The scores on our Buyers’ Guides are compiled from ethical ratings, based on in-depth research fed into our database.
To download a comprehensive look into our rating system, click:
Some websites or magazines look at ethical products, but Ethical Living is the only South African organisation that provides fully transparent rankings of the companies behind the brands. Some products might be considered “ethical”, but the company that owns the brand might not be. Isn’t it better to buy a cruelty-free product from a company that doesn’t test its other items on animals, or recycled toilet paper from a firm that isn’t cutting down virgin forests for its other ranges? Using the tables in the magazine or looking deeper into the Buyers’ Guides, subscribers can see which companies own each brand, and their ethical record across all the different categories.
Most of our information comes from previously published sources. These sources include publications and reports by campaign groups like Oxfam, Friends of the Earth and War on Want. We look at the daily newspapers, public records on pollution and health & safety prosecutions and use directories on the defence and nuclear industries. We also request information directly from the companies on their environmental policies and reporting, and other policies, such as their attitude towards animal testing and to workers in their supply factories.
Our ratings cover 19 areas in 5 main categories:
In the 1980s, animal experimentation became a “hot topic” as cosmetics companies testing their products on animals suddenly became a big no no. Even nowadays, the testing of products and ingredients on animals continues, despite the fact that it’s outlawed (for cosmetics and cosmetic ingredients) in many countries. Companies that test products on animals, or have an inadequate policy on animal testing, are criticised here. Other products that also get tested on animals are household products and pet food. We also include animal testing for medical products in this area.
Much of modern farming is industrialised and intensive and can often be termed “factory farming” because of the philosophy of mass production. With this type of farming, many animals are crammed together in the smallest possible space and their health and wellbeing suffers as a result. Animal rights campaigners argue that if we have to farm animals, then we should be treating them with compassion and respect and that these values are incompatible with factory farming methods. Companies that sell factory farmed meat, or products with battery eggs, will be criticised in this category. Organic farming in general is much better for animals and so companies with organic meat and dairy products are not criticised in this area.
Companies that have been accused or prosecuted for cruelty to animals are criticised here. Also found here are activities that might lead to animal suffering – such as zoos and circuses, or using animals to advertise products. It also includes the use of slaughterhouse by-products such as leather and gelatine.
We’ve been asking companies for their environmental policies and reports for years. Initially, if they responded at all, they provided us with vague statements about “minimising impacts”. These days, many companies produce much more detailed reports looking at precise impacts and setting goals for reducing them. We think that all companies need to be looking forward, reducing environmental impacts across all areas of their business. We also think that companies need to have these targets and reports verified by other organisations. The only time we “let companies off” is if they are small or medium sized enterprises aiming to provide environmental or social alternatives, and only if they have a turnover of less than R50 million.
Pollution and toxics
Pollution isn’t just about big oil spills or chemical disasters like the 1984 chemical disaster in Bhopal in India, which claimed the lives of over 10,000 people. There are tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals in regular use in a wide range of products from shampoo to computers. Many of these chemicals can pollute both the environment and our bodies. Some chemicals are known as bio-accumulative, which means that they can stay stored in our body fat, for years. Some chemicals, such as PVC, have a heavy toll on the environment, not just when they’re being produced, but during their lifetime and then later on, when they’re disposed of. Many of these chemicals have been singled out by campaigners such as WWF and Greenpeace as particularly worrying. Some companies are phasing out the use of chemicals but we need to keep the pressure up on those that are lagging behind. Pesticides and herbicides also come under this category. Our Ethical Living Recommendations will always, where possible, be free of harmful chemicals and so will be the healthier alternative, for our bodies, our children and for the environment.
Although the green movement may be split about the necessity of nuclear power, we remain unconvinced. It’s true that nuclear power might be a low-carbon alternative. Yet campaigners argue that nuclear power has intrinsic accident and radiation risks and of course produces nuclear waste, which remains dangerous for thousands of years and which we still don’t know what to do with.
Climate change is no longer theoretical. It’s with us now. We caused it and it’s up to us to do something about it. We all need to do our bit for the environment. Some sectors contribute particularly heavily to climate change. These include the airline industry and industries such as oil industries. Companies making products that have a higher contribution to climate change than other products in the sector (such as cars with low mileage per gallon) will be criticised here, as will companies making misleading claims about climate change.
