It’s complicated


Which one is most ethical?

A couple of things over the past week have got me thinking about ‘doing the right thing’. First, I received a message from an acquaintance asking me about ethical knitting yarn. Since I’ve written extensively in the past about yarn ethics, I’m often asked for advice. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to give a straight answer. My preferences are based on my own morals as well as a knowledge of the sorts of fibres that actually ‘work’ for making different items. However,  we all have different perceptions of what is ‘ethical’ so my choices won’t be the same as everyone else’s. Anyway, I was able to provide lots of facts, suggestions and opinions, and the enquirer went away to do some thinking and research. Unfortunately finding reliable facts is a minefield in its own right, so it’s only possible to make a partially informed decision in the end at best.

The second thing was a news story, namely that the new Bank of England £5 notes are made using tallow, an animal product in the production of the polymer coating. This has led to a great deal of outrage being reported in the media and quite a bit on social media too. However, another acquaintance of mine who is a strict vegan has suggested that there are more important things in the world to get upset about. He mentioned the presence of animal products in a whole range of everyday and pretty-much-unavoidable materials.


it’s enough to drive you to drink!

Because I’m nether vegetarian nor vegan, I’ve never really considered whether there are animal by-products in the objects around me, but the debate piqued my interest and I found several articles mentioning the presence, or potential presence, of tallow in polyethylene. Animal fats may also be present in cosmetics, soaps, detergents, candles and crayons, but I knew about all these so it’s animal fat in the production of plastics that is most interesting to me, because I wasn’t previously aware of it. This means that there are all sorts of everyday objects that purist vegans and vegetarians may want to avoid – pvc seat covers, plastic shopping bags, raincoats, shoes, condoms (it’s in some latex too)… you get the point.


However, the amounts are tiny (measured in parts per million rather than percentages) and so, maybe it’s ok to ignore? And it’s not always used in plastic production. Again, it surely depends on your own moral compass and where you draw the line. Again, however, we return to the fact that the issue is complex and that finding information about a particular object or material is likely to be extremely difficult – components of your plastic shoes may have been made using animal products, but how on earth would you find out?

I suppose that where I’m going with this  ramble is that we live in an extremely complex world, where making completely informed decisions is just not possible. However, the simpler a product, in theory, the easier it is to make that informed decision, right? Well, up to a point, but I invite you to read Leonard E. Read ‘s 1958 essay I, Pencil and then tell me it’s easy…

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  1. I agree that it’s difficult to be ethical in everything. Right now, I’m doing tons of research on acrylic paints. Since they are essentially petroleum products, I want to find the most Eco-friendly manufacturers as well as the most environmentally safe way to work with them (mainly disposal). As far as the tallow being used in money and other products, I doubt animals are being killed specifically for their fat; it’s simply a by-product of leather and meat and dairy production, and so maybe a bit better than just tossing the fat away and being wasteful. it’s a complicated world and you need to pick your battles, but educating yourself (and supporting farmers dedicated to fair treatment of animals) is the first step.

  2. Add to that not knowing where all the components of a product are actually made prior to assembly. A shoe could be made in 3-4 different countries that have laws about what materials can and can’t be used.

    You don’t eat money, shoes or plastic bags, making it easier to just seek out products that demonstrate ethical manufacturing practices. I’m not vegetarian or vegan, so take this for what it’s worth.

    • I’m really just pondering all this as I’m not averse to using animal products. Like Tammie, I think it’s good to use every bit of an animal, so by-products should be used

  3. It’s a very complex and quite tricky world we inhabit – as previous commenters have pointed out, knowing what is in anything we buy that is commercially made and sold for profit is often impossible – especially when the heat is on, manufacturers hide much beneath a cloak of scientific terminology, numbers and name changes. When the going gets tough a re-brand is easy! You have to pick your battles and I agree that when an animal is killed, using all the components is preferable to wastage.

    In the end, I am a fan of being informed, I think that is a basic human right. I want to make my choices based on what is acceptable and not acceptable to me – we should all be able to do that!

