Our print guide has been out and about since February 2008 and in that time we’ve had great feedback. Most has been positive, with most of the major criticisms being from people who – like us – are committed to ‘tangible change’ and think that we haven’t gone far enough.
We’re encouraged by people using the guide, but even more so by people actually asking the questions as to why certain products are rated over others, and giving feedback in the light of what they know.
We’ve tried to give adequate responses to these questions and the others that have come to us.
How up-to-date is your data?
Our database is updated on a daily basis, and these updates are shown on the website instantly. In 2020 we introduced a new feature in the app which streamlines the update process. Now, when you open the app, it automatically checks for updates, and if one is available the app updates itself. The data in our app is updated every month or two.
The database is currently (2021) in the best shape it’s ever been in, (thanks in part to covid lockdown freeing up our time). While we don’t have a “last updated” feature for our company profiles, if you look at individual assessment items for any given company, you can see the year it was last updated (or the year the relevant report was issued). Over 50% of our assessment data is dated 2019 or more recent.
How can you have 'Ethical' supermarket purchases? Isn't this an 'oxymoron' given the large and generally exploitative practices of supermarkets, especially in Australia?
According to Wikipedia, ethical consumerism/shopping is: “buying things that are made ethically. Generally, this means without harm to or exploitation of humans, animals or the natural environment”. Whether this can ever be achieved by shopping at a supermarket for goods that are mass produced, as part of a system where profit is the primary motivator, is of course a key question.
It’s worth noting that the goal of the guide is to reach a mainstream audience with some new criteria for purchasing their everyday essentials. Many people use the supermarket and will continue to do so, so we hope to introduce them to some criteria along side ‘cost’ and ‘convenience’ which are the primary motivators of most purchases. I’m the first to admit it is a very ‘light-green’ approach, and we see it as a starting place for people. I suggest that the way to live more ethically is to start to engage with the issues one by one, and then changing your behaviour to reflect a responsible approach. Ultimately this may mean avoiding the supermarket totally, which would be the ideal – right now it is the place we are encouraging people to move towards.
The first step is to ask “Do I need this product?”
Why have you focused on 'company record'? Isn't this just one criteria amongst many? Can you give a ranking to products based on their features as well as their company track-record?
The guide’s focus is on company track record. It’s one aspect of the whole picture of a product that is ‘not on the label’. Some of the many criteria to use when seeking for a more ethical purchase are outlined in the centrespread of the guide (and here) and throughout it as information blurbs.
We’d love to more comprehensively cover products and their features, and this is the goal of the wider project. However this is a large task given the huge amount of products – each with various features. We’ve sought to address this with the ‘Outstanding product features’ star – giving a preference; and also pointed out common features for products types. We’re looking for people who are interested in helping in the expansion of the content of the project.
Isn't the rating system a little simplistic? The guide relies on information from secondary sources, which may be incompatible with each other!
It’s a very simple rating system. We recommend avoiding from companies with a negative record, and then choosing the best of those left. At the most basic level we are simply trying to give people tools to assist in making a better choice – a way of distinguishing a preference. It is true that such a comparison is comparing ‘apples’ with ‘oranges’ as ratings are calculated from assessments covering a wide range of ethical considerations. In the light of this we encourage users to use the ratings for a broad comparison, but also follow the assessment links to the sources themselves, and shop according to what they value. We are working on a system to allow users to filter results and so ‘customise’ the rating to better match what they value. See an example with Electronics here.
Unfortunately some large companies seem to rate well, given their resources to put in place sustainability measures. This is a distinct limitation of the methodology. We would recommend buying from smaller, local businesses in preference to larger foreign owned ones.
What is your definition of “Australian Owned?
Our definition of ‘Australian owned’ is more than 50% owned by Australian based organisations. This is related to where the company is registered and where they pay tax. Australian based subsidiaries of foreign owned companies are not ‘Australian-owned’. By supporting Australian owned businesses over foreign-owned, we channel money into the local (Australian) economy rather than overseas. This supports infrastructure here. Additionally operations in Australia are more likely to conform to requirements for fair wages and conditions.
What is your criteria for including products in the guide?
Basically they are the ‘common brands’ found in major retail stores, such as supermarkets.
Why don't you include supermarket house-brands?
We haven’t covered house-brands throughout our guide because it’s extremely difficult to find good / comprehensive information on who manufactures specific house-brand products. The best we’ve come across is a general directory, the Private Label Manufacturers Association directory, which is a list of companies and services that fulfill private label requirements. It gives some indication of who the major suppliers are.
If we did list house-brands throughout our product tables, the same brands would be appearing again and again. Using our current methodology these brands would be listed under Woolworths or Coles (Wesfarmers). Coles and Woolworths both receive criticisms for owning poker machines, among other things. See more on Supermarkets in Australia.
You can find our listing of all the main supermarket house-brands here.
Generally we don’t recommend house-brands as they (1) do not disclose who supplies the product – you don’t know ‘where your dollar is going’, and (2) channel money to the big supermarket chains. Australia has one of the most concentrated grocery markets internationally, with the two top players, Coles and Woolworths, accounting for over 80% of grocery sales in Australia. House-brands are the cheapest option however cheap always comes at a cost to growers (See Four Corners ‘Price that we pay‘, August 2008). We encourage support for local manufacturers where possible.
