Friday, November 30, 2007

Sarah Irving - Ethical Consumer magazine

How old are you?

What’s your occupation and who do you work for?
Writer and researcher, Ethical Consumer magazine

How long have been doing this?
Since 1999, with a break in the middle

What is it about your job that makes it ethical?
Firstly, Ethical Consumer’s main purpose is to research what companies do to the environment, human rights, animal welfare and on issues like GM and political donations – whether it’s good or bad, and then make that information as widely available as possible. We do that by producing Ethical Consumer magazine and a consumer information website called, and providing information for companies and charities who want to know more about the ethics of their suppliers and sponsors.
Secondly, Ethical Consumer as an organisation tries to operate as ethically as possible. We’re a workers’ co-op, which means that everyone gets a say in how things are run. We work from a co-operatively-run workspace in a social housing building. We use renewable energy, print the magazine on recycled paper using environmentally-friendly inks, and generally try to think through the implications of our sourcing and policy decisions.

What’s the best bit about your job?
Hearing about real changes that people have made because of information they’ve had from us – whether it’s one person choosing to buy ethical products at home, or an entire company deciding to switch to selling only energy-efficient white goods.

What’s the worst thing?
All the really depressing information we have to read through about appalling things that companies do, whether it’s the conditions for child labourers picking cotton in Uzbekistan, or Kettle Chips hiring union-busters in Britain, or the amount of companies that still depend on selling us cheap flights that are destroying the planet.

What have the last 12 months been like for you?
Hard work – we’ve had a lot more consultancy work in, which is great because it reflects the growing interest in information about company behaviour and sustainability, and hopefully people will act on what they know.

What were you doing before this?
I’d quit my job at a bookseller and had spent the previous year travelling and doing volunteer work with various groups, including the Women’s Environmental Network.

What was your very first full-time job?
A bookseller at Blackwell’s.

What advice would you give to someone wishing to embark on the same sort of work as you?
Get some proper solid skills, whether it’s computer skills, bookkeeping, design – the ‘ethical’ sector is full of people like me who had some vague humanities degree and had done some volunteering. What will set you apart will be having some practical use, rather than a history degree and a desire to do good. I wouldn’t have hired me as I was eight years ago!

Have you got any plans for the next 12 months you’d like to share with us?
Sleep. Plant the heritage variety apple trees I have on order from Keeper’s Nursery. Get married! And at work, help to launch our revamped new website next year.

What do you do to relax?
Read Barbara Kingsolver or Ahdaf Soueif books, get muddy on my allotment, or eat chocolate in front of Sex & The City DVDs. Sometimes drink tequila and dance, but I don’t seem to be able to do that as often as I used to!

Who do you live with?
My fiance Marc, an NHS physiotherapist, and my cats Delilah (large, black & white) and Cassidy (blue-eyed and slinky with 3 legs)

Whereabouts do you live?
Moss Side in Manchester

If you were Prime Minister, what’s the very first thing you would do?
Implement personal carbon rationing, so that if rich people find it so important to be able to live in big expensive houses, fly on a weekly basis and drive gas-guzzling cars they have to pay out really serious money to do it. Making air travel expensive is often portrayed as a matter of making ordinary families unable to get their one holiday in the sun. Actually, most cheap flights are taken by affluent people who fly regularly for things like weekend breaks in Europe or even, nowadays, the Gulf or USA. That’s really unacceptable and it has to stop.

As cheap and easily available oil is expect to run out in the next couple of decades, what do you think will be the predominant form of transport in 2027?
Bicycles, I hope! Maybe if there are more of them around, there will be market incentives to develop really good rainwear for cyclists, too.

Have you got any guilty carbon secrets?
I really, really need to replace our probably hideously inefficient old boiler

What have you done that you were most proud of?
Some of the things in the answer to ‘what’s best about your job,’ but also some of the things I did when I was doing voluntary human rights work in Palestine. I played a really small role, but I know for a fact that there’s at least one guy, who has young kids, who is still alive because I happened to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right information. That’s a pretty amazing feeling.

What single issue are you most concerned about in the world at large?
The ones that really grab me personally are violence against women and the Palestinian people’s struggle for their rights, but on a global scale nothing tops climate change at the moment, because if we don’t address this, and soon, nothing else is going to matter anyway…

Which person in the public eye do you most admire and why?
Journalist Robert Fisk for his integrity and willingness to say deeply unfashionable things, and writer Barbara Kingsolver for writing about the world’s problems and possible solutions to them in a sane and profoundly beautiful way.

What’s your website address?

What are your three favourite other websites of the moment?, because it makes ethical living fun and fresh, because it gives amazingly useful, practical information about getting to all sorts of places on trains – and I can use it to plan a non-flight honeymoon to Morocco! because I visited this maker of organic, fair trade ice-cream recently and was really inspired by their holistic approach to running a financially and environmentally sustainable business. They’ve installed renewable energy generation on-site and really think in-depth about animal welfare, as well as making absolutely gorgeous fair trade, organic product product itself.

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