Counter choices can add up to change

Festive season sales should not be about just pricetags, but shopping ethically and with social conscience in mind, says Duncan Thorp

Bargain hunters in Edinburgh in the Boxing Day sales. Picture: PA
Bargain hunters in Edinburgh in the Boxing Day sales. Picture: PA

The festive season sales are a staple of the shopping calendar. The cheapest, the lowest, the best bargains are what it’s all about. Indeed, shopper footfall in Scotland has risen for much of the past year, with the latest innovative special promotions and marketing strategies out in force on the high street.

Retail is the biggest private-sector employer in Scotland, supporting thousands of jobs. We’re also an SME economy, with small and medium sized businesses providing employment, prosperity and economic stability in many communities.

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But how often do we really think about the true cost of what we buy? Not just the price on the label but the long-term cost to ourselves, our communities and to Scottish society. How often are pricetags, for both goods and services, actually a false economy?

There is of course a crucial difference between the pricetag on goods and services and the true cost to all of us. Buying from social enterprises and other ethical businesses is one way to ensure that the true cost means something positive – and benefits everyone in Scotland over the long-term.

We can all pro-actively do something good by changing the way we shop at this time of year. We’re all consumers, and consumers are powerful. We can literally build or end markets if we choose to buy or not buy certain products and services.

Not just boycott and divest, but also by making positive, alternative choices.

All social enterprises are set up to help people and the environment in some way. Job opportunities for ex-offenders and disabled people, childcare, helping homeless people, recycling and reusing raw materials, regenerating neighbourhoods – investing 100 per cent of profits into their social mission. It’s this powerful way of doing business that we can all support.

Run Native is an online shopping website, with a great mix of ethical and social enterprise retailers. This festive season you could shop at Greetings From Leith for handmade cards, Kidzeco in West Lothian for affordable, high-quality children’s clothes and toys or Ness Soap in the Highlands. Perhaps also Ragtag on Skye for handmade textile gifts, helping those with mental health issues and Glasgow Wood Recycling, for environmentally-friendly home and garden reclaimed wood products.

There are many others, including Empowerment Pants from MsMissMrs to help woman and girls increase self-awareness and self-esteem, Gallery on the Corner in Edinburgh with incredible artwork by those with Autism, the award-winning Kelvin Valley Honey or ICE Retail for beautiful arts and crafts. There’s Greyfriars Tartan and also Rainbow Turtle Fair Trade shop in Paisley – or buy someone an outdoor activity at My Adventure or Port Edgar Watersports.

Scotland is known internationally as an ideal place to do social enterprise, with a supportive and effective business support network. We need to continue to help social enterprise retailers with fairer business rates and help with getting high street premises. We should also support more employers to pay the Living Wage – in order to have a strong consumer market to buy things in the first place.

It’s important to describe what we don’t want too – the kind of bad corporate practices around tax, pollution, waste and employment that can also damage small businesses and social enterprises in their supply chains.

Ethical Consumer Magazine is an online and print resource that can help people make better shopping choices. It’s worth having a look to compare high street retailers on a range of criteria, from workers’ rights to environmental records – and find some of the ethical alternatives. The fair tax mark is also a good guideline that identifies companies and organisations that are proud to pay their fair share of tax at the right rates and at the right time.

Particularly at this time of year it’s also important to know that local credit unions are a more affordable, safer and ethical loan alternative to the expensive trap of payday and doorstep lenders. This social enterprise alternative is becoming a more ethical banking choice for anyone, including those on medium and higher incomes.

Of course better shopping choices shouldn’t just be something to do over a few weeks in winter, we should be doing this all year round. Corporate advertising and marketing are designed to get us to consume more but we do have choices.

We don’t have to buy things we don’t need – but when we do shop we can choose the positive alternative that’s good for all of us, we can choose social enterprise.

Duncan Thorp is parliamentary, policy and communications Officer of Social Enterprise Scotland.