity to make more informed and conscious decision decisions.
This led on to the the next topic…
When it comes to making more sustainable/ethical consumption or procurement choices, we believe it is important to emphasise that sustainable/ethical choices look different for every individual/household/organisation: what works for one will not necessarily work for the other, as we all have different knowledge, time and resources available to us.
The process is just as important as the end result. So, instead of having a list of DOs and DON’Ts, we have a list of considerations and questions for aiding decision making.
For each purchasing decision, there are many factors to consider and often a persuasive factor is price. Other factors you might wish to incorporate, which take into consideration the welfare of people and the planet, are:
- Which raw materials and resources were used to make this product? Are there more environmentally considerate options? For example, do we buy envelopes with plastic windows? These require paper, glues, and plastic (derived from fossil fuels). They also contaminate paper recycling. Could we use windowless envelopes instead?
- What is the packaging on this item? Is it recyclable? Is it compostable? If not, are there alternatives with less packaging, or packaging that can be disposed of responsibly? The same questions can be asked about the item itself. For example, is there less packaging if we bulk buy pens? Or could we shift to pencils (maybe just some of the time?), as they produce less waste and the waste can be composted.
- Where is the item made? Can we source the item locally? Then it has a lower carbon footprint, and it also support our local economy. For example, are the biscuits in the coffee room locally made or imported?
Labels and accreditations can also be helpful in identifying more sustainable/ethical options. For example the Fair Trade logo indicates producers received a fair wage for their products. There are various eco and environmental logos which can indicate the product has been produced in an environmentally considerate way. Product labels often say where something was made.
Of course, Anna and I are hardcore passionate about environmental and social justice issues, but it is important to recognise that not everyone might be: we all have different values and different things we care about.
We believe that the first step to making more informed and conscious decisions is first reflecting on what is it that you/your organisation stands for? Then the next question can be ‘how do my procurement choices reflect these values?’
(So for example, if your organisation is about supporting members of the community manage their budget and become financially self-sufficient, buying local might be an important action to reflect your commitment to supporting local people, businesses and the community)
What we believe is important is that we all do what we can, when we can, which almost always means we can do SOMETHING. Most of us cannot change everything all in one go. But each change, and each conscious decision is a step forwards to your/your organisation’s goals, and every action helps make a difference.
I shall finish with this thought-provoking article: