Aren’t there already guides available for ethical shopping?
Yes, there are a few product guides available online (or as apps) – we’ve listed some of the best ones here. Maintaining these guides is a huge undertaking and several guides from the past never achieved the comprehensive coverage that’s a prerequisite for widespread adoption and are now out of date. Having said that, a few of the guides that we have today are useful resources, and we recommend using them. So why do we also need the green star rating system? Briefly:
- Green stars puts the power where it belongs—in the hands of the people
- The green star ratings will be more visible, being next to the gold star ratings on the sites we all use
- Green stars are more current – they can be posted as soon as a product/service is available
- People with specialized knowledge or specific information about the company can add valuable information
- Some of the most sustainable businesses are very small and may not be covered in existing guides
- Coverage on review sites like Yelp or Google can include local services of any kind (not just products)
- User-generated content can be much more comprehensive than that of a single organization
Regarding the second point above, visibility, it’s important to note that the current ethical consumerism guides are really only used by the people who are already motivated to go out of their way to shop responsibly. Even those of us who are motivated are not likely to consult these guides for every purchasing decision. When it comes down to it, most of us don’t enjoy having to think about the problems our planet faces. But it can’t be understated how crucial our role as consumers has become at this juncture. Corporate power is driving most of the activities in this world and unfortunately many corporate practices don’t benefit our society or planet. The decision to either address or ignore the key social and environmental issues of our time may be the single most important factor that determines our future as a race.
So, one key barrier to making ethical decisions as consumers is that we often don’t feel up to reading accounts of social injustice (such as child slavery in the chocolate trade) or environmental destruction (such as deforestation for certain palm oil plantations) and it’s also true that many people don’t have time to research each product they purchase. The idea of a green star rating system addresses both issues in that they are visible alongside conventional gold star (functionality-price) ratings and therefore require no special effort or additional time to see; they also condense the rating to a single score requiring no further reading unless desired (i.e. reading individual reviews).
As with existing gold star reviews, only a small number of people need to post reviews in order to form a good consensus (typically, only around 1% of customers post reviews). Of course, the whole point of this site is to encourage you to start writing reviews of products and services on whatever website or app you like, incorporating both the traditional gold star rating and the new green star rating. It can actually be cathartic to voice our opinions, and also empowering to be part of the discussion, increasing our awareness on social and environmental issues along the way.
Over time, as people get used to the idea, it will become second nature for people to think about social-environmental issues, and to be able to do so—to fully face the reality of our world and consider the consequences of our actions as consumers—is akin to the practice of compassion, and it will change the world.
Why do we need separate gold star and green star rating systems?
In other words, why do we need to have a separate rating for social-environmental impact, rather than continuing with only gold star ratings where the occasional person will also consider social and environmental factors in their rating? This is an important question, and the primary reason for a separate rating scale is that, the way things stand right now, the social-environmental considerations will be lost among the opinions on price-quality. Most popular products and services have already been reviewed hundreds of times and the vast majority of the reviews consider the price and quality but not the social-environmental impact.
It’s important to separate them because there are many products out there that are functionally good and also cheap, but they may involve unacceptable practices such as forced labor or environmental destruction that are not reflected in the gold star rating. 100 people may think it’s a great item, but only 1 out of 100 may point out that there’s a hidden cost to the planet. As a result, many people will continue to buy the product, unaware of the fact that they are supporting a company engaged in deforestation, pollution, animal cruelty, exploitation of workers, climate change, etc. Naturally, the corporations that generate massive profits at the expense of the planet don’t want us to think about these things. They would rather that the voices of the few who raise these issues are not heard above the crowd.
So, another key reason for keeping the ratings separate is to highlight this cause—to make a statement that it’s no longer acceptable for corporations to generate massive profits at the expense of our planet and its inhabitants.
How can we rate products using a green star scale when it doesn’t exist yet?
That’s actually not a problem. Simply post reviews (on Amazon, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google, etc.) using the normal gold-star rating for price and quality, but in the title of the review (or the first sentence if there’s no title) state how many green stars you’re giving it. The best format is to focus the first half of your review on the normal quality and price issues (i.e. your reasons for the gold star rating) and the second half on the social and environmental impacts that justify your green star rating. It can be helpful to include a summary that you are awarding X/5 gold stars based on quality and price, and Y/5 green stars based on social and environmental impact. You can take a look some example reviews here.
Once a critical mass of reviews has built up and people begin to notice, we will contact the companies to suggest the formal introduction of a green star scale. But first we need to generate some momentum and demonstrate support for the idea by posting reviews that include green star ratings, as described above.
How can I evaluate a company?
If you want to see a more in-depth discussion on this topic, take a look at this section. Just as each conventional review normally doesn’t consider every single aspect of product functionality and quality, the green star portion of the review also doesn’t have to consider ever angle of the social and environmental impact (but you should try to make it as fair and balanced as possible for whatever angles you do consider). The overall average rating will still be a valid reflection of how the company is viewed in terms of their overall social and environmental impact. So, for example, with gold star ratings most reviewers will only consider a few aspects of the product (aesthetics, functionality, value, longevity, etc.) and then the average score from all the ratings serves as a more rounded assessment of the product. Similarly, you may not be in a position to rate the company on all aspects of its social and environmental impact but whatever factors you do consider (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions, labor conditions, pesticide usage, etc.), it’s good to be as objective as possible and to put it into perspective by comparing to other similar products or services offered by other companies.
Will this make a difference?
We believe that the green star rating system is the most effective way to deal with corporate power. It will send a clear message that products or services that are detrimental to the planet are not wanted. Companies will be impacted directly via their revenue stream.
Following an evaluation by Oxfam of the social and environmental impacts of the “Big 10” food and beverage manufacturers, the response of the companies was summarized as follows:
The problems of the food system, they say, are caused largely by governments, traders and consumers.
It’s fascinating that they place the blame partly in the hands of the consumers (shame on you for buying our unethical products!). It is certainly true that companies will continue to supply products if there continues to be a demand for those products. Of course, these big companies work very hard to create that demand, conditioning their audience as early as possible and “greenwashing”, but we won’t get into that right now. The path for consumers to respond to corporations such as the “Big 10” is clear: increasing our awareness on social and environmental issues by rating the products these companies sell. They will soon receive the message (via their sales figures) that the consumers no longer want to support “the problems of the food system.”
In general, companies facing criticism over their practices often claim that they tailor their products to consumer demand, but the fact is that many of these companies change their product formulations and manufacturing practices in response to economic drivers rather than consumer priorities. Consumers will continue to “demand” the product, often unaware that the consequences of their purchases have changed for the worse. A product that may have been relatively benign in terms of impact a decade ago may carry a much higher social and environmental cost socially today (for example, it’s now made with palm oil grown on deforested land, or using cheap labor involving slavery or harsh working conditions). In other cases, of course, the social-environmental impact has been negative for decades. In both situations, a fluid and highly visible consumer-generated rating system is the most practical way of empowering ourselves.
In addition, green stars are tailored to individual products or services, so large companies that are moving in the right direction can be recognized for their more sustainable efforts, which will in turn encourage them to make more effort on these fronts.