The permaculture mantra of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares is often more easily applied to processes that we are directly involved and connected with; when designing a garden, community project or buying Fairtrade products for example.
It becomes harder, or at least more time consuming and complex, to ensure that pemaculture's key principles are applied throughout the entire supply chains that we are linked to. Although you may chose to buy FSC certified timber products, you may still be linked to the illegal deforestation of a pristine rainforest depending on the garden centre you buy your timber from and the garden centre's wider operations.
Some of us have the time and resources to scavenge second hand resources, save or swap our own seed and make our own compost or garden furniture. Some of us are more time and space restrained and end up buying our garden essentials from more 'convenient' sources. If we are lucky, this may be a local independent organic garden centre. However, this is not always the case...
If we are to move to a society driven by environmental and social sustainability, it is as important to ensure that we source from companies whose policies and practices reflect permaculture's three 'bottom lines', as do our own actions. But how can we ensure this? Which companies should we buy from and which should we boycott? And what are the ethical issues that we should be aware of?
Issues in the industry to consider
– Policies on neonicotinoid pesticides. Neonicotinoids have been linked to declining pollinator populations and yet garden centres and seed companies continue to stock products containing neonicotinoids. Two that are available to the amateur gardener are thiacloprid (in Bayer's Provado Ultimate Bug Killer range, Multirose Bug Killer and Baby Bio House Plant Insecticide) and acetamiprid (in Scott's Bug Clear and Rose Clear).1
– Stocking of peat composts. Peat bogs store about five times as much carbon per unit area as a tropical rainforest and are also considered valuable ecosystems.2 The UK government and the horticultural industry have consequently agreed to remove peat from compost sold to consumers by 2020. At present no garden centre can claim to be 100% peat free. Only B&Q, Homebase and Notcutts have achieved a 55%+ peat free status under the Growing Media Initiative, a scheme started by The Horticultural Trades Association in 2007.
– Corporate monopoly within the seed industry and loss of agricultural biodiversity. Around 67% of the branded seed market is now controlled by 10 companies, all of which have interests in biotechnology. Monsanto accounts for more than 27% of the branded seed market alone. An emphasis on uniformity, high yielding varieties and patentable traits, has resulted in F1 hybrids being favoured over open-pollinated varieties. This has led the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation to estimate that 75% of agricultural diversity has been lost since the 1900s.3
– Child labour within stone supply chains. When Ethical Consumer last looked at garden centres in 2008, dangerous working conditions at Chinese natural stone companies was a serious problem but none of the garden centres had any policies on the matter. Whilst that is still an issue, the use of child labour in Indian sandstone has recently come under the spotlight. Only Marshall's offer a 'Fairstone paving' product; an Indian sandstone that is "Ethically audited and [with] full assurances that no child labour has been used in the manufacture of this product".
– Timber sourcing policies, or lack of! Europe is a key market for tropical timber exports from the Brazilian Amazon, with one-third of all timber exported from the region going to EU countries.4 In 2013, almost half of the Amazon timber imported to the EU came from the state of Pará. Nearly 80% of the area logged in Pará between August 2011 and July 2012 was harvested illegally.4
FSC certification is meant to ensure that timber products are from legal and well-managed sources; although it's not without its critics, notably one campaign group set up to monitor it, FSC Watch, and also the Rainforest Foundation and Friends of the Earth who said in 2008: "We are concerned at reports that some FSC certificates are failing to guarantee rigorous environmental and social standards. As a result the mark's credibility is being undermined".5
– Sale of pets in garden centres. According to Animal Aid, selling pets in a garden-centre environment encourages impulse purchases. Animals bought on a whim are often neglected or abandoned at already hard-pressed resource centres once the novelty has worn off. Rather than contributing to the cycle of animals being bred, bought and abandoned, garden centres should encourage people to adopt a companion animal from a local rescue centre.
How did the companies fair?
Ethical Consumer Magazine have created an ethical guide to which garden centres, shops and companies are best to choose from.
Ethical Consumer's Best Buys for Garden Centres:
A local independent garden centre may be your best option. However, Notcutts, Hillier and Wickes came out best when ethiscores were taken into account, in addition to how companies were rated on issues such as timber policies and selling of peat.
Wickes was one of only two companies to get Ethical Consumer's best rating for environmental reporting and was the only company to sell Fairstone paving. Notcutts got best for timber sourcing and peat.
B&Q followed these three garden centres in the rankings as it was the only other company to score best for environmental reporting, and did well on timber and peat sourcing.
Ethical Consumer's Best Buys for Seeds:
Buying organic seed from companies committed to maintaining a wide range of open-pollinated plant varieties was recommended. Companies that grew their own seed, favoured regional varieties, or at least knew their seed sources was also taken into account. Ethical Consumer's Best Buys for seeds included Stormy Hall Seeds, Laura's Organics and Tamar Organics, all of which sold certified organic seed only. Real Seeds, Jekka's Herbs, Franchi Seeds and Landlife Wildflowers were also recommended, although they did not sell exclusively organic certified seed.
Ethical Consumer's Best Buys for Composts:
Producing your own compost or finding a reliable local supplier of peat-free compost was recommended. For branded products, Ethical Consumer's Best Buys were Fertile Fibre, GroChar, Eden Project, Traidcraft, Dalefoot and Vital Earth peat-free composts. However, trying different options until you find the right peat-free compost for your soil and plants is also important.
For more information, or to read Ethical Consumer's guides to garden centres, peat-free compost and seeds in full visit www.ethicalconsumer.org/ethicalreports/gardening.aspx or for more on their other guides visit www.ethicalconsumer.org
1 RHS Pesticides for Home Gardeners February 2014
2 B&Q One Planet review 2013/14
3 FAO, What is Agrobiodiversity? 2004, ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/007/y5609e00.pdf
4 The Amazon's Silent Crisis, Greenpeace, September 2014
5 Can timber companies prove that they source good wood? Friends of the Earth, 22 January
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