Being Ethical isn't Easy

 Being ethical isn’t easy, but affluent westerners with a conscience, should try harder than most.


Last month, Uttlesford District Council were put on the spot by their investment in a property that is going to be leased by an American Company with a wide variety of technical products, a significant proportion of which have applications in the arms trade.

Did that constitute an ethical investment?

The Investment Board were strongly in favour, as were most councillors, but they were hampered by not having an ethical investment policy. It was certainly an interesting debate and is worth watching on-line. One of the more shocking contributions was from a councillor who said ‘We all buy stuff from China and Amazon every day, who have no ethics…’ and while his argument petered out, the implication was clear: We are all unethical anyway, so why worry about connections with the defence industry? 

This statement was particularly ironic because the council had just unanimously signed up to the seven Nolan principles of public life, the last of which is leadership. To my mind leaders hold themselves to the highest possible standards in order to set an example that is worth following.

A great many of us actually do try to be ethical.  We avoid using Amazon and think twice about the origins of the products we buy. I was once invited to a dinner with friends at Ask. I agreed enthusiastically but wanted a moment to check Ask out on Ethical Consumer. Ethical consumer is an organisation that rates businesses against dozens of criteria covering Environmental issues, Human and workers’ rights, Humane concern for animals and Politics: their use of tax avoidance strategies. Out of a possible 15 points, (with 5 a possible bonus points for sustainability) Ask, or at least their parent company, scored just 4 points, so I called my friends back and asked if we could go somewhere else! We had a delightful evening in a local, independent restaurant which I suspected did not use an offshore bank account!

Some decisions can easily become habitual. It’s easy to avoid Amazon because we have a great, friendly bookshop here. Waitrose (4.5) and Aldi (3) beat ASDA which scores 0/20 and Tesco which only just gets off the ground at 1/20. That suits us in Saffron Walden! Being ethical about coffee shops is also easy: we have so many characterful independent coffee shops! Costa coffee (0.5/20) and Starbucks (1.5/20) don’t get a look in from me. Caffe Nero is better at 5.5.

I’m afraid that I use an Apple computer and phone, because they teach you how to use their products and help out remotely when I am stuck. They have appalling ratings for tax avoidance and environmental reporting, but do well in not sourcing conflict minerals and have a good toxics policy. Overall they score 6.5, which isn’t bad.

In terms of our climate and biodiversity crises, the ethics are now very clear. Diet plays a huge part. I call myself an ‘antelopian’: I eat meat about as often as I could have caught an antelope, in true hunter-gatherer style!  Nuts, fruit, roots and berries in season (from Liz’s local veg stall near Market Row), with meat as a very special treat. As I get older the antelope seem to be getting harder to catch!  They certainly don’t come from Texan factory cattle ranches and I don’t want to be complicit in the destruction of the Amazon rainforest for ranching or soya animal feed. 

It’s harder to be sure that your pension fund is ethical. It is likely to include investments in oil and gas industries and others, like Rolls Royce, with connections to defence. But if you can switch to a fossil free and ethical pension, now is probably a good time. I divested my pension about 5 years ago, and it feels as if I am riding a bow wave of ethical, carbon free investment!  

We have immense power as consumers. We effectively cast a vote with every purchase. So as Covid restrictions are eased, the shops re-open and we re-discover the joy of meeting friends in our local shops, or plan our longed-for holiday, we all have the opportunity to show true, ethical leadership and send a message around the world.