Sustainability & fish farming: working with a real case

Aquaculture, such as fish farming, is a key industry to ensure  sustainable food production in the future. Foods deriving from the seas face many challenges such overfishing and water pollution. At the same time, sea food has many benefits such as low climate impact and high nutritional value.

It is quite clear today that wild fish supply is not sufficient and that aquaculture is necessary in some form in order to supply current populations with sea food. However, fish farming has been criticized for unsustainable practices through the years and the industry still struggles with some of them like sea lice, escapes and sustainable feed sources.

In the course I teach at NHH ‘Measuring sustainability’ we each year work with  a real case on how to measure sustainability. Last autumn, we collaborated with Norwegian Responsible Investment association Norsif on how we can measure and evaluate the sustainability of aquaculture companies. One of the things I love about these cases is the creativity the students show when coming up with new ideas and solutions. I truly believe this kind of creativity, combined with academic thinking and facts, is one of the most important skills we can teach students.

One of the learning points from working with the aquaculture case is how important national regulation is for sustainable fish farming. One of the drastic differences is the use of antibiotics. Aquaculture uses significant amounts of antibiotics, which is a critical issue considering antibiotic resistance, but the industry also shows that it can do without it when it has to, such as in Norway.

Another difficult issue is that fish farming in Europe is mostly done with omnivorous fish such as salmon. It is less efficient to raise fish that partly eats other fish than fish that only feeds on algea. Instead of feeding the salmon other fish, we could eat this fish directly and thus skip the step of raising the salmon. The fish in the feed can also lead to further overfishing. Of course we can feed salmon a vegetarian diet but salmon that are fed on vegetable rather than animal proteins may be lacking in Omega-3, which is one of the main reasons salmon are so healthy for a human diet. A better solution would be to instead farm a fish that naturally feeds on for example algea.

Another key issue for sustainability, the students discovered, is future orientation of the companies and investment in research to find sustainable solutions to issues we have not yet solved. During the course, we we’re visited by the head of sustainability and risk at Cermaq, Wenche Gronbrekk, who explained how the company works to address sustainability issues. Wenche has answered a few of my questions below and also describes their investment in future solutions: iFarm.

Sabina: The Norwegian aquaculture industry has made quite some progress in terms of addressing its sustainability challenges. What are, in your opinion, some of the main achievements? 
Wenche: We have made great progress in lifting the industry standard the past years through collaboration –  through dialogue and knowledge sharing between government, research and industry. Also, in the Global Salmon Initiative (GSI), addressing key issues such as standardization, feed ingredients and biosecurity. Vaccine development has also been key to advancing sustainability to the level we see today.

Sabina: Still, as we have learnt when working with this case, challenges remain. What’s on top of your to-do-list in terms of sustainability?
Wenche: Sustainability requires continuous effort, and we work every day to be better than just complying with minimum standards. Developing new solutions that address key problems is also a priority – such as our iFarm concept. It may solve many of the key challenges today through individualized treatment of each fish, increasing animal health and welfare, optimizing feeding and any need for treatment, which may in turn reduce the environmental footprint of our activities.

Sabina: Sustainability is, according to its definition, about the long term perspective, future generations even. Still most organisations operate with a shorter time perspective in their day-to-day business. How are you able to take the long term perspective into account?
Wenche: Salmon farming is largely dependent on taking a long term view – we operate in the sea and biological risks do not respect financial quarters. To have a business over time, our operations need to be sustainable in all aspects: environmentally, socially and economically. 

Sabina: Many who work as sustainability officers or even head of sustainability find that change management is crucial in order to conduct their work. Is this your experience as well?
Wenche: As a sustainability officer you need to work across the organization, break silos and in many ways be a change agent. Integrating sustainability in business strategy also means that many companies need to innovate their business model – and it is my experience that sustainability professionals often play a central part in this transformation.

A big thank you to Wenche and Cermaq for sharing your experiences with us and also to Norsif and Norsif member Folketrygdfondet and Tine Fossland who attended the students presentations and provided feedback on their evaluation models. We could not have done this without you!

Why young women going vegetarian for the climate is not necessarily a good thing

Last year one in five of Swedish young women became vegetarian because of climate change. Some might think that this is excellent news. We hear a lot that we should all eat less meat, ideally become vegetarians. The complex problem of food and sustainability has been reduced to the simple statement that vegetables are all good and meat overall bad. Unsurprisingly, such black and white statements are oversimplifications. One of the simplifications is the issue of methane and whether or not it is part of the carbon cycle, as I’ve previously written about here.

