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.
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…