Just in time for GivingTuesday tomorrow, the ethical consumer resource Otter has launched a super handy guide to help you make informed decisions as you head out to do your holiday shopping. Otter’s project leader, Gordon Renouf, recently talked to GoodWorks about socially-aware consumerism and the organisation’s new ethical gift buying tool, Checking It Twice.
In one sentence, what does Otter hope to accomplish?
Otter is a nonprofit organisation created to help people make purchasing choices that suit their values.
What does Otter offer people?
Otter sends out a free fortnightly online newsletter. We provide a mix of curated content (“best of the web”) and original articles that provide practical and actionable tips and other information about a wide range of consumer choices that raise ethical issues. Any given instalment might include tips for more sustainable food purchases, advice about which cruelty-free labels best help people choose animal friendly cosmetics, an interview about fairtrade chocolate and more.
Can you explain the concept behind your new service Checking It Twice?
Checking It Twice is a brand new ethical gift advice service. It can help people overcome the dilemmas they often face at Christmas time, such as how to buy the right gift for a friend or family member, or, better yet, how to choose a gift that the recipient will love but that is also better for the environment, animal welfare, or has a strong positive social impact.
On Checking It Twice you can browse hundreds of ‘gift stories’, each with an idea for a gift that is better for the planet, people and/or animals.
But what makes the service unique is that it offers personalised advice for that hard-to-buy-for friend or family member. The user can enter information about who the gift is for, their budget, the issues they care about and perhaps the kind of present they have in mind. Checking It Twice will respond with two to three suggested gifts, generally the same day or early the next day.
We recommend both specialist products and mainstream brands that are doing something tangible to benefit the earth, people and animals. Checking It Twice is not a shop and has no affiliation to any retailer or any other organisation.
Why do you feel so strongly about ethical consumerism?
My background is in consumer rights. I worked at the consumer organisation CHOICE for quite a while. The ability to “shop your values” is a consumer right that is just as important as anyother consumer right—the rightto quality, safety, fair dealing and so on.
At Otter, we see ethical consumption as a way for consumers to make a conscious impact on the issues that concern them—like protecting the natural world, avoiding climate change, treating animals well or promoting positive social impact through fairtrade.
“Our choices as consumers have a strong influence on the products businesses offer and the way they make them—it’s like voting for the world you want through you purchases.”
What is your plan for educating everyday people?
Research shows that a large majority of the population want to make responsible consumer choices. But they also want good quality, cheap prices and convenience. For most consumers it’s a question of balancing competing considerations.
About half of the population is quite strongly motivated around ethical issues. When the better ethical option loses out because the consumer has to make trade-offs, they feel somewhat conflicted. So our job is to make it easier to avoid having to make trade-offs—to find a product that meets the consumer’s other needs, but is also the best available choice in respect of the issues they care about.
Information is not the only barrier to better consumer choices. As well as price, convenience and performance, there are questions of trust: for example, ‘Do I believe this product’s claims that it won’t harm rainforests?’ Social factors and peer pressure are important, too.
Otter provides actionable information on how to make choices with particular ethical issues in mind. By offering information and options across a wide range of ethical issues and in many product categories, consumers are able to pick and choose which information suits them and their values.
What makes a product “ethical”?
It’s not so much that a product itself is ethical or not. It’s more that producing, distributing and disposing of products has a range of different impacts on the world. It’s up to the consumer to choose products that have the least negative impacts and/or the most positive impacts on the world around us. Are we living up to our own values about the world when we make our consumer choices?
In order for truly ethical products to take up a larger share of the market, what changes do you advocate? Stricter laws, better labelling, more transparency?
Transparency and accurate labelling are very important. Increasing the awareness of reliable third party certification schemes like Fair Trade and Good Environmental Choice Australia will also help. In the UK, fairtrade coffee has grown from a small market share to something like 20% of the market in just a decade or so, which is an amazing achievement that shows the power of a well marketed and robust labelling scheme.
On the other side, we need manufacturers and distributors to ensure their claims are accurate and relevant and for regulators like the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to be vigilant in pouncing on any claims that are not.
What are five, quick and easy-to-remember tips for people wanting to shop ethically?
1. Think about what issues you really care about
2. Find out which product categories have an impact on those issues
3. Do your research on these products and their impactand purchase accordingly
4. Contact companies who provide products you need or love but who are not living up to your values to voice your concern
Finally, what’s the deal with the Otter?
Good question. Otters are energetic, playful, intelligent and curious animals. They’re busy hunting, investigating, or playing. For a service that endeavours to hunt down the information you need, that’s us in a nutshell!