Another simplification is how the climate impact of food is calculated. Many calculations are based on how much CO2 is released  per kilogram of the food. This, however, has been criticized by research that shows that calculating CO2 per volume, calorie or even nutrient will give different results. The researchers conclude that “the sustainability of alternative diets, matched for energy and nutrient adequacy, can only be made on the basis of calories and nutrient contents and not per gram of weight”. Surprisingly, if you calculate climate impact per calorie, lettuce appears worse than bacon. Basically, how we calculate the climate impact of food makes a big difference. Like, Gunnar Rundgren I believe that there’s a point in calculating emission per nutrient density.

Taking nutrients into account when calculating climate impact is important because, as Rockström has pointed out, food is both a key factor in the health epidemic as well as the climate. Half of Swedish female adolescents have iron deficiency, one in three women in general. It is well known that iron from meat type of sources is absorbed more easily (25%) than from vegetable sources (5-10%). Research on diets and climate change acknowledges that reduced meat in diets is especially problematic for young women for this reason.

If we encourage women with iron deficiency to become vegetarians, we’d better be sure it is beneficial for the climate.

I am not so sure it is and I’ll use the following example with two high impact foods to illustrate why. Lamb is generally viewed as the meat with the highest climate impact. Rice, because of methane emissions, is among the highest climate impact grains. A Swedish lamb provides a carbon footprint of 16 kg CO2-equivalent per slaughtered kg lamb. A kilo of Thai rice provides between 1.34- 3.57 CO2-e per kg. Let’s say 2.4 kg CO2-e/kg.

Calculating emissions according to weight, yes lamb (16/kg) is much worse for the climate than rice (2.4/kg). You can eat six times as much rice and still release less CO2.

However, we have all heard about empty calories. What’s important is not only how much we eat but the nutrients the food provides us with. And we have to consider a woman’s recommended daily intake of iron, around 15 mg (9 mg for men). So here’s the issue. You would have to eat 3.2 kg rice a day to get the daily iron allowance. And considering the sort of iron and its lower absorption, it is even more. If you instead eat lamb, maybe even liver, 300g/day is enough. Of course, in reality no one would rely on a single food to provide all the necessary iron but the figure shows how efficient liver would be in doing so.

So to get your recommended daily intake of iron, what is the climate impact? For Thai rice the climate impact is at least 7,68 kg CO2-e. For Swedish lamb liver it’s 4,8 kg CO2-e.

Now, you might say, young Swedish women know about empty calories and would go for broccoli rather than rice. Still lamb liver is more efficient than broccoli in delivering iron per kg CO2-e. You would have to eat more than 2,3 kg broccoli to get the recommended daily intake. In climate impact that’s (using the example of UK broccoli) ca 5,3 kg CO2-e.

My message is really this. We have to consider nutrient content and absorption instead of climate impact per weight or calorie. When we consider nutrient content and absorption, we may find that going vegetarian is not a good idea. Instead, eating small amounts of nutrient dense food, like lamb liver, helps young women to maintain their health.

It is more climate friendly to eat small amounts of nutrient dense foods than eating large quantities of empty calories.

The nutrient argument was highlighted by researchers with connections to the Swedish dairy industry in 2010. While we of course have to be wary of industry motives, I still believe the overall idea of considering nutrients in relation to climate impact is a sound idea. And the general lesson here is that how we calculate affects the results we get.

On the picture: grazing sheep on the west coast of Norway, are they really that bad for the climate? It depends on how you calculate.

The wardrobe audit: 2017 in review

Despite a year of not shopping any clothing my wardrobe is still full. Very few things got worn out last year. And, miraculously, things we’re added to the wardrobe without shopping. Consequently, I was quite curious to know if I expanded or reduced my closet last year. Basically, did I go plus or minus wardrobe-wise.

So I counted all my clothes the other day. I even put them in an excel sheet. If you google ‘count your clothes’, you’ll see that I’m far from the first person on earth to do so. It seems that an average, non-minimalist, wardrobe contains between 200- 500 items. Needless to say, I’m in the upper range, ca 540, including outerwear, swimwear, formal wear i.e. basically all form of clothing but no accessories or shoes. I might include these too in the future though.

