Afloat on a sea of consumer choices

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Sometimes it feels like no matter the choices we make — buying clothes, going out, mowing the lawn (or even having a lawn) — we’re doing something to harm the environment, indigenous group, or some animal species. It’s damn near impossible to make a purchase without discovering it’s had some negative impact on something or someone if you trace what you’ve bought back to its component parts.

However, as people become more aware of the impact of their purchasing choices, some have moved to make more prudent, low-impact buys, whether they need a new pair of shoes or want to buy a box of chocolates.

That’s where Ethical Ocean comes in. Spawned from a discussion during a road trip in 2007 and launched at the beginning of February, Ethical Ocean equips consumers with the tools they need to make ethical buying choices. Think of it as the eCommerce solution to the green, fair trade and organic movements.

The Unknown Studio had a chance to speak with Tony Hancock, one of the minds behind Ethical Ocean over email last week. Originally from Calgary, the 24-year-old mechanical engineer was sent to Malawi in 2007 to work with smallholder farmers for four months. It was there under the heat of the African sun that Tony made the connection between North American buying habits and its impact on people on the other side of the planet.

“So many products we enjoy on a daily basis come from all over the world… Where the things you buy come from, and how they were made really does matter, and really does affect many people in the chain.”

Like many startups, Ethical Ocean came from an idea that would help improve the lives of its founders. Faced with a dearth of smart choices for consumer products, the founding group got together and asked what kind of ethical products they’d like to have access to but couldn’t easily find online — they created a set if categories that their products might fit into: eco-friendly, fair trade, organic, people-friendly, animal-friendly, and social change. You can even shop by your desired category.

“Since then we have tried to broaden the spectrum of products we offer, and vendors are now approaching us themselves,” Tony explains. “We have adopted an ‘open source’ approach to the types of products and vendors allowed on the website. We filter the obvious, but ultimately leave it up to the buyer to vote and comment on the ethics of everything on the site. This is important in a field where ‘right’ is not always as written in black and white (or green for that matter).”

Discussion is key to the Ethical Ocean business model. The site invites vendors and consumers to share their thoughts on different products by way of site and product comments.

“A strong community surrounding discussion on ethics is essential for buyers and sellers alike. I can honestly say the things I’ve learned personally about certain subjects like ethically sourced coffee or T-shirts along the way have been eye opening and empowering,” Tony says. “We believe strongly in community moderated content, and our biggest influence on discussions will be to plant the seeds for a fair and equitable discussion space.”

With so much information out there to help consumers make smart and ethical choices, it’s easy to get down on yourself if not everything you buy is 100 per cent organic, animal-friendly or otherwise ethical. Tony believes that moving toward ethical buying is a process one continually works at, seeking out ever-changing information and making choices aimed at benefitting people and the planet.

And in spite of dire warnings of the impeding collapse of our ecosystem or of humankind, Tony takes a fighter’s attitude to the doomsaying.

“I really think it’s irrelevant whether we are ‘screwed’ or not, whether we are able to change our ways in time or not,” he says. “I’d rather ‘go down swinging’, so to speak. Do I think there will be serious consequences if we continue to live the way we are currently living? Absolutely. Do I think we can turn things around? Yes.

“We have our work cut out for us, but I continue to be an optimist.”

And if Ethical Ocean can help buoy other ethical purchasing websites or offline properties, Tony feels it’s been worth it.

Besides, ethical choices or not, he has big dreams. In 15 years, Tony sees himself “on a beach in the Polynesian islands (which have not been flooded by rising seas) sipping a mojito (made with fair trade sugar of course).”

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  1. uberVU - social comments - March 1, 2010

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by bingofuel: In case you missed it, did a story on an “ethical” online store called Ethical Ocean: #yeg #yyc…