Sidney Sussex MCR Green Committee

Ethical Affairs

CUSU Ethical Affairs | Ethical Shopping | Fair Trade | Third World Debt | Reduce, Reuse, Recycle | Back to the green index

CUSU Ethical Affairs

This is the university's umbrella organisation for co-ordinating the efforts of the college Green Officers - click here for more details. Those interested in becoming involved can sign up to the committee's weekly email bulletin. You can also attend the meetings of the Environmental and Ethical Committee.

Ethical Shopping

The following information is taken from the Little Green Book (1997), viewed on 05/10/07

It is often said that we are ruled by the forces of the market. The truth is: we are the forces of the market. The whole of the economy, no matter how opaque it seems to the individual, ultimately rests upon you, the consumer. No toxic batteries, no excessive packaging, no washing powder with phosphate would ever be produced if we, the consumers, wouldn't buy them. This is one arena where we don't have to wait for big politics to make a change.

The most frequent argument in discussions about ethical buying choices is that 'they cost too much'. In many cases, this is simply not true. A short visit to Sainsbury's will confirm that the 'bad' products are often the more expensive ones, the most striking example being vegetables packaged in mountains of plastic that are significantly more expensive than their loose equivalents.

With every single washing powder claiming to be eco-friendly and a new product being boycotted by someone every day, it's easy to get overwhelmed and lose all hope of making responsible decisions. But making a positive impact by how and what you buy is easier than it seems. Becoming more aware of your decisions - how you make them, why you make them, and that you make them - is far more important than knowing every single fact about tuna fishing and landfill policies. You don't need to study a green consumer guide for hours to realize that buying apples from New Zealand is probably not such a good idea, or that buying Fair Trade coffee or tea is probably less exploitative of people in the Third World than buying 'regular' brands. (Of course, it still doesn't hurt to have a consumer guide handy for less obvious cases...)

Here are some general questions you can ask yourself to make your buying decisions more conscious:

  • Is it overpackaged?
  • What's the environmental impact of its production process?
  • What will its environmental impact be when it's used?
  • Has it come from much further away than necessary?
  • Is it produced by a company known to be negligent of the environment?
  • Does it exploit or benefit people in the Third World?
  • Do I really need this?

Your influence as a consumer can extend much further than your own private shopping. As a member of a college, department and university, you can influence what's used and what isn't. Make your voice heard!

Where to shop

Fair Trade

The following information is taken from the Little Green Book (1997), viewed on 05/10/07

Fair trade products guarantee minimum standards of working conditions and a fair and more stable price to Third World producers; their production is environmentally sustainable.

Un-fair trade is occurring all the time. Third world farmers with appalling living standards struggle to produce the goods we take for granted. The import duties on the manufactured goods are higher than those for raw product. This benefits the First World manufacturing and prohibits the Third World from developing their own high-income manufacturing facilities. At the end of the day, with over-production of many cash crops and extreme commodity price fluctuations on the world market, the farmers' return on their crops may even be less than their original investment. For these people there is often no alternative. We, however, have an alternative offered by 'fair' trade.

Fair Trade provides a fair price to both the consumer and the producer. Thus, a small extra amount to us allows job security and increased income to spend on vital goods such as clothes, medicines, and school books.

The standards are set by independent organisations. For raw products a premium is paid when the markets force the value of the commodity low. Crucially, a minimum price, often guaranteed over several years, prevents the inequity of the value of a crop being exceeded by the costs. Fair trade offers an alternative, and is fathoms away from what most would consider charity. It allows full recognition of the back-breaking labour behind the goods, and purposefully favours well-being and self-motivated development.

The real test will be to get profit organisations to acknowledge and move toward fair trade. The Body Shop has taken a market lead with its own department that aims to supplement products with fairly traded equivalents. The amount of product sourced in this way remains low but has increased greatly over the past three years. The success of initiatives like this is pivotal in the increasing battle to create a level playing field for international trade.