To my defense, I haven’t given away clothes to charity shops the last couple of years because of sustainability reasons. As Karen Templer defined slow fashion, it’s about “wearing each item (whatever it is, wherever it came from) for as long as it lasts, extending the lives of things through care and mending, and re-homing anything that doesn’t work for you.” I think the last term ‘re-homing’ is important, making sure the item gets a new home, which isn’t the case of charity shops these days.

Reviewing last year’s wardrobe outflows, I re-homed a silk shirt and tank top to family members. I threw away some underwear, socks, and nylon stockings (after already mending them several times, thrown in the trash). Two t-shirts torn beyond mending  became rags to clean with (I remember my mom saving worn out clothes for rags when we were kids, when did we quit this habit?). A pair of jeans with broken zipper is stored away to use for second life sewing  somehow, i.e. practically they’re no longer in the wardrobe (anyone knows how to mend such zippers?). In total, I parted with ca 10 items.

On the inflow side, I sewed a scout tee from silk scraps in my fabric stash. I knitted a dark blue wool sweater (a knitting project my mom started but had abandoned). I found a 70/80s Austrian wool jacket and skirt at my parents that joined my wardrobe as well as mom’s old 80s salt and pepper wool coat. My sister trusted me with a torn Marella blouse that I mended and made sleeveless (on the picture). Thus six items joined the wardrobe. 

All in all, my wardrobe went minus four items last year.

At this pace, it will take a 135 years to wear out my wardrobe. Seen like this, it looks like my shopping days are over.

There were also a few items that neither added or subtracted but simply changed categories. A red wool jumper left the ‘wool sweater’ category and joined the ‘wool cardigan’ group. This refashioning of a sweater into a cardigan following Worn values tutorial was a success, I have been wearing the ‘new’ cardigan a lot, I never wore it as a sweater. And instead of 27 wool sweaters I now ‘only’ have 26. The wool cardigan category went from 17 to 18 accordingly.

As a knitter, it becomes quite obvious here that one might not need more than 26 wool sweaters. I so very much enjoy knitting sweaters and cardigans but will I wear them? There are, in my climate, maybe six months of wearing wool sweaters and cardigans, ca 180 days. Assuming that you wear either a cardigan or a sweater, not both at the same time, it means that I can wear each sweater/cardigan four times during the season. Basically, it will take many years to wear out a sweater when it gets worn maximum four times a year. Consequently, I have to rethink my knitting habits. While I can finish knitting my current projects, there is now a ban on starting new sweater/cardigan projects for myself. To tell the truth, I did not suspect I had such an abundance of knitwear in my wardrobe before I counted it.

While I was doing my wardrobe audit Worn values posted a review of her slow fashion year 2017. Interestingly, she calculates not only how many items joined her wardrobe but also at what cost. Since I had a year of no-shopping, I paid nothing for new items last year, the only cost was shortening the hem of a skirt (because I was too lazy to do it myself) to the cost of approximately 200 SEK. I also put new soles on few pair of shoes. It would have been very interesting to compare this amount to what I used to spend on my wardrobe. Of course, I never calculated what I spent on my wardrobe before (a passionate shopper doesn’t want to know)  but I suspect I’m saving around 30 000 SEK a year.

During 2018, I would like to not only keep track of in- and outflows but also of how much mending I do.  Sometimes I feel like mending is all I do, so quantifying it would be a way to highlight the effort I put into my wardrobe.

Previous posts about my quest for a sustainable wardrobe: “Is owning less more sustainable“, “2017, the year without shopping“,  “A month without shopping“, “A year of no shopping, then what?“, “The health bonus of no-shopping: reduced chemical exposure

The health bonus of no-shopping: reduced chemical exposure

Last year’s resolution of not shopping any clothes brought many benefits: saving money and the environment, reducing waste and getting a closer, more personal relationship to my closet. There is one aspect, though, that I have thought less about but that I was lately reminded of: reduced chemical exposure. It might even be one of the more important benefits of not shopping.

We all have hundreds of chemicals in our blood, many of which are hormone disrupting. And this is in Sweden and the EU where we at least have the REACH chemical regulation. The US has much less regulation, which is discussed in the documentary STINK (can really recommend this documentary, there is a lot of useful information in it).

