Book Review: The Good Shopping Guide: Your guide to shopping with a clear conscience

There are certain books which once you pick them up you cannot put them down again; they scream for attention and compel the reader to finish them before even thinking about starting anything else. The Good Shopping Guide is not one of them. This reference book, intended as a consumer how-to-be-good-to-your-neighbour bible, is hard-going from the outset.
The stated goal of this book is to help the reader to “make informed decisions about what consumer brands are best for the planet, best for animals and best for people everywhere”. This is a worthy aim but the coupling of a friendly and helpful format with the seriousness of the issues that it addresses is somewhat jarring. Do consumers really want to get their information about the way in which the products they buy are manufactured from brightly coloured tables with helpful symbols to distinguish the ‘goodies’ from the ‘baddies’?
Although a great deal of research has gone into the classification of these high-profile manufacturers by the Ethical Consumer Research Association (ECRA), the reader would never know. A list of the reports published by the ECRA on which this book is based is provided, but without footnoting or referencing it appears that we are expected to take it on faith that Budweiser operates in oppressive regimes but has a good record for workers’ rights, or that Knorr tests on animals in an unethical way. This for me is the most disappointing aspect of the book: it offers only a snapshot of a select bunch of companies (granted they are the most popular ones) and gives the reader a report on their performance according to certain categories which are so broad as to confuse. Even the explanation contained in the introduction of how the companies are classified is general enough to leave the discerning reader with plenty of questions.
However I must admit that The Good Shopping Guide does in fact have something to contribute to the debate about ethical production and consumption. Readers should not make the mistake I did in attempting to read it cover to cover. Instead, it is best to leaf through it and to select a page a random. If the content of that page intrigues you – for example, why is Teacher’s whiskey classified as engaging in very irresponsible marketing? – the internet must be the next port of call. The ECRA maintain a free online database which allows the public to access information on the behaviour of almost 20,000 corporations (although detailed information requires a subscription), but this kind of information is also available from other sources like the Fairtrade Foundation or Genetically Manipulated.
The Good Shopping Guide aims to merely stimulate the reader to think critically about where the products he or she buys come from and how they are produced. Not a guide to be slavishly followed, it instead points the way to more careful consideration of the effect which the choices we make on the high-street have on the rest of the world and empowers the consumer by focusing on the premise that making small changes (like switching brands) can have global effects.