    • Yes, I agree – I’d much rather have the information available. One of my pet hates is ‘greenwash’: being told that something is environmentally sound purely for marketing reasons gggrrr!

  4. I had a similar dilema when i recieved a PETA survey and one of the questions was is it ever ethical to use animal fur in clothing.. and i started to think of one of my ecology lessons, which used the example of the dear in epping forest which have to be culled by humans in order to manage there numbers.. and i think if an animal has to be culled then is it not best to avoid wastage and so the meat should be eaten and the hyde and fur used, rather than wasted and burnt on a fire? And then there is the question which a permiculture lesson raised on sustainability and carbon foot prints, and the impact of food we eat and what is more sustainable… all i can say is … Attending ecology and permiculture lessons has just left me with huge questions, and massive guilt trips, when i cant afford to buy organic, local grown products and the slugs have eaten my veg patch. 🙂

    • Sorry! What’s really important is that you are thinking about the issues… and that way you can make better decisions even if they are not the ones you consider ideal.

  5. I’m not trying to be provocative here, but aren’t we all made of atoms that at some point have been part of something else? Are we not every day using things, eating things which at some point may have been part of another living entity, whether we can trace their provenance or not? Obviously if I was not a meat eater, and I wished to respect animals in a more all-embracing way than I do now (by wasting as little of them as possible), I’d prefer not to have large amounts of animal product in the things I used day-to-day. But where, I wonder, do we draw the line between a recognisable animal product, and a few parts per million…?

    • I guess for most vegetarians it’s about killing things. The person who asked about the yarn is vegan and avoids any animal products, and was worried about cruelty associated with shearing. However, sheep need to be shorn for welfare reasons, so it’s more cruel not to shear them… and what a waste it would be not to use the wool in that case. Like I say, it really isn’t straightforward.
      I was thinking about your impressive use of offal as a wrote this post.

      • I’d be raving on about how delicious it is, but I don’t want to offend anyone… I’ll keep that stuff for my own blog 🙂

  6. Thanks for that link! If the humble pencil was that complicated over 50 years ago, I imagine it’s even worse these days. I’ve run into the labyrinths you’re talking about. Hard not to get discouraged. But I also believe these things matter and try to do my best. 🙂

  7. I think this is like many of the things we have to consider in our complicated world. Some are a focus and more important (your use of wool, my growingly own veg and helping others do the same). I think we all make decisions–about where we shop and what we pay and some of those decisions are based on our income–yes, I’ll support a local farmer or US-made boots or a store that pays a living wage and gives employees benefits. I think if we each did what we could, thoughtfully, we’d be living in a better place. You’re contributing to the thoughtfulness and the action.

    • Thank you… it’s always good to think about our choices… I suspect many people never do and that’s why we have throw-away fashion, excessive packaging and sweat-shops.
      I really think that growing some of your own food is one of the best actions one can take – I feel a little thrill every time I collect and eat produce from the garden.

  8. I missed this post the first time around. I’m so glad to discover it today. It is complicated! I’m a vegetarian, and I work hard at minimizing anything that causes animal suffering. Since I know I’m in the minority (and as you say we all have to live by our own moral compass) my hope is that we can improve the treatment of animals in all ways. Factory farming is appalling. Factory conditions in developing worlds can be equally appalling. I try to do my best with the medical adage of “above all, do no harm.” I’ve learned a lot from you about plastics and will never look at tea bags the same way. I buy loose tea now from a local, independently owned shop and really enjoy the robust flavor. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

    • If everyone thought a little more about where their food comes from and valued the work that goes into its production the world would be a much better place. There is no excuse for ‘factory’ production of meat – if we can’t produce it ethically, we shouldn’t be producing it at all.

      • I agree! I would like to see our formal education move away from the basics and more into critical thinking, thoughtful thinking, environmental awareness, and of course the basics of reading, math and science along with a generous helping of art and music. We’re all about the test in this country, to the detriment of everything else. It makes me sad.


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