Cosmetics, Netflix and Climate Change — why is it so hard to do the right thing?
Every morning my partner (in business and life) and I go for a walk around the neighbourhood to get some exercise and, more importantly, to talk.
We discuss all kinds of things. We talk about things that affect us directly, and we talk about a bunch of much bigger issues, things relating to the industry we work in, the products we buy, politics and so on and so on.
One of this morning’s topics was cosmetics. It was top of mind because of an article we both saw relating to the exploitation of mica miners in northern India. (Mica is an important ingredient in cosmetics and much of it is sourced from unregulated small-scale mining operations that feature child labour, life-threatening working conditions and poverty level remuneration for miners.)
It’s extremely disturbing to know that a multi-billion-dollar industry like the cosmetics industry largely ignores the plight of these people and that the issue hasn’t yet caught the attention of the buying public.
Ticking the ethical boxes
But then my partner went on to talk about how difficult it is for her to buy cosmetics that tick all the ethical boxes.
Exploitation of artisanal miners in a developing country is just one of a host of possible issues. Many other ingredients have questionable provenance. And then there’s animal testing, pollution, packaging and efficacy to think about.
It seems it’s really, really difficult to find a product in this category (and many others) that doesn’t have at least one black mark against it. And often, even if it does rate well, it may not perform in the way you need it to — perhaps causing skin irritation or having some other negative affect.
The Good Place nailed it
In my opinion the comedic Netflix program, The Good Place, nailed it when, in the course of the series, they examined what it takes to be a good or bad person.
I don’t think I’ll be giving too much away by revealing this part of the series’ story line. In short, the story goes there’s a Good Place and a Bad Place and everyone winds up in one or the other when they die.
Entry to the Good Place is contingent upon earning enough points to avoid winding up in the Bad Place. (Points being earned by doing good things.)
Unfortunately, it turns out that earning enough points to gain entry to the Good Place is essentially impossible because, as the protagonists discover, there is an overwhelming number of negative consequences attached to what appear to be harmless or ‘good’ choices.
As a result, no one, despite their very best intentions, is able to earn enough points to make it into the Good Place.
This is not too far removed from reality — at least not from a climate change perspective.
Is it possible to make a buying decision without negative consequences?
Is it possible to make a buying decision without it having a negative affect on someone or something somewhere? Maybe? I don’t know. But somehow I doubt it.
It seems to me that even with the best of intentions, it’s almost impossible to purchase anything that doesn’t require you to make some kind of compromise (which might even include choosing something that doesn’t work very well).
In our industry, the jewellery industry, we see it every day. Typically, we advocate recycled products (metals and gemstones) as being the best for the planet, but in so doing we could be taking away potential income for desperately poor people in any number of places.
But then when we go down the mine-origin path, there are all kinds of negative consequences attached to that industry — environmental and social.
There is no easy answer and someone or something always loses out somewhere.
What’s this got to do with climate change?
I’m entirely speculating here, but I wonder if, when it comes to climate change, the majority of thoughtful consumers feel like the main players in The Good Place. That it’s a no-win situation, it’s all too hard, and what difference can they make anyway?
After all, every good, well-intentioned decision you make can be spun around and looked at from a different angle to make it seem like a bad one.
Choose an electric car and you could be supporting the exploitation of cobalt miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo and increasing greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired electricity generation?
Keep your fossil-fuel powered vehicle to save on the carbon cost of replacing it with a new one and live with the negatives attached to internal combustion and the petro-chemical industry?
Buy a cosmetics product that’s cruelty free, affordable and actually works for you, but perhaps compromise on the packaging that might be excessive and non-recyclable?
It seems there’s almost always a downside, no matter which way you look at it.
Is there an answer?
Frankly, when it comes to the “there’s always a downside” nature of things, I think the best any of us can do is decide what’s important to us and then live our decision.
If you care most about people, then make your choices based on what is likely to give the best outcome to the people you care most about (whether that’s next door or in another part of the world).
If you care most about the environment, choose products that do the least amount of direct harm.
And if you care most about animals, then again, do what you believe to be the best for them.
That’s as much as any of us can do.
The good news is when we choose a product that has been thoughtfully brought to market, they almost always rate well across most other categories we might be concerned about.
The worst we can do however, is to not care.
The worst we can do is to not give a damn about who might’ve died to put a diamond on your finger or about how much landfill Company X creates because they don’t offer sustainable alternatives.
Not caring is what got us to where we are today.
Self-interest is not part of the solution
If you’re the kind of person who puts personal profit above everything else, then you are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
There are already tens of millions of people around the world who have the right to put self-interest first — those who struggle to put a roof over their heads and don’t know where their next meal is coming from. They get to do what ever is necessary to survive.
If, however, you’re in the fortunate position to have a device on which to read this and the necessary internet connection and electricity supply to go with it, then caring only about yourself and your immediate family to the exclusion of all else isn’t a morally defensible position.
You already make choices every single day that have both positive and negative outcomes for the planet and its people.
What the rest of us simply ask is that you start making conscious choices to do more good than bad. That’s all.