Sustainable/Ethical – Online Debate

Sustainable/Ethical – Online Debate

Wow! There are some Yakkers out there who really know their stuff on this one! We are so grateful that you were all so willing to share all your knowledge. It was absolutely fascinating. I think this topic can be broken down in some useful ways.

What does it all mean?

Firstly, there is technical information about what the terms “sustainable” and “ethical” mean. And then there's the way we use them. As someone who's pretty interested in language and semantic, in my view, this is the underlying problem.

There are those who argue that language derives its meaning from how words are used. If enough people use a word in a particular way then that's what it means. That becomes a problem when a word has a precise meaning but is then used in a vague way.

There is the loophole and it's one that is utilised by some brands who want to sound like they are doing the right things, but are actually not fulfilling the full meaning of the word. In fact, they can often be really ticking just one small box when there are heaps of other ways to be sustainable, for example.

What is sustainability?

So in specific terms, what does sustainable mean? Thank you to @freudian.nip.slip for this. I'm going to lift quite a bit of what you shared as it was really clear and useful.  Sustainability is a type of environmental ethic. “Ethics” is all about the moral code by which someone chooses to conduct their life – so pretty broad. More on this in a minute. 

Sustainability is a subset of environmental ethics which is about the moral code you apply to questions about the environment and it's quite specific about what it really means. It encompasses respect and care for the community of life (I really liked that phrase as it includes all life and doesn't make a distinction between animals and humans), ecological integrity, democracy and social and economical justice. And more. Essentially it's about embracing methods of production which aren't all about capitalism and consumerism.

The drive behind a company that's truly sustainable is about those qualities, rather than the big bucks and sales. In fact, the French term is much closer to this than our English word: “développement durable”. Maybe we should pinch that!

Unfortunately, companies can use the word “sustainable” if they are applying some kind of sustainable principle to the production of their product, @misadventurer used the production of a Kitkat as an example. Between 2010-2017 they were using coco that conformed to ethical trade regulations, but not sugar or vanilla. If a company uses sustainably sourced cotton, but not sustainably sourced linen in their clothing for example, they can stick the “sustainable” label on without sorting out the linen side of things. And the customer is none the wiser. 

George Monbiot has done some fascinating work on this and calls the term “toxic” because it's just another type of consumerism. Interestingly, everyone's ideas about what sustainability means were along the same lines as the technical definition with a few differences here and there.

Here are some of the things you said:
- sustainability means that workers should be paid fairly and that the manufacturing process should create minimal impact on the environment and local animal life.
- to be sustainable it should be possible to repeat the process many times without wasting and exhausting resources.
a brand should not market using fast fashion techniques and then call themselves sustainable as the ethics of fast fashion are of themselves unsustainable.
being sustainable is about taking steps to be eco-friendly.
- there should be a circular lifestyle in order for something to be sustainable.
- there are different degrees of sustainability; different people draw different lines in the sand on what “counts”.
- sustainability involves using materials that are long lasting, and/or can be grown quickly, e.g. bamboo.
- sustainability should be something that conserves, protect and brings long term benefits.

Ethical

So technically ethics is a broad field that describes the moral code by which an individual or group make decisions. Again, thanks to @freudian.nip.slip for this. Interestingly, you can be ethical by conforming to a set of ethics but they might not be a set that many people agree with. You can live by an ethic that doesn't value the environment or social causes – this has an amazing name – vulgar ethical relativism.

Being vulgar has not been assigned to Jane Austen history! It's really useful to understand this background because it explains why companies can stick the word “ethical” on products and have it mean very little.

We can be more specific though, and use terms such as “fair trade” and “living wage” and we can ask for transparency in supply chains so that we know where the issues are. 

Here's what you all said about what ethical means:
- it is unethical to contribute to the global environmental crisis and to destroy habitats and ecosystems. Environmental impact should be viewed as an ethical concern.
- “ethical” describes the moral principles of the company, including workers' rights, animal cruelty and fair wages.
- to call themselves “ethical” a company should be morally sound in every respect, taking into account pay, working conditions, environmental impact, impact on wildlife, air miles and carbon footprint.
- “working towards”... is just not good enough.
- “ethical” has different levels of degree for different people. Some people accept “ethical (duck/goose) down” for example, for others it's an oxymoron and pillows made from duck down can't be ethical. Similarly with eating meat: for some eating meat from animals that have been well cared for is ethical, for others this is not the case. We tend to draw lines in places that suit us but it's worth re-examining those choices.
- for many, “ethical” is about people, “sustainable” is about the environment.

What next?

So where next? It is really clear that there are companies who want to take advantage of the fact that the terms “ethical” and “sustainable” mean different things to different people.

In fact, the term “sustainable” has a pretty tight definition and it would be great if we started to require that it is used in this way. Then the label “sustainable” on a garment would really mean something. In contrast “ethical” is really broad, and can even refer to ethical standards that you might describe as “vulgar”...or worse!

There are other terms in the field of ethics that are useful though: fair trade, living wage are just a couple of examples. We can definitely go further with this.


The conclusion here really seems to be that if a company uses the terms “ethical” and “sustainable” it's worth having a look at what they mean by that.
Just try not to be too disappointed by what you find out! That sounds a bit cynical, and it's great news that increasingly there are companies out there doing the right thing.

I'm finding the app Good On You really useful for providing information about which those companies are. Sharing that information is really helpful in enabling individuals to clear away the fog and have clarity about how companies are conducting their business. Then we can make an informed decision about whether that's a company we want to buy from and thereby invest in.

You can always check out our products as well and if you want to find out more about how fairly we treat out staff, you can read here - and we promise, there is no misuse of the words sustainable!