New clothes are made, dyed and treated with chemicals and these chemicals can end up in our blood stream with serious effects. We were recently reminded of this fact by the H&M burning-clothes scandals (but it applied to numerous other brands too!). One of the reasons the companies are burning seemingly good clothes is because they contain harmful levels of chemicals and substances. Although it is in fact good that we are not sold these items, it is a reminder of the fact that such chemicals are in the clothes at some level. One could question why the companies do not simply remove these harmful chemicals from the production, as our minister for the environment did in the H&M reportage.

One way that chemicals, such as triclosan, gets into our bodies is thus through clothes. I remember buying a pair of jeans some years ago that smelled terribly, “I smell like a walking pool #toxicfashion” I tweeted. I washed the jeans and continued wearing them despite the lingering smell. If I had known what I know now, I would have understood that the smell could be chemicals that would end up in my body and do damage there. I would have returned the jeans to the store.

In the STINK documentary, the story starts similarly with a pair of smelling pyjamas. However, unlike me, the father in the movie realises not only that it’s a sign of chemicals but also that these might be really dangerous to his kids. His wife has recently died in cancer so he realises that some of these chemicals could even be carcinogenic (spoiler alert!- they are).

The obvious benefit with not shopping is that you are not introducing new items and their chemicals into your wardrobe and to your body. If you also consider more environmental friendly washing options (for example avoiding dry cleaning), this will reduce an overall chemical exposure. Shopping second hand, for example for your child, has similar benefits because the clothes have been washed already multiple times which should reduce the chemical content.

One aspect the STINK documentary does not discuss, and which thus is a weakness from a sustainability perspective, is where the chemicals used in production and that result from when we wash our clothes end up: in the environment and in our waters. But I guess you cannot tell all in one and a half hour.  This part of the story has also been brought up elsewhere, for example in the True Cost movie.

A year of no shopping, then what?

It’s been almost 10 months of no shopping and even if I’d wish to, I cannot continue another year without any shopping for my wardrobe at all. There are areas in my wardrobe where there are true needs. Mending, especially the tricks I’ve learnt from Wornvalues, has taken me through the year but after a year of mending my wool stockings I will have to buy new ones next year (anyone can recommend a sustainable brand?).  I also think I could use another pair of boots. One of the benefits of not shopping at all is that you identify needs this way, you discover what you really do wear out.

Still I don’t want to go back to my previous state of buying whatever I feel like as long as it is sustainably produced. There are too many items in my wardrobe. Fashion Revolution & Greenpeace claims that global clothing production has more than doubled since 2000 and that we do not use 40% of the clothing that we buy. I don’t want that to be me.

So lately I have been considering how I will approach my wardrobe, shopping and making next year.  After a lot of thinking, there seems to be a very simple solution. I can follow the ‘buyerarchy’ by Sara Lazarovic (to the left). So this will be my ambition for next year. Whenever there is a need, I will consider first if I can use what I have, borrow, swap, thrift, make or buy, in that order.

There were two other issues I wanted to think about this year during the Slow Fashion October: plastic pollution from textiles and second hand shopping. In terms of the plastic issue, my policy will be to not buy clothes, fabric or yarn with plastic fibers in it (polyester, elastane, lycra etc.). The exception will be recycled plastic fibre (for example for stockings) if necessary. For the clothing I already own with plastic fibers, I’m buying a Guppy Friend bag to wash them in so that they don’t release plastic into our waters.

In terms of the second hand shopping, there will be instances where I will pass over thrift in the buyerarchy and go directly to make. I do think that making new clothing for example out of old garments or left over fabric (what I call second life sewing) is even more sustainable than thrifting clothing. Anybody can buy clothes in the charity shop but making my left over fabric useful, only I can do this.

I also think that my no-plastic policy will make second hand thrifting more difficult. There are so few plastic-free garments out there (although of course there are some). This is also a good reason to keep knitting, as I already do, in non-plastic sustainably sourced yarn. However, knitting is also a lot of fun, so to try to avoid over-production (which after two years of knitting is starting to be an issue) I will try to be even more mindful of how I choose projects. Taking on knitting projects that take a lot of time will be a priority, thereby slowing down my making even further.

Looking forward to a new year and, hopefully, an even more thoughtful wardrobe approach.


Can we really compare meat to fossil fuels?

Many sustainability proponents these days encourage us to become vegetarians. At least once a day there is some article along these lines in my Twitter feed. Unfortunately, there are many arguments circulating in this debate that are quite misleading. The worst error people make, in my opinion, is to equate emissions from cattle with emissions from fossil fuels.

