Monday, March 4, 2013

THE BETTER WORLD SHOPPING GUIDE


Review of THE BETTER WORLD SHOPPING GUIDE by ELLIS JONES
(review based on fourth edition)

I always strive to be an ethical shopper, but sometimes, well, it's hard. My most common dilemma is simply lack of knowledge. I have no idea whether a certain company is particular ethical or unethical or how they compare to other companies selling similar products. When I do learn about practices with which I disagree I stop buying products from that company, but I'm under no delusions here; I probably continue supporting some unethical companies whose practices simply haven't come to my attention. I know my shopper habits are far from perfect, but I'm trying and constantly, consistently striving to improve. THE BETTER WORLD SHOPPING GUIDE has just made those goals a thousand times easier.

The title really does summarize the mission behind this little book. “Money is power…wherever large amounts of money collect, so also new centers of power form…As these power centers shift, we must shift our own voices if we wish to be heard…As consumers we vote every single day” (p. 4-5). With this book, you can look up any type of product (from seafood to hair care to baby products) and find companies listed on a spectrum of extremely responsible to extremely irresponsible. The book considers five factors: human rights, the environment, animal protection, community involvement, and social justice. (There’s a paragraph description of each factor both in the book and on the website.) Based on these five considerations, each business is assigned a grade from A to F. Think of C as the middle range, companies that have a mixed record, inadequate information, or fall between the concepts of “making it better” and “making it worse.” B companies make more effort or strive to improve their ways while A companies would be the heroes leading the field in ethical shopping. On the other end, D companies participate in practices that negatively affect the world while F companies, well, I want to avoid the word villain but these are the ones doing the most harm. Needless to say, these letter grades make it easier to gain a quick, basic understanding of a particular company and to see how companies compare. After all, the primary goal of this book is to make ethical shopping a little easier for the average consumer.

For those looking for more explanation behind which grade a company earns, this information continues off the page and onto their website. The guide has been designed to be user friendly: it's small (4 inches by 6 inches) and less than 200 pages long with all their research condensed into categories and letter grades. There's not a lot of explanation in the book about why companies earn certain grades, because the actual guide is intended to be small, concise, user-friendly, and inexpensive. Of course, the downside is that to keep this a small enough book to fit in a back pocket, it only lists grades and omits how companies earn those grades. However, their research is pretty transparent and you can check out the website for more detail (and follow through with your own research) if you want to know more about why a company received the grade it did.

As if the grades aren't immensely helpful enough, the book opens with some summary lists that can quickly and concisely give you an overview. There are the 20 best and 20 worst lists, 10 most improved and 10 farthest fallen, and a list of the top 10 things to change yourself if you want to make the most of where your dollars go.

Ethical shopping is hard. That's why, I believe, so many people don't bother at all. Hard isn't impossible, though, and hard isn't an excuse not to try. First, we need to free ourselves of perfectionist ideals. I think that’s a big reason why some people give up and stop trying. They overreact at every perceived failure: they can’t afford the A or B products or they only live close to D or F stores. As examples, I’ll share two of my biggest personal frustrations with conscientious shopping: 1. I support a company I believe is ethical only to discover that is how they market, but it’s not an accurate reflection of their actions. Some companies simply try to sell themselves as “ethical” without actually taking any positive steps. 2. I switch from a company with practices I don’t support and months or years later discover what I switched to may be worst than what I switched from. My point here is that I didn’t give up after any of those experiences. I learn from each mistake and I hesitate to even call them mistakes. Jones suggests running with the grade system metaphor - rather than obsessing over each little product, think of your overall shopping as your GPA. Certainly try to avoid F products at all costs, D if you can, but aim for a GPA that’s reasonable for you. Jones tries to earn a B+ shopping GPA, but if that’s too high find something right for you. The goal here isn’t perfection. Rather, whenever you’re presented with a choice within your means, strive to choose the more responsible company or product.

THE BETTER WORLD SHOPPING GUIDE has already inspired me to make changes. Another reason I fear some people don't make much effort is the sheer magnitude of information overwhelming us in this arena. First, this guide can help boil that information down to a much more manageable level. Second, instead of stressing over how many changes you need to make to meet your ideal shopping goals, focus on one at a time. Obviously, the big ten would be a good place to start, but you can also consider products you buy frequently. Conscientious shopping is a lifetime pursuit, but it's one well worth the effort.

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