Thursday, 1 November 2007

What's an ecotarian?

For a while now P. and I have considered ourselves to be ecotarians rather than just vegans, but we are generally reluctant to use the label because it is meaningless to most people (and probably confusing to anyone else). So, for a while now I have been meaning to do a post to explain what it means to us.

For us being ecotarians means that whenever we make a decision about our consumption (be that of food or any other product) we try to consider a whole myriad of ethical issues that relate to the impact of our choice on the earth. These issues include:
  • Whether or not the product has been produced locally or whether it was transported half-way across the world to us.
  • Whether or not the product was created using slave labour (or sweatshop labour) or whether it was ethically or fairly traded.
  • How much packaging is used and whether the packaging is recycled and recyclable.
  • What kind of chemicals were used in the creation of the product or whether it is organic.
  • Whether the product is cruelty-free (in that it contains now animal products and was not tested on animals).
  • Whether or not we actually need the product or whether we are simply consuming for the sake of it.
  • How much energy and water was required to create the product.
  • Whether the product is brought to us by a corporation that is highly unethical in its business practices (such as Nestle, Coke or Monsanto).
  • And, well, you get the picture...

This may seem like an incredible pain to some people. It may seem like it would involve a life of constantly reading labels and standing, frozen with indecision, in supermarkets aisles. However, it is really not like that. Like any lifestyle decision it is something that becomes a natural part of your day to day routine. Good brands and products become familiar and what you buy becomes second nature.

So, for example, on Saturday mornings we go to the Farmers' Market to buy our fruit and vegetables. We try to focus on buying things that are in season and we prioritise the produce that is available from the organic sellers. Then we get our coffee from a coffee stand that stocks fair trade organic coffee and P. gets the coffee from East Timor, because it is our closest neighbour.

At the supermarket we start off in the organic/health food aisle. There we buy cans of organic beans and tomatoes (and prioritise the ones that were grown locally). We also pick up some Greens & Blacks Maya Gold chocolate when we are feeling a little naughty. It is vegan, organic and fair trade. However, it is also transported quite a long way to get to us and (like the coffee) we don't really need it, but this isn't about being perfect, it is just about trying to make the best choices that we can.

Sometimes there is no perfect choice. So, for example, we can choose between SunRice, which is grown locally, but in an area that really doesn't have enough water to sustainable farm rice, or Basmati rice, which is grown in Pakistan and transported a long way, but grown in an environment that is more suited to rice farming and in an economy that could do with our support. Sometimes, also, the best choice might be an non-vegan choice, but I am not ready to go there yet. I still feel pretty committed to veganism.

Sometimes the best choice is extremely expensive. For each change that we have made it has taken us a while to get our heads around the price difference. The first time we went to the supermarket to buy fair trade cocoa we came back with Cadbury's instead. It was $2 and the fair trade one was $10 and we couldn't bring ourselves to pay five times as much. But then we started thinking about the fact that each time we save money by buying unethical products we are simply externalising the cost to someone else. In the case of the cocoa we were externalising the cost to the slave workers that produce the cocoa that goes into all chocolate and cocoa that is not fair trade. For the non-organic products we were externalising the cost in damage to the earth and to the local environment of people that lived near the industrial farms. Slowly we are starting to be more consistent in living up to our own values.

It is still a challenge sometimes. Sometimes I baulk at the price of eco-friendly products and buy the regular one (like dishwashing detergent), but then P. is there to help push me along (he bought the eco-friendly one last time and now I will never go back). However, other changes have made things cheaper (cleaning with bicarb and vinegar is much cheaper for example) and all of them have made us feel better and made us all healthier - so the advantages make it worthwhile.

Finally, I still think of ecotarianism as a flexible approach. The aim is not to be perfect. The aim is simply to bring a conscious mind to our consumption and to to try live up to our own values. What this means will change with each situation and will our own awareness. I also think that this means that what ecotarianism would mean to anyone else would also be quite varied - which is why,
for example, it is not a very useful label to use if you are going to someone's house for dinner, but this also means that it is a 'label' that makes you only responsible to yourself. It is simply irrelevant for someone to point to the inconsistencies in your lifestyle and call you a bad ecotarian the way that some people seem to feel compelled to do with veganism or vegetarianism, because the whole point is that you are simply taking each choice as it comes and making the one that feel right to you in the moment.

Hopefully, however, the end result is that we will leave a smaller footprint on the earth than we would have otherwise and we will set a good example for Lily to follow as she grows up and makes her own consumption decisions.

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