This is simply misleading because these emissions have very different relationships to the carbon cycle. By burning fossil fuels we are adding carbon to the carbon cycle whereas emissions from cattle have a role within the carbon cycle, it naturally belongs there.

Let me explain. We all learnt about the carbon cycle in school and thus we should know that carbon circulates between the atmosphere, to plants, to animals and us humans and is yet again released into the air. Microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi etc. also play a role in this. It is how it should work in nature. Animals have a part to play in this cycle by both storing and releasing carbon in different forms.

Now whereas cattle is part of this normal carbon cycle fossil fuels are not. Fossil fuel is stored away carbon that is suddenly released into the atmosphere through human intervention. Because the natural carbon cycle cannot absorb all this added carbon, a larger portion of it remains in the atmosphere. The natural equivalent is a volcanic eruption. But these days we have constant man-made emissions of such stored away carbon. This way, we add carbon to the atmosphere that was not there before and would not have been released without us. This is indisputable and should really be our focus since we know this for certain.

Now some argue that because we hold cattle as part of our food chain we have affected the carbon cycle by raising more cows than what existed before human intervention, i.e. before animal husbandry. That there are more animals on earth today, and particularly ruminants, is a hypothesis that is difficult to prove. We don’t know exactly how many animals existed before our animal husbandry or how many of these were ruminants, so it is only estimates. Even if there are more ruminants living on earth today, it is not necessarily a problem because cattle also absorbs carbon. Just as us humans, their bodies are partly built of carbon that is released through breathing and when we die etc.

The problem with more ruminants on earth, according to the veggie proponents, is that ruminants release more methane than other animals. Thus we have shifted the carbon cycle towards more methane, they argue. However, the more we learn about methane, it is not really an isolated case of cows as such but methane producing bacteria that we find in all kinds of environments. Moreover, most of these emissions do belong to the natural carbon cycle that was there before us. It is possible that human behavior provide more beneficial environments for these methane bacteria, by raising more ruminants (who release methane) and rice agriculture. But then again, there might have been wild animals and natural swamps before and if so there has not been a significant change. We basically don’t know. There are estimates in both directions.

Acting on very incomplete information on how methane acts is in my opinion risky. Before we start to mess with the methane-producing bacteria in the cow’s stomach (which they are now starting to do), let’s learn more on how it actually operates. And when we do address methane, let’s include all man-made sources such as rice, landfills and wetlands too.

Thus we see that equating fossil fuel emissions to emissions from cattle is misleading. In the case of fossil fuels we know that we have added carbon to the carbon cycle and in these amounts it cannot be absorbed in the cycle (although the oceans have compensated a lot). In the case of cows, we don’t really know whether we have shifted the carbon cycle towards more methane because of animal husbandry. Moreover,  the case is not just about cows but methane producing bacteria that could be affected by many of our activities. We still need to learn much more. So until we do, let’s address the things we know for certain and that are urgent: our red meat habit is pretty stable whereas our flying habits have exploded the last decades.

There’s so much more to say on the subject of climate change and food but I find this to be one of the main points.

On the picture: cow at Lovö Prästgård in the Stockholm area.

Is expensive fashion more sustainable?

You might, as I once did, think that you avoid the sustainability issues in fashion because you don’t shop at H&M, Gina Tricot, Dressman etc.

The short answer is no, expensive fashion is not necessarily more sustainable. Luxury production in Europe should guarantee better working conditions and less chemicals, but only a few luxury brands still produce in Europe. Those who do might only produce certain parts of the collection in Europe. And ‘Made in Italy’ can these days mean made by Chinese in Italy. Even when something is made in Europe, the fabric may be imported. Luxury brands often source their materials from outside of Europe and then we have the issues with conventional cotton and synthetic fibre etc.

There are also environmental issues with the chrome and heavy metals involved in tanning of leather. If you do want a new luxury bag, check where the leather came from, that it can be tracked to sustainable farming, and for vegetable tanning. I found that Swedish brand Palmgrens had a longstanding relationship the Italian farm the leather derived from and used vegetable tanning processes for a certain bag. Thus it’s the last bag I’ve bought, before my current year of no-shopping, and I don’t feel I compromised on design just because I focused on sustainability.