Habitats and Resources
This category looks to specific environmental destruction or exploitation of habitats and resources – whether it’s palm oil plantations, which threaten the orangutan with extinction, pollution incidents, which kill off marine environments or the wood which hasn’t come from sustainable sources. It’s more important than ever to conserve existing environments and prevent the further extinction of plants and animals. If you want to make sure your shopping doesn’t threaten environments, look out for FSC certified wood and paper, buy recycled paper, and avoid products with palm oil in where you can.
We include companies who have subsidiaries or businesses in countries that we call “oppressive regimes”. This list of countries was last updated in 2011 using research from Amnesty International, Freedom House and the International Centre for Trade Union Rights. Also taken into account are criticisms relating directly to human rights abuses – such as forcing people off their land to build a pipeline or hiring other agencies that have perpetuated human rights abuses.
In 1911, a fire in a garment factory in New York killed 500 workers. The workers were working in inhumane, unhealthy conditions and were poorly paid. You’d think, almost 100 years later that things might have improved, but workers worldwide are still subject to sweatshop conditions. In 2005 a fire in Bangladesh killed 250 people. The doors of the factory were locked so they could not escape. In this category, we include all cases of workers’ abuses – whether it’s being forced to work over 60 hours a week, low wages, cases of harassment or a company ignoring health & safety legislation.
Supply Chain Management
Many of the products that we buy are manufactured overseas in factories that may not even by owned by the company itself. Even so, we think that the companies ought to be responsible for the kinds of conditions those workers find themselves in, so we ask all companies sourcing from overseas to supply us with a “supply chain policy”. This is a document set out by a company detailing how the workers in their supply factories must be treated. Like environmental policies, these used to be documents with broad statements about “abiding by country laws”. Nowadays, the supply chain policy can be a sophisticated document outlining lots of different conditions and may also include results of factory audits. Companies making certified fair trade products will receive a top rating from us in this category. Unfortunately, the existence of a good code doesn’t mean that it is actually being adhered to and so we can find huge contradictions, so that companies with the best policies sometimes receive the most criticisms for workers rights abuses.
This column highlights companies that have marketed their products in a way that has been criticised for causing physical harm, or is detrimental to health. The most famous company that has consistently been criticised in this area is Nestlé which has been criticised for the way that it markets its baby milk products. Other examples of irresponsible marketing include drug companies that have been criticised for putting products on the market even after negative results.
Arms & Military Supply
This not only includes companies that supply weaponry to the armed forces, but also those supplying any goods or services to the armed forces (though the severity of the rating is different). The sale of handguns is also included in this column, which is why you might find a famous US owned supermarket receiving a bad rating here.
Some companies avoid paying tax but make huge profits. Others have been criticised for fixing prices, insider trading or paying bribes. We also mark companies down for “excessive director’s pay” (over R4 million per annum) in this section because we think it’s unethical for directors to receive such large payouts.
Companies may have boycotts called against them for lots of different reasons. At Ethical Living, we report on all the boycotts we receive which have a registered headquarters, although we don’t necessarily endorse them. Some campaign groups think that boycotts aren’t a good idea in case a company withdraws its business from a factory overseas as a result thus causing lots of workers to lose their jobs and livelihood. Others believe they can be very effective. We think it’s up to you where you spend your money.
Some of the world’s leading genetic engineering companies have lobbied their governments for specific trade rules which now govern the cross-border transfer of genetically modified (GM) crops, most notably, patents. Campaigners have argued that patenting crops reduces the ability of poorer farmers to save seeds for future use, as it enables a company to own the rights to re-use seed. These companies have also lobbied against international biosafety standards to govern the potential environmental impact of GM crops in case these standards restrict a company from exporting its GM crops.
We think that companies have too much influence over governments through lobby groups or donating to the parties themselves. There are negative marks for companies that donate money to political parties, or companies involved in persuading governments and institutions, through international lobbying organisations, to change policy.
It is worth rewarding companies for making a positive difference and we therefore have two positive ratings categories:
1. Company Ethos
We reward those companies that demonstrate an ethos committed to sustainability across their whole business.
Back in the 1990s, ethical products tended to be made by ethical companies. These days it’s not so easy to tell what an “ethical” company is, just by the products that it makes. Included are co-operatives or not-for-profit trading structures, fully vegan companies, and those that only sell organic or fair traded products.
2. Product sustainability
Positive marks are awarded to products in a range of different sustainability areas including:
- organic products
- fair trade products
- good energy efficiency ratings
- products certified as vegan or vegetarian