Ethical consumerism guides
Dedicated guides that cover environmental and/or social aspects of various consumer products are listed below. I’ve updated this list (Jan 2020) and found that a few have disappeared over the last three years. It’s an extreme challenge to keep an ethical guide up to date (and funded) and that’s why I firmly believe that we need to rely on user-generated ratings. See the FAQs section for a discussion on why green star ratings are needed and how they differ from these guides in terms of coverage, content, and impact. Here are three popular guides that aim to be fairly extensive and use a rating scale:
- The Good Guide (goodguide.com)
is probably one of the best resources out there. Update – as of 2016, the Good Guide has switched from rating products from a consumer safety perspective (similar to the EWG, below). They no longer consider the social or environmental impact (except in cases where it also impacts consumer safety). More details on this change here. The Good Guide was acquired in 2011 by Underwriters Laboratories.
- The Better World Shopping Guide book, website (http://www.betterworldshopper.org) and app ($1.99) can be a useful resource for at-a glance company-level ratings, rather than ratings on individual products. They have a list of the top 20 best and worst companies (in their opinion).
- Ethical Consumer (http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/). One of the oldest ethical consumerism organizations, founded in the U.K. in 1989. In some cases you can view basic scores for free but full access is available only by subscription (£30 per year). You can also customize rankings based on which of their factors are more important to you: environment, animals, people, politics, and sustainability.
- Shop Ethical! is another curated ethical consumerism guide with an emphasis on Australian brands.
Note that in some cases where ratings for specific products or companies are available on more than one of the guides above, there are large differences between the scores. This illustrates why a wider consensus offered by an average green star rating is valuable. Evaluation by an individual is usually based on a subset of all the information available and is subject to researcher bias caused by differences in their response to the various issues involved. This will balance out when multiple green star ratings are averaged.
Specialized ethical consumerism resources
- Guides to cruelty-free products tend to be fairly extensive at this point. You can search on leapingbunny.org or peta.org or using free apps such as Cruelty-Free.
Free to Work generates useful reports on various industries (apparel, coffee, electronics, etc.) focusing on worker conditions, particularly probing whether forced or child labor is used at any point in the chain from raw material to finished product.Sadly, this site is no longer available. I checked this page (Jan 2020) and found that in just 3 years a few of the resources that had been listed here, including Free2Work, have shut down.
- The Monterey Bay Aquarium maintains a popular guide to sustainable seafood choices called Seafood Watch (http://www.seafoodwatch.org/), also available as an app.
- The Environmental Working Group rate 51 varieties of fruit and veggies in order of decreasing pesticide residue found on the food, so if you’re on a budget you can choose conventional versions of those near the end of the list (like avocados or pineapples) and chose organic versions of those near the top (like apples and strawberries): http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/list.php. Note, however, that the EWG guides (they also have a website and app for cosmetic products called Skin Deep and a new Food Scores website/app) are focused on consumer safety of the end products; they don’t rate the environmental or social impact. As a result, these guides can be highly misleading if you are also concerned about the planet/society. For example, pineapples are rated as one of the cleanest food by EWG based on residues remaining in the fruit. However, the actual environmental/social impact of pineapple plantations can be devastating. According to Fernando Ramirez, a leading agronomist in Costa Rica, “The soil is sterilized; biodiversity is eliminated. Some of the plantations have used paraquat, for example, to clear the soil at very, very high doses, 10 to 15 times the normal dose on other crops; it’s banned in Europe.” Pesticides have leaked into local water supplies and caused serious environmental damage and health problems for workers. The workers are also paid and treated very poorly. Clearly the EWG score, focusing purely on consumer safety, doesn’t tell the whole story.
- www.corporatecritic.org profiles companies from an ethical standpoint and provides an “ethiscore” that you can view, but further information is available only by subscription. This is actually the same organization as Ethical Consumer, above.
- The Greenpeace guide to greener electronics: The ratings here are based on raw material sources, sustainability and toxicity, energy use, and product life cycle.