Another issue with luxury brands is that they don’t consider the environmental impact of care. Many put dry cleaning on the care instructions (as on this Ralph Lauren jacket, made in the Philippines) which isn’t environmentally friendly. And, in many cases, the items are better cared for by hand washing. I don’t know how many times the dry cleaner couldn’t remove stains and when I try at home, as a last resort, it works perfectly. Money and chemicals wasted.

The luxury conglomerates seem to lack a thorough understanding of sustainability issues. For example, when LVMH reports on biodiversity, they write about how they finance biodiversity research rather than how they take biodiversity into account in their sourcing of raw materials. Now I am all for funding research, of course, but certain issues we already know a lot about, such as pesticides and biodiversity. We can act on these today.

Similarly, it is admirable that Kering has developed the Environmental Profit and Loss account (which I often teach to students) but more important is how they handle their everyday sustainability challenges. I searched for organic on Kering’s website and only found ‘organic growth’.

Taking the opposite road, many cheap brands are not as diligent about working conditions and where things are made* but are instead rapidly increasing their share of ‘better’ or organic cotton and renewable fibre. They hardly ever prescribe dry cleaning. But then again they don’t make clothes that should last.

Thus while some brands are working on social issues and others focus on some of the environmental, few brands cover all the necessary issues. Those who do are generally those that started their business with a sustainability focus. These brands are generally slightly more expensive than fast fashion but usually much cheaper than luxury brands.

So the answer is no: price is not a good indicator of sustainability.

* The Inditex group (Zara, Massimo Dutti etc. ) is an interesting exception. Around 60% of their suppliers are located in proximity to the headquarters in Spain.

Slow Fashion in memory of Rana Plaza

This week it’s four years since the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh . 2500 workers were injured and 1129 killed when the eight-storey factory collapsed. This event is commemorated with the Fashion Revolution Week each year. Customers and consumers are encouraged to ask their brands ‘who made my clothes?’. Consequently, social media is buzzing with activity and many brands have shared pictures and stories about their production, for example Serendipity Organics and many more (to see the brands and their stories follow @fash_rev on Instagram). Even conventional fashion media, such as British Vogue, report on the activity.

Many of those active during Fashion Revolution Week are also all year round Slow Fashion proponents. Karen Templer of Slow Fashion October did a thoughtful  blog post defining ‘Slow Fashion’ as considering the human, environmental and monetary cost of clothing as well as taking full responsibility for what we own:

By take responsibility, I mean commit to wearing each item (whatever it is, wherever it came from) for as long as it lasts, extending the lives of things through care and mending, and re-homing anything that doesn’t work for you.

Independent pattern maker ‘In the folds‘ organised an Instagram challenge to direct attention to the time and skill it takes to make clothing. Most clothes are still made by hand and it should be valued, whether we do it ourselves or someone does it for us, she argues.

Elisalex of ‘By Hand London‘ made tutorials for Fashion Revolution Week on how to embroider and sew on patches to cover wholes, imperfections or just to make items more fun. The purpose is to make our clothing more useful so that we use what we have instead of buying new or throwing things out. The workers put a lot of effort into making clothing for us, one way to value their work is to give the clothing a long life (find my strategies for doing so here)

It seems to me that the Slow Fashion movement is here to stay. It is starting to have a presence in social media all year round. Fashion Revolution Week keeps the memory of Rana Plaza alive and educates customers and consumers about social responsibility in fashion production. The question is if the brands are changing their ways as fast as their customers are learning about the issues.

The Rana Plaza disaster shouldn’t have happened but it did. Supporting better and safer business practices is one way to commemorate the events.

How businesses handle legal but toxic chemicals

Some might believe that the use of manufactured chemical substances is tightly and safely regulated. Unfortunately it is not necessarily the case. In many cases we do not know yet if something is toxic (for example hormone-disrupting chemicals). In other cases we think it is safe and later find out that it is not. A famous example is the insecticide DDT that not only affected the environment but turned out to be an endocrine disruptor and likely carcinogen. It is prohibited since the 1970s but still found in our bodies and the environment. In certain cases, the company using the substance knows it is dangerous but conceals the information. The latter seems to be the case of Monsanto and glyphosate.

