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.

Home is where the fridge is

Today I went to the funeral of a minister who had been a great support to me early in my ordained ministry.  It was a good, faith-filled celebration of the life of a remarkable man, for whom I’m very thankful.  He had been a frequent visiting preacher at my church in Battersea, which I left in 2006, and there were quite a few people present from that church.  I haven’t seen them for years and it was great meeting up with these old friends (none of whom looked any older, I’m annoyed to say) whilst we gathered to say goodbye to an old friend.

The service was in the village where I grew up.   I caught an earlier train than I needed, so that I could have a nostalgic hour wandering around.  Ewell is an odd place.  Most of it is 1930s housing estates, but the village itself is very historic, being a stopping place on the Romans’ Stane Street.  There are good examples of timber-clad Surrey houses, two former gunpowder mills and this old “Watch House”:

Ewell watch house

As a small boy I liked to be lifted up to look in through the spooky bars into the prison cell.  I did a project on it for a Cub Scout badge.  The door on the right accessed the hand-pumped fire engine.  That is now in the museum, housed in this highly unusual 1960s building, Bourne Hall:

Bourne Hall

We used to go to the library there, and often visit the local history museum upstairs too.  I was pleased to see that the fire engine and Lord Roseberry’s Hansom Cab and some other familiar objects are still there. I enjoyed my afternoon reviving memories …

… and then coming home.

I’ve been surprised how quickly I’ve felt at home in our new house.  If I think about home, home is this house.  Home is not where I grew up, it’s not where my parents live, it’s not anywhere else I’ve lived.  It’s here, where the fridge is.


Here’s a link to a clip of The Boxcars playing their song, “I went back to my old home today” in a back-stage toilet in Tennessee.   (There’s a risk of getting in a muddle, because for me today was more about places and friends, not, as in the song, my parents, even though they’re a big feature in my childhood memories.  I’m glad to say they’re alive and well & it wasn’t time so much as a removal truck that took them away from Ewell.  Anyway, the song still feels appropriate)