Sometimes when options are limited, house brands may be the best alternative. If you are buying house brands, and if supporting local manufacturing in Australia or reducing your food miles is important to you, we recommend you check the house brand label to see where it is made and choose ‘Product of Australia’ as best choice, ‘Made in Australia’ as next best, and ‘imported’ as last preference.
We are considering ways to make our position on house-brands clearer.
How do you rate companies in regards to animal testing?
Any company listed on PETA’s list of “Companies that do test on animals” receive a full criticism.
Why haven't you included animal welfare concerns to do with dairy farming (such as bobby calves) as an 'Industry Alert'?
Common industry practice in the dairy industry is to send male calves off to slaughter at five days old. This practice has been criticised by animal welfare group and has come into the media of late with RSPCA’s campaigning against an industry proposal to let calves heading for slaughter go unfed as a cost cutting means (Weekly Times, SMH). Find out more details at RSPCA – What happens to Bobby Calves.
Other concerns relate to the removal of calves from their mothers, which is also part of standard industry practice and in the present system essential for dairy production.
We have flagged the bobby calves issue on the product type comparison pages for products that are predominately dairy (butter, cheese, milk, milk power, flavoured milk, yoghurt, ice cream. cottage cheese, cream custard) but have not flagged this as an Industry Alert. We could have gone either way on this but with the goal of introducing issues in a way that allows people to take on one issue at a time and dairy being such a major part of people’s daily foods we have chosen to note it, but not emphasise it as an Industry Alert.
If this issue is important to you, we suggest choosing products from companies that have animal welfare on their agenda, such as
- How Now Dairy whose mission is to rid the world of Bobby Calves. Here they explain how ‘kind milk’ is starting a revolution.
- Elgaar Farms – a biodynamic farm in Tasmania (see organic standards, and biodynamic standards). See Elgaar Farms response to our email as to their Animal Welfare practices.
- Barambah Organics, based in Queensland, who have a policy that involves keeping all bobby calves.
Of course a great option to avoid the many issues associated with dairy farming is to go dairy free. If you’re thinking about going vegan, remember to pay special attention to getting enough iron, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 in your diet. Here’s some product alternatives from Animals Australia.
I heard product 'X' product contains palm oil. Why do they not receive a criticism for this?
Due to inadequate labeling laws and a lack of comprehensive information on which products contain palm oil, we don’t give criticisms for palm oil use.
It is not always easy to identify products with palm oil. Under Food Standards Australia New Zealand requirements, it is sufficient to have vegetable oil in the list of ingredients on the packet, even though the product contains palm oil. As a rule of thumb, if the saturated fat content is about 50%, there is a good chance that the vegetable oil will in fact be palm oil.
If we added criticisms for all companies who had palm oil in their products, almost every company would get a cross, making it difficult to distinguish between companies on other issues. (For example in margarines, Melrose is the only one that does not have a palm oil derivative).
In recent years a number of palm oil scorecards have been published by various NGOs (WWF, Rainforest Foundation UK, Greenpeace and the Union of Concerned Scientists). These have all been included in our company assessment data and they contribute to company ratings.
The best resources for finding products that don’t contain palm oil are the Palm Oil Investigations app, and the ‘Helping you buy responsibly’ section on the BOS Australia website at www.orangutans.com.au
Find out more about the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) and its signatories, including Unilever, H.J. Heinz, Nestlé, Johnson & Johnson and Cadbury. See more. Note that the RSPO has been criticised by many groups including Friends of the Earth as a way to make the palm oil industry look ‘responsible’ or ‘sustainable’ without actually reducing deforestation. “…it does not halt the expansion of damaging oil palm plantations and it does not benefit local communities. Basically it fails to deal with the causes of the palm oil problems” – Friends of the Earth International Agrofuels Campaign Coordinator Torry Kuswardono from Indonesia.
Why is the Ethical Consumer Group working with Outware Mobile on the Shop Ethical! iPhone app?
For some years we had been asked by people if an app for mobile devices was in the pipeline. In mid-2009 Outware Mobile approached us having used the print and web guide and, after some discussion, offered to build the app as a collaborative project (our data, their app development) with no up front charges. We saw this as a way to make the guide available to people in new way, and also give this relatively new business an opportunity to showcase their skills in a positive way.
It has been noted that Outware Mobile produced an iPhone app for the Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival, commissioned by News Limited. Outware Mobile points out that ‘SuperRacing app is not a gambling app but rather a form guide to the spring racing carnival races. Apple does not allow gambling apps into the appstore’.
Where does the $5 charged for your Shop Ethical! app go to?
Apple/Google take 30%, as they do for all paid apps, the app developer (Outware) gets 35%, and we (Ethical Consumer Group) get the remaining 35%.
While we would love to make the Shop Ethical! app free, we need to charge for it as it is one of our main sources of income, along with print guide sales. This income allows us to continue to do what we do, and be independent from commercial interests.
We also consider it to be a reasonable amount given it’s a once-off purchase and the nature of the guide is ‘exploring the real cost of our everyday purchases’.