Ethical living for students

Ben Toone and Luke Boulter explore the science behind ethical living and propose some first steps

It’s easy to get caught up in the doom and gloom of man’s folly with nature; the increasing risks and freak weather patterns from global warming, the destruction of natural habitats, pollution of the natural world and the extremes of desperate poverty. However, rather than wading through swathes of pessimism, a few minor changes could be all that’s needed to change the world (albeit in a small way, one step at a time).

Small changes in the amount of electricity and gas we use, for example, could have an enormous collective impact. By turning down the thermostat one degree and turning off lights when they’re not needed, we can all live a more energy efficient lifestyle. Turning appliances off from standby is also a good idea. Domestic appliances as a whole account for more than 30% of energy consumption and 12% of greenhouse emissions – an estimated 5% of which is caused by so-called ‘vampire appliances’ being left on standby. A television on standby, for example, still uses 85% of the energy that it would use if it were fully switched on.

It has been calculated that 50 litres of water can be saved if you shower rather than bath, with an additional 24 litres being saved by turning off the tap when you brush your teeth. You can also prevent 33% of water from being unnecessarily flushed down the toilet by putting a brick in the cistern. Saving water is particularly eco-friendly; water is probably the planet’s most precious resource and all our water, including what we flush down the toilet, is fit to drink. Therefore, it is especially wasteful to over-use.

When buying food, the best option is to buy local and organic produce and thereby boycott intensive agriculture. Intensive agriculture, among other things, destroys natural biodiversity in its use of pesticides and pollutes river systems with fertilisers. However, the ultimate benefit of organic food is debatable, since intensive methods are probably needed to provide all the world’s food. Nevertheless, the West vastly over-produces and so a reduction in intensive methods is still beneficial. Organic is an expensive option, so it may be best to buy one or two organic products, by way of protest. Buying organic sugar, for example, won’t break the bank and will help reduce the amount of intensively farmed sugar beet, which is one of the most intensively sprayed crops on the market.

Otherwise, simply buying local produce can make a huge difference; it cuts down on air miles (and thus pollution) and also puts money into local economies. The regular farmers’ market, local greengrocer’s or York’s permanent market are all good places to buy locally sourced food. Supermarkets, on the other hand, sell fruit and vegetables which often come from far afield and even their local produce may have been transported many miles to be cleaned and packaged.

The veggie option might seem a bit extreme, so why not just cut down? Cut out meat from your usual campus eatery lunch, for instance. The Eat Less Meat campaign, run by Compassion in World Farming (, points out that rearing cattle for a kilo of beef requires around 100,000 litres of water, whereas only 900 litres of water are needed to produce a kilo of wheat. By becoming a ‘meat-reducer’ you can help prevent the situation where, by 2050, global livestock will require the equivalent amount of land and water as 4 billion humans. Going veggie for a day can save money and present a culinary challenge for the more adventurous amongst us. It is a good excuse to try new vegetables too, though remember to try and buy vegetables in season to avoid those food miles!

Vegetarian is best of course, and the ecological footprint (that is the amount of land required to sustain all our needs) of vegetarians who eat fish (‘piscerians’) is not much lower than that for meat eaters. The world requires 2.3 hectares per person to support current trends but only 1.5 hectares per person of productive land is available for consumption, resulting in habitat destruction and agricultural degradation.

Most of the resources being consumed are, of course, consumed by the West (the wealthiest 20% consume 83% of the world’s resources) so it makes sense for us in the United Kingdom to cut back. There are also plenty of fairtrade items sold on campus now that York has achieved its official ‘fairtrade university’ status, and Tesco is encroaching on the market that the Co-op has held for some time. If you want to carry on with the local shopping theme (keeping money within local businesses rather than out to large multi-corporate businesses) then there are plenty of local fairtrade sellers as well as Oxfam shops which provide a wide range of fairtrade products. Not only are they often of a superior quality, but also the amount going to farmers is set at a fair price which doesn’t fluctuate with market prices.

Do you take the lazy option to travel? As we all know, cycling or walking is a healthier option than driving and reduces car emissions. You might justify a quick car journey or bus ride in York by saying that it’s not far, but even fairly short distances in York are often jammed full of congestion problems, with constant stopping and starting leading to a greater amount of emissions.

Wasting time on the campus computers instead of doing work? Why not use that time by giving to charity, but for free! There’s a multitude of one click sites which automatically give money to charity in return for viewing the sponsors’ ads. In the space of any 20 minutes you could save 73 feet of rainforest habitat, donate money to act against cancer or even to improve child literacy. is a good start for various environmental donations, and care2 and for various other beneficiaries.

If you’re getting enthusiastic by now and really want to push the charity boat out, your enthusiasm may happen to coincide with one of various organisations’ volunteer days. Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, Conservation Volunteers, Millennium Volunteers and Student Action all have such schemes.

If you’re thinking of making a more long term environmental impact, though, rather than participating in a one-off scheme, why not buy clothes which are made to last? The textile industry has a huge impact; although cotton is not the world’s largest crop, it uses 25% of all the world’s agrochemicals, and 100 litres of water per kilo of textile. Man-made chemicals are not much better, with poisonous azo-dyes finding their way into water systems and dioxins escaping into the atmosphere. With this in mind, the old-fashioned concepts of ‘make do and mend’ and ‘Sunday best’ are very green. If you are a slave to fashion this prospect may seem daunting, if not impossible. However, try trawling through charity shops for vintage bargains and customising old clothes. Not only will this support charities, but it will save you a lot of money too.

The opportunities for ethical living are endless, both in number and in scope. If you start small now, you may want to aim bigger in a few years time – an allotment, perhaps, with homemade compost and your own seasonal vegetables, or maybe even a green career, such as recycling officer, environmental consultant, or fairtrade/organic buyer? But that’s quite a leap from turning the occasional light off.

Useful web-links (seasonality)


  1. Dear Sirs,

    I am apalled by the small-minded, penny-pinching attitude to the wonders of modernity displayed in your cringing article. you are thinking too small. There’s the opinion part.

    The sky is not falling in. There is no looming eco-disaster. You will not change the world one iota for the better by growing your own veg. We are not merely consumers who have to mind what we eat etc. This Green buffonery is the consequence of not demanding more of the best for everyone. Think big!


  2. To Mr Hirst,

    I’m sorry you felt that way about the article but the point is more changing peoples attitudes to how they live- In reality any actions I take myself I agree will have little effect. However if everyone did something it would help reduce our imprint on the planet. Or at least (in my case at least) make us feel better than themselves.

    I’m a little confused to what your stance is. If you think big government and business is the only way to sort the world right then your correct, apart from they react to the consumers and public themselves.

    In terms of ecological diaster, the sky may not be falling in but there is a lot not going right. We are currently undergoing unprecedented species extinctions (around 3 per hour), intensive agriculture is causing the destruction of huge swathes of habitat (and I mean destroyed- salinisation by poor irrigation means nothing will grow due to the high levels of mineral salts). And global warming, well we just don’t know what will happen. We’ve seen more devastating wheather, warmer temperatures and the undisputable link of carbon emissions to a warming climate.

    In a word no the sky isn’t falling in. And recycling only lessens the problem and doesnt solve. But things aren’t good with the world- just because things have been alright for humankind so far doesnt .
    Yes you’re right if your suggesting radical solutions- I would very much like to hear your thoughts, though I think you need to open your eyes if you think theres no ecological problems!

    Thanks for your comment,

    Ben Toone