Fair trade's success is dependent on the economics of supply and demand and we, the consumers, supply the demand. Keep these products on the supermarket shelves and help them be flanked by an increasing number of companions.

Where to buy

Third World Debt

The following information is taken from the Little Green Book (1997), viewed on 05/10/07

Being in debt is a problem for many poor countries. Servicing debt means scarce resources are diverted away from health and education towards repaying Northern creditors. The economy is geared away from meeting the people?s basic needs and towards generating foreign exchange. Put crudely, people are dying due to the sacrifices made repaying debt.

Many countries in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa find themselves with debt as the result of the oil prices of the 1970s. Oil exporting countries had lots of money which they put in western banks. These then lent the money to developing countries. Continued debt arose from rising interest rates with many of the loans being for unproductive purposes (buying weapons, for example).

The new Democratic Republic of the Congo has an external debt roughly equal to ex-president Mobutu's personal fortune (approximately $6bn). It is a prime example of reckless lending.

Ninety five percent of the money owed to Britain by African countries is to the Export Credit Guarantee Depart-ment of the Department of Trade and Industry. Just five percent is owed to the department for International Development. Much debt has accumulated by us recklessly promoting our goods (often arms) in developing countries.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The following information is taken from the Little Green Book (1997), viewed on 05/10/07

The amount of waste is increasing every year, and we may soon run out of landfill sites. A controversial alternative is incineration but this creates hazardous substances such as dioxins and heavy metals. All this waste comes form somewhere ? the extraction of primary resources. This invariably happens in developing countries and is causing severe disruption to the social and the natural environment. This means that our priorities must be: Reduce, Reuse and then Recycle. Only if we are unable to do these should waste be used to recover energy and finally be landfilled.

Reducing our consumption is the first step. 20% of the world's population consumes 80% of the energy produced. The earth cannot provide everyone with the level of consumption the richest 20% are now enjoying. We need to economise and cut back our demands on the earth's resources. Reuse is better than recycling because it is done more locally without complicated manufacturing processes. It involves less transport, less energy and less cost.

Recycling is well known to us all (and is the bugbear of Green Officers). It is just as important to 'close the loop' and buy recycled products. This also supports the secondary markets in these materials and makes collections more economic. Paper is the greatest component of our waste and universities are one of the largest consumers of paper. What we do makes a big difference.

A lot of paper products claim they are made from 'sustainable sources' and that this is better than recycled paper. 'Sustainable sources' means Scanadavian tree farms (conifer monoculture plantations) which have often replaced ancient forests with a rich biodiversity of plants and animals. Recycled paper can be made using less water and less than 50% of the energy of paper made from virgin wood pulp. Recycled paper is also produced in the UK, saving the energy costs of transportation from Scandinavia.

Unfortunately recycled paper can be slightly more expensive (the best things often are). As more recycled paper is made and used, the prices should fall accordingly. It is important to try to buy 100% post-consumer recycled paper, because other recycled paper is made from mill offcuts which were always re-used. Buying unbleached and uncoated papers (preferably recycled) is also better because these don't produce the river pollution and inert plastics of their conventional alternatives. Making recycled paper still has a large impact on the environment, so it is important to cut down use wherever we can.

Paper recycling is not a closed loop process, but a multi-stage use of paper fibre. It is difficult to recycle waste paper into higher quality paper, so paper is usually recycled into lower grade materials and will eventually be discarded. For example, office paper may be recycled into recycled office paper, then into magazines, newsprint (perhaps a couple of times), and then cardboard. To achieve higher recycling rates our wastepaper needs to be well sorted and of a consistent quality. It also needs to be free of contamination, because contaminated paper is often rejected and can only be recycled into the lowest grade of paper.

It's up to us:

  • Buy recycled paper
  • Recycle your waste paper
  • Use both sides of paper
  • Reuse envelopes
  • Avoid excessive packaging
  • Recycle empty bottles and cans
  • Put organic waste into a "green bin"

For full and up-to-date information about recycling in Cambridge, see our recycling page.

13 October 2007