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.