An interview with Nick Ray, Ethical Consumer Group.
In 2000, Nick Ray was standing amongst a crowd of thousands when he noticed someone wearing a t-shirt that read, “Your dollar is your vote - who did you vote for today?”
The crowd had gathered to protest issues of economic injustice and Nick had been grappling with how his voice - amongst the many, diverse voices being expressed - could be heard in the world. How could he make an impact on the issues he cared about?
The simple t-shirt slogan struck him in a powerful way.
“I realised that I didn’t have the answers to that question. Who was my money actually supporting? And those companies, what were they doing with that?”
In fact, they were questions he’d been asking for a long time but the answers hadn’t been easy to find.
“Growing up, I’d ask my mother questions in the supermarket about where something was from, what people were paid at the other end of the process, whether the packaging was recyclable.
He laughs as he recalls, “She’d look at me as if I’d asked crazy, crazy questions.”
After his experience at the protest, Nick began what he describes as a “personal pilgrimage” to find out who was behind the products he saw on the shelves, where his money was going and how this aligned with the values he held as a person of Christian faith. In time, he connected with others who were asking similar questions and those connections were the beginning of what became the Ethical Consumer Group - an organisation that exists to help people make shopping decisions that are more in line with their values.
The Group’s flagship project is Shop Ethical! which identifies the companies who own common product brands and provides a rating according to their track record on social, environmental and animal welfare issues and their business practices.
This thoroughly-researched, easy-to-use tool helps people overcome one of the big barriers when it comes to consuming in line with their values - access to information that is practical and usable for the everyday shopper.
Nick explains, “One of the attractions of our globalised system is that we can get things when we want them, things that wouldn’t be otherwise available to us. That’s fantastic. What it also means is that some of the accountability and the links to what’s happening behind the scenes are often lost. We encourage people to think about localising where we source our things from, encouraging that layer of transparency, and therefore knowing what you’re getting.”
For all of us, there might be particular issues and values that are important to us. Shop Ethical! offers one way to find out how different companies stack up on those issues and make a decision about whether we want to support those businesses with our consumer dollar.
The issue of plastic waste and plastic packaging waste is one that is particularly important to Nick.
“For a long time our household has tried to avoid plastic - with some degrees of success! It’s pretty hard to avoid plastic these days.”
Despite the challenges, there are many simple and obvious steps we can take to minimise plastic in our everyday lives such as switching from single use items to reusable ones and looking for alternative packaging options.
Beyond that, Nick encourages people to consider options that are a bit outside the mainstream. For example, shopping at farmers markets or making use of whole food cooperatives can allow you to avoid a whole lot of plastic packaging that comes with supermarket products. A quick internet search or using the Ethical Consumer Group’s Local Harvest initiative can help you find something close to you.
The difference we make by being intentional with our dollar doesn’t just affect the world, it actually changes us and who we are. When we start to put our values into place in our everyday we connect with the world in a different way.
These options, while not universally available, are becoming increasingly widespread in Australia and Nick points to the companies who are moving towards reusable packaging options as further evidence of some of the larger systemic change that is taking place.
In part, these changes are a response to shifts in consumer preferences as well as consumer advocacy campaigns that have shone a light on unethical and unsustainable business practices.
It’s encouraging to think that collectively, as consumers, we can make a difference but Nick is quick to emphasise that change doesn’t just need to happen “out there.”
“The difference we make by being intentional with our dollar doesn’t just affect the world, it actually changes us and who we are. When we start to put our values into place in our everyday we connect with the world in a different way.”
Nick acknowledges that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It’s important to be gracious with ourselves as we try and wrestle with what are big and complex issues. And it’s important to remember that you’re not on your own.
“There is a whole community of people doing the work of change as well.”
If you’re keen to learn from others about the steps they’ve taken to reduce their use of plastic, two of Nick’s favourite blogs are The Rogue Ginger by Erin Rhoads and Gippsland Unwrapped by Tammy Logan.