picking your ethical battles as a consumer

In our global economy, where much of what we consume from foods to retail goods is produced overseas, it’s hard to know not only what you are getting, but who made it and where. “Ethically sourced” and “conflict free” are some of the buzz words surrounding this issue. They come up in the media when a large-scale tragedy occurs (such as the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 workers) or a lawsuit is filed (such as the one filed against Apple for child labor in its Chinese factories).

We’re outraged when we hear about these incidents, and rightfully so. And they go on and on. Diamonds that are called “conflict” or “blood” diamonds (because they are illegally mined and sold to fund wars in war zones. Chocolate harvested by children who are also enslaved. Smart phones with parts made in Asian factories with bad conditions and gold mined with child labor in Africa. Coffee and other crops harvested with little to no profit to the grower. Beloved cookies made with palm oil, which destroys habitat for animals and precious rainforest. You could write for days on each of these issues and the conflicts they create.

Many of these lines are murky. For instance, it is almost entirely impossible to source a conflict-free diamond unless it’s made in a laboratory. Once diamonds are brought in for trade, they are legitimized and their “dirty histories” wiped away. (See this enlightening article for details on why this is the case.) And while most people are interested in the use of diamond profit to fund wars, there’s also the issue of who mines those stones in the first place – children. 

The same goes for smart phones. An ever-expanding electronic industry has made the demand for gold and the other minerals (copper, cobalt, tin, etc.) used in production increase, and Human Rights Watch has questioned the use of child labor in very dangerous mining jobs. Like diamonds, it’s nearly impossible to buy an ethically “clean” smart phone. The supply chains for the hundreds of materials used to create a phone are complex, diverse and sometimes untraceable.   

I only very rarely eat chocolate that is not fair trade or organic. (See this post – did a slave harvest the cocoa in your candy bar? for details.) I don’t eat at fast food restaurants for a variety of ethical reasons that go beyond health. 

I also wear an engagement ring with a diamond in it. I use a smart phone and a Chromebook.

I buy as much produce and meat from local farms as possible, and buy other handmade, local products when I can. 

I wear clothes that I purchase at retail stores that don’t say “Made in the USA” on the tags. Or that the cloth it was made from is produced there either.

So what do you do? What do you do if you want to be an ethical consumer in a world where those lines are sometimes virtually impossible to understand?

My philosophy is this. I heard during a lecture once (or read in a book maybe?) that you can judge a person by the integrity of their compromises. For myself, I try to pick battles that meet two criteria: (1) it’s within my control and (2) has a reasonable alternative which can satisfy my ethical conundrum. 

I can choose to not purchase produce and other food products (meat, dairy, etc.) which are not produced and farmed in a manner I approve of, and a reasonable alternative is to buy them locally and be a member of a CSA. I don’t eat at fast food restaurants because I can reasonably choose local restaurants where many of my ethical issues with fast food are not present. Or I can just not eat out at all. (Novel idea!) Chocolate isn’t even a necessary food in the first place, but if I want chocolate, I can buy fair trade or organic chocolate, which satisfies my issue with child labor and slavery practices.

But I am going to choose to use a cell phone and to keep wearing my engagement ring. Because I can’t buy a locally made cell phone as an alternative, there’s no one who benefits from me not purchasing that one phone. I would be better off supporting organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which use their lobbying power to help change legislation to protect labor forces and get corporations (such as Apple and other electronics manufacturers) to own up to their supply chains and face monetary penalties for not doing so. 

That being said, I don’t need to go overboard on my consumption of retail goods in the first place. I realize that there are many other ways in which I could live my life “more ethically” and I try to think through purchases and understand what role I play in the world by being a consumer. I also do my best to research and understand what’s at stake with a particular issue, so that I’m not just hopping on a trendy, petition-signing bandwagon.

At the end of the day, I hope my compromises can be judged to be made with integrity, in the absence of perfection.  

why I will never juice cleanse

I have always loved juice. Family legend has it that I drank so much apple juice as a child that my diaper was constantly sagging. This post isn’t about hating juice. Let me state for the record that juice without added sugar and made from fresh fruits and vegetables, is good for you. I drink it, and I also use juice in recipes, like this one for granola. Juicing vegetables into smoothies is also a great way to get them into your diet if you have aversions to the raw version or just are not interested in cooking them.

It’s the cleansing part of a juice cleanse that I have an issue with. The idea is simple and seemingly benign. Toxins in the body can build up and cause inflammation. Our liver, kidneys and colon are designed to filter out and deal with toxins and keep our gastrointestinal system healthy. Proponents of cleansing say our own body systems can’t always keep up with those toxins, and we need to give them a little boost by drinking only liquids which are easier to digest. People even claim there are metabolic benefits and changes that occur on your cellular level when you juice cleanse.

Here’s the thing. If you eat properly all the time, don’t fill your body with unnecessary toxins like those found in processed foods, your body’s own systems don’t need any help keeping up. The healthy food and nutrients allow your body to function at its optimal level. Sure, after a week of eating junk, you might feel like you need a “cleanse.” But what you really need is to get back into eating real foods, not simply juice.

In addition to the elimination of toxins, the touted benefits of juice cleanses include mental clarity, an immune system boost and improved skin and overall health. Guess what? I get all of those from my running program and from eating a diet full of real, healthy food. I can guarantee you that when I finish my 6.1 mile leg of the Pittsburgh Marathon Relay on Sunday, I will feel better than you’ll feel after 3 days of nothing but juice.

While I recognize that not all juice cleansers are doing it to lose weight, there are those who enjoy the few pounds you drop from a juice cleanse. But sadly, the weight you lose is only water, and when you return to eating solid food, it will come back. And often cravings are induced by the deprivation that you put your body through, which can lead people to over-do it when they go back to regular food.

Juice cleanses are so often hyped as healthy, but there are many people who could actually be harmed by juice cleanses – particularly those with blood pressure problems or diabetes. If you eat a well balanced diet and you still have problems with your gastrointestinal tract, see your doctor, not Tropicana. Juice is essentially sugar water. And sugar doesn’t detox you. Water does. 

There are precious few clinical studies to back up juice cleanses, regardless of what Dr. Oz says. (A quick search of PubMed returned no results.) And if you don’t eat well in the first place, it doesn’t matter how many days you juice cleanse, you will go back to feeling like crap when you are done. So what’s the point? 

Treat juice cleanses like the celebrity fads that they are and just make yourself a fruit or vegetable smoothie as part of a healthy, balanced diet.