For years, we’ve used Ecover washing-up liquid. Ecover was one of the first manufacturers of cleaning products that didn’t contain synthetic chemicals and were widely considered to have a less harmful impact on the environment. Apart from some controversy about daphnia, they avoided animal testing. We refilled our bottles (two of them, bought years ago) at our local independent grocer. Also, it was good washing up liquid, with effective cleaning action and staying power. The toilet cleaner was good too, although we didn’t like the laundry soap. But generally, we were pleased with ethical products that also did their job well.

You’ll notice I’ve been using the past tense. A couple of weeks ago, I went to refill the bottle as usual and noticed that the grocer has switched to a different brand. It’s just not good washing-up liquid, so today I went into a larger shop in Brighton (the amazing Infinity Foods) for Ecover. They didn’t have any. When I asked about it, the assistant said they weren’t stocking it any more since it had been sold to S.C. Johnson. Apparently, that happened in January this year.

S.C. Johnson is a huge manufacturer of cleaning products. They are not known for their environmental ethics and they test some products on animals. So there is now a boycott of Ecover, combined with a letter-writing campaign, in the hope that Johnsons will change their ethics in alignment with Ecover rather than the other way around.

But I feel disillusioned. It seems that small can’t be beautiful for long in our present world. There’s a number of other brands who started off with a great idea that was going to be good for the planet and good for customers and staff, who were successful and then were bought out by some enormous industrial corporate behemoth. Innocent smoothies now belong to Coca Cola. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream was bought by Unilever in 2000, although it still seems to retain ethical independence. Green & Black’s chocolate, founded in 1991 to make organic, fair-trade chocolate, was bought by Cadbury’s in 2005. Cadbury’s in turn was bought by Kraft (now Mondelez) in 2010. Cadbury-branded chocolate is no longer Fair Trade certified, and in 2017 Green & Blacks brought out their first range that is neither organic nor Fair Trade. Even if, as in the case of Ben & Jerry’s, the original ethical vision is allowed to continue, the whole thing seems to me to be compromised by a parent company that doesn’t share that original passion. There’s a danger that the ethics become no more than a selling-point rather than being core values adopted because it’s the right thing to do.

Part of my disillusion is this feeling that small doesn’t work any more. It’s not a new thing, but it’s worrying. Economies of scale lead to a greater distance between the people and the provider. The Co-operative movement in the UK is a good example. The Co-op Bank is no longer a co-op but is owned by private equity and the troubles it experienced that led to this sorry sell-out were, in part at least, due to it being too big. As a Co-op member, I’m asked to vote for people to serve on the board, but I’ve no idea who they are, so I don’t vote. Thus the governance structure of the organisation is weakened and power becomes detached and unaccountable. A local society, where the members know each other, works because everyone is personally invested in the business. It’s the same with Adam Smith’s economic model – in a small market town, competition works brilliantly, but once you expand the size of the market, the customers are more distant, the decision-making is more remote, greed is un-checked, and mergers and acquisitions result in cartels and monopolies. In the church, changes in charity law, an increasing raft of compliance demands, and just the underlying shift from a participative culture to a consumer culture means that denominations and local churches are looking to combine just to survive, but rather than bring new life, this usually seems to hasten the decline.

So what can be done? Well, for starters, I think I’ll write to S.C. Johnson to let them know I won’t be buying their products until they stop animal testing and adopt Ecover’s environmental commitment across their range. I will continue to support my local independent shops, even though it costs more. It might be about time I took my money away from the non-co-op Co-op Bank, although they’re still relatively ethical for a bank – but there are mutuals out there too. And then it’s down to me to be a participant and not a consumer. I need to find ways of keeping myself informed about the products I buy and, because that feels overwhelming, that might incentivise me to keep things simple. Also, it may help remind me that when I use a product, whatever that is, I’m not just consuming it. I’m taking part in a chain of supply that involves people, animals, plants, environment, transport, etc etc, as well as vision and values. I need to resist being privatised and bought.

Alternatively, I could just refuse to do the washing-up, on moral grounds.

7 thoughts on “Washed-up

  1. Another great post, Alex. I did not know about this change regarding Ecover, which I have used in the past to clean my dishes. Right now we are using what (I think) is a smaller, still independent brand called Mrs. Meyer’s. (https://www.mrsmeyers.com/our-story/) I don’ t know if they are distributed in the UK. I was aware of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream being bought by Unilever in 2000, and I am glad to read that “it still seems to retain ethical independence.” I did not know that “Green & Black’s chocolate, founded in 1991 to make organic, fair-trade chocolate, was bought by Cadbury’s in 2005,” nor that “Cadbury’s in turn was bought by Kraft (now Mondelez) in 2010.” Deep sigh. There was a time at my old job when I was buying a bar of G&B chocolate each afternoon to eat and also to share with co-workers who needed a little lift in their spirits/metabolism… One year I calculated (when I was doing totals to prepare my taxes) I spend over a thousand dollars on chocolate bars. Those days are gone. I rarely eat chocolate these days, and I agree that the simpler we make our lives, the fewer difficult choices we have to make regarding which brands are most respectful of the entire web of life on planet earth. Deep breath in. Deep breath out. I wrote a couple of songs while I was camping recently which touch upon the ways that we are all connected (such as the human and non-human beings involved with growing and harvesting and shipping and selling and sometimes preparing our food). Maybe one of them will make it into a future blog post. Please keep reading and writing and thinking and caring!

    1. Thanks, as always, for commenting. I haven’t heard of that brand, but there are a few British-made alternatives & I’ve got one lined up to try when we’ve finished this rubbishy one! I look forward to hearing those songs…

  2. Thanks for this, Alex. I had no idea about the sale of Ecover to Johnson’s and as we use Ecover products fairly extensively both at home and at church this is a real issue for us. I would also like some confirmation from the new owners of Ecover that they are going to uphold the original standards of the company , and otherwise I would also be looking elsewhere. Please do let me know about your letter and who it is best to send it to. Best wishes, Nicky

  3. Good range of info. I hadn’t noticed Cadbury had been fair trade. All very complex. Agree about market towns as seems to work well for small businesses here in our part of Spain. However, supermarket biggies like a Lidl have arrived. And here they stock lots of ‘ ecological’ produce. The word for ‘organic ‘ in Spain.

    1. I hope the arrival of Lidl doesn’t put too much pressure on the smaller shops. Their low prices are hard to argue with, but maybe people will value their culture highly enough to pay something to keep it

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