While the recent spate of climate strikes would have focused our attention on our environmental footprint, i.e. the effect that we have on our environment, we should also consider our ethical footprint.

Our ethical footprint considers how much of an ethical consumer we are. An ethical consumer seeks to buy products which are friendly to both the environment as well as the people who produce them. Such a consumer would be aware of the multifaceted consequences of production, consumption and disposal.

Essentially, ethical consumerism requires us to be knowledgeable and aware about how the products we consume are being made and sold. We might also develop expectations on how we expect companies to behave and expect companies to conform to such ethical standards.

A breakdown of ethical standards

When companies seek to focus on personal gains and the ambitions of a few instead of balancing the interests of all its stakeholders, this can lead to a breakdown of ethical standards. Such a breakdown is a violation of trust which can hurt producers, consumers and even ultimately tarnish the reputation of the company itself.

In 2015, Volkswagen was under tremendous pressure to take over Toyota as the largest automaker. The company opted against competing in the hybrids market and elected to build diesel cars in the US. However, diesel cars produce more pollutants.

To meet the leadership’s demand of success, the Volkswagen engineers installed cheating software in cars exported to the US. The software recognised when the car was being tested for emissions and activated emissions-controlling devices that would have inhibited performance on the road.

When these defeat devices were found out, consumers lost faith in the automobile manufacturer and its stock price plummeted. Many leaders and senior managers who had previously benefited from the good sales in the US were either fired or suspended. Meanwhile, there had been many doctored cars that had generated unhealthy levels of pollutants running on US highways.

Minerals in the Congo

If being an ethical consumer requires that you become aware and knowledgeable about the products you are buying, how do you continue being one when it is so difficult to gain information about the ethical behaviour of the companies?

Many countries which are rich in natural resources tend to suffer from a resource curse. This is a paradoxical phenomenon where such countries experience stagnant economic growth or even economic contraction, or where the people experience poor socio-economic conditions.

Conflict minerals are metals and other commodities which are mined using child or slave labour, or in dangerous conditions. For instance, cobalt is a grey metal that is used to make rechargeable batteries found in our cell phones and laptops. These conflict materials are heavily mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where many children and teenagers labour in slavery.

If the mine collapses, then it is simply forgotten and the companies move onto other mines. It is also not an infrequent sight to discover the bones of another labourer. These mines are particularly dangerous during the rainy seasons, when the damp earth is crumbly and miners are left at the mercy of carbonic gas or risk being crushed inside the cavernous mines.

Such news do not tend to be reported as headlines throughout the world, thus impeding the consumer’s access to such information. Even if it were, the consumer who wishes to be ethical would find it close to impossible to keep up with the many parts that each individual device uses.

Even if we considered how our food gets to our plate, we would have to consider many intermediaries and it remains highly unlikely that we can trace down every single source. Does it make it pointless, then, to consider our ethical footprint? Or, can we take steps to lighten our ethical footprint and hope for the best?

Watch this YouTube video to see how being ethical and environmentally friendly can benefit the tourism industry

Questions for further personal evaluation: 

  1. Do you think it is hopeless to consider your ethical footprint? Why or why not?
  2. How do you think we can encourage companies to develop ethical leadership practices? What is the value to the business, the environment and the consumers?

Useful vocabulary: 

  1. spate’: a large number of similar things or events appearing in quick succession
  2. paradoxical’: seemingly absurd or self-contradictory

Here are more related articles for further reading:

  1. The Guardian: Reducing your ethical footprint

Know where your money is being invested

When you have money in your account, it doesn’t just sit there. Banks use it to make loans and investments – and you’re usually not told where it’s going. So, it might alarm you to know big Australian banks invested $7 billion more in fossils fuels than renewables in 2016

They’re not your only option, though. Joining thousands of others who want to make sure their money is used ethically doesn’t even have to cost you any extra. Use websites like Market Forces to find more transparent information about the way financial orgs invest or step up and ask the question to your bank directly. Movements such as Clean Money are helping people like you skip the harmful investments and instead choose banks that support community renewable energy, not-for-profits and community housing projects, meaning you can feel good about where you’re stowing your hard-earned cash.


  1. Al Jazeera: Understanding those who suffer from the conflict in Congo

Each miner charges about a dollar for 14 hours of work. The foreman earns around 10 percent of the total received by his crew – usually about $14. Then the local strongman will take his cut. And it rarely matters who that strongman is – as the power shifts in the long-running battle to control the mines and minerals, one strongman simply replaces another.

In North Kivu there are between 5,000 and 6,000 Congolese rebels spread among 30 armed groups. In addition to racial hatred, they are motivated by a desire to control the mineral zones – and will massacre entire villages in an effort to do so.

A trafficker who buys the already screened mineral at the foot of the mine will multiply its value when he leaves it at the border with Rwanda or Uganda under cover of darkness. By the time the coltan arrives in the manufacturing districts of Shanghai or Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, its market price is between $476 and $544 a kilo.

But while a dark web of large multinational companies, corrupt officials and unscrupulous states participate in the ancient game of looting the DRC, an increasing number of firms, according to the annual list published by the NGO Raise Hope for Congo, are now meeting protocols designed to ensure that they do not use so-called conflict minerals in their products.