Ethical consumption: a birds-eye view

Changing our behaviour and our habits is hard. There are still no extra hours in the day to get done everything we absolutely must do, let alone making time to contemplate making changes to our lives. Unless we’re going through something life-changing, like moving house, or having a baby, we mostly follow routines blindly.

Recently I became aware of just how static I had become. Even though my job involves thinking about sustainable behaviour change and ethical consumption, I realised I hadn’t made any changes in my own life for far too long. The trigger was when three new ethical issues conspired to appear in my social media feeds on the same day. Patagonia’s ‘What the Pluck?’ video highlighted the issue of responsible down; I learned my exfoliator particles could be toxic; and I first heard the phrase ‘ethical wool’.

I felt overwhelmed. Having decided to become a vegetarian at 11 after I researched how the animals in the field and food on my plate were connected, I knew that once you know the facts, you have to deal with the consequences. So I did a very grown-up thing and ignored it all.

But the nagging voice wouldn’t go away. To quieten my conscience, I decided to pick one issue – responsible down – and find out more, not as a sustainability professional, but as a consumer. I would not only find out more about the subject, but also track how I was feeling along the way.

The first step was fact-finding. I started with Patagonia’s website and felt a distinct sense of trepidation as I started watching the video, wondering if I would discover gruesome facts or end up with another set of restrictions to complicate my life. It only took 1 minute 58 seconds to realise that there would be no going back.

The animation lays out the facts starkly. All of that lovely soft down that keeps us in warm outdoor clothing, or bedding, comes at a cost. Although now outlawed in many European countries, geese can be painfully ‘live-plucked’ for down (sometimes multiple times). Some are also force fed for the fois gras industry.

Despite my shock and unease, I was impressed with Patagonia’s courage. Their website backed up the video with easy-to-read information and they highlighted their solution in 4 clear bullet points: a Traceable Down Standard (TDS) which ensures no live plucking, 100% traceable down, no force feeding and no blends. They explained they had done the painstaking work to understand the issue and how best to deal with it, and highlighted their standard as the most rigorous in the market. I cross-checked their claims with the NGO, 4Paws, who had first confronted Patagonia, but I already had trust in the brand, so I put my faith in them.

For balance, I investigated The North Face’s Responsible Down Standard (RDS), not least because a suite of companies have now signed up to it, so future product choice would be greatly expanded. But their website irritated me. The problem, and their solution, was clouded in corporate jargon and the tone felt self-congratulatory. They describe how they’d ‘gifted’ the standard to the Textile Exchange so others could use it – a concept I couldn’t fault, but the language felt out of place when discussing a serious animal welfare issue.

Textile Exchange’s website was also hard work: too dry and focused only around their stakeholder engagement process. A great initiative but completely off-putting to consumers. I did a final check with 4Paws to get an objective viewpoint on the RDS. It’s welcomed as a ‘step in the right direction’ but ‘still allows for animal cruelty’. Good, but not quite good enough.

I wonder what loyalty to Patagonia might cost: their products aren’t cheap and there are 5 items of outdoor-wear in my porch that are filled with down. Already I feel differently about wearing them.

Some things are clear: this is an ethical issue that matters to me and will govern my future buying habits. I’ve also identified the company I would buy down products from. But other questions linger: do I want to continue to buy down products at all? And if not, how can I make sure other fillings are any better? If wool, then has it, in turn, been sourced humanely? If synthetic, what of the manufacturing processes and relative carbon footprint?

There is no single, right answer. We make decisions based on our own moral boundaries; we cast our votes with our wallets; we try to do the right thing as often as we can. And brands can help us with these difficult decisions: making the information available as clear and straightforward as possible; lessening our guilt by telling us the solution as well as the problem; getting to the point. After all, “by changing nothing, nothing changes” (Tony Robbins). We all have the power, if we have the will, to make a change, however small it may seem.

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