Sometimes businesses are in fact allowed to use substances that are toxic to us and the environment. One current example is PFOS and PFOA. They are water and stain repellent fluorosurfactants, used in all kinds of products. I found it in my water proofing spray for shoes and bags (that I am consequently handing in as toxic waste). They are legal to use. Today, however, we know that they do not degrade and thus accumulate in the environment: in the air, water and our food. They are commonly found in breast milk. In large enough doses it’s toxic and carcinogenic to us. While we are all exposed to it to some degree, the inhabitants of Swedish Kallinge were unknowingly exposed to large doses in their drinking water. Similarly, inhabitants close to DuPont’s factory in West Virginia were exposed to large doses too and developed all kinds of diseases (and successfully sued the company that was aware that it poisoned the water). Dupont has also contaminated the air around a factory in Holland for many years with a similar substance. Swedish environmental radio show Klotet made a very good reportage about these substances this week (in Swedish).

What can we as individuals do? When the substances are out there (and they travel far, for example to the Arctic) we cannot stop them on our own.

However, we can support the companies that voluntarily limit their use of the legal but proven, or potentially, toxic substances.

We can also avoid items that contribute to this pollution, such as teflon, ski wax, stain and water repellent textiles. If we worry about our drinking water, a charcoal filter absorbs PFAS (charcoal filter made a difference in Kallinge ).

Businesses, on the other hand, can learn from the DuPont lawsuits that concealing information about toxicity and contamination is unethical business practice. Even if the substance is legal, they now have to pay for the contamination and health consequences.

Can conscious consumerism change the world?

Last week, I heard from two sources that conscious consumerism, i.e. using your purchases to support good business practices is not enough. In this podcast, Stiv Wilson argues that we need to get political instead. Which is exactly what their organization Story of Stuff is all about. This article by blogger Alden Wicker states it a little more harshly:

“Conscious consumerism is a lie. Small steps taken by thoughtful consumers—to recycle, to eat locally, to buy a blouse made of organic cotton instead of polyester—will not change the world”.

These kinds of arguments are used in two contexts: those that want us to get involved politically instead, as in the above two cases, or those that want to give up, ‘it doesn’t matter anyway’, ‘we can’t change the system’ and so on.

Unsurprisingly, I do believe my purchases matter. I believe in political power too. I also believe I can make a difference with my research and teaching. Basically, let’s use the means that are available to us and with which we are comfortable. Some people are comfortable marching for environmental causes, others are more comfortable changing their purchasing behavior. However, like the politician that argues for public service and then doesn’t pay the tv-licence, it is desirable to try to be consistent.

How could then purchasing behavior make a difference? Will H&M or Varner notice that I am doing a no-shopping year? No, they will not. Most likely we cannot affect H&M and Varner politically either. They are private companies, not states, and they can shop around for the tax and environmental rules that suit them, if they like.

So the impact of purchasing behavior depends on who you are trying to affect and how important your purchases are to them.

My local organic food store in Bergen has only so many customers and I purchase most of my food there. They would notice if I move. The people I purchase food from at the farmers market might notice (Bergen’s farmers market on the picture above) . Based on this fact, I feel quite comfortable telling people to stop buying from the fashion giants (they will not notice) and start buying from small sustainable brands (who will notice). For small businesses, your purchase does make a difference.

At this point, the ‘elitist’ argument usually appears. The small sustainable brands are more expensive. Not everyone can afford to buy all their food at the organic food store. This is absolutely true but it is not an argument against conscious purchasing behavior generally. We who can afford the sustainable brands have a bigger environmental footprint than people with less purchasing power. It is more important that those with the biggest environmental impact and who can afford do change their behavior. Moreover, buying food directly from the farmer is not necessarily more expensive. Second hand stores are terribly cheap.  Most likely, we could all save money by buying less and learning to mend.

But how do we affect the big companies that are larger than states and that we cannot affect by vote or with our individual purchases? I think maybe social movements can play a role here. These companies are at least concerned with trends among customers. How large groups of consumers behave affect their business. Now I might have prided myself in being the only one I know that is on a shopping fast. Getting active on Instagram, however, I soon discovered that there are many more like me. You could even say I am late to the trend. We are not as unique as we might like to believe. If I decide to only buy grass-fed local meat, there are many more like me, acting on similar impulses. Most likely we are already part of some social movement or trend, whether we know it or not. And, as group, how we behave does concern these companies.

So, in my opinion, our consumption does impact the world and if you choose to purchase consciously it will too. This, however, is not an excuse for politicians and companies to not do their job and instead put all responsibility on the consumer’s shoulders (as happens all to often). We have some big challenges, so we all need to do our best.