A better ethical life
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Date: 29 August , 2005
Andy Jackson talks to the Guardian journalist who spent a year leading an ethical lifestyle
Having three people scrutinise your lifestyle, suggesting how to improve your entire way of life sounds unappealing at best.
But not to Leo Hickman, the Guardian’s ethical living correspondent, who spent 12 months transforming the way he, and his family, live their lives to be as ethical as possible in everything they do.
Earlier this year, he produced a book about his ethical year, A Life Stripped Bare, along with a guide to how others can change their lives to be more ethical, A Good Life.
My first question was ‘why?’
The very point of if was to pluck an ‘ordinary Joe’ out of a Western, consumer-driven, safe existence, into a so-called ethical life for a year, and to get three ethical auditors in to come in and be the kick start to the whole experiment.
They spent the whole day with me and my family and went through all the different things in our lives – our holiday habits, where we shop, what we bought, and they showed us the impact this can have on the wider world, and suggested ways we can go about changing your ways. It was not the ethical Ten Commandments, and that you have to live by these rules, it was very much about testing the boundaries of what was very easy and comfortable to integrate into our lives.
I suppose banking was a good example of that because there were easy choices, such as switching your current account, but then there’s thinking about where you’ve got your mortgage, where you sometimes have an ethical premium, where you pay £100 a month more so that you have piece of mind.
That’s what I was interested in, seeing the boundaries, were they financial ones, were they convenient?
I changed over things quite easily and started to think about charitable giving which I hadn’t done before, and then there were hard things, because I didn’t know whether my £100 extra on my mortgage was better than giving it direct to a charity. That was the nitty-gritty of the experiment.
What were the biggest challenges?
We had our highs and lows, mainly because the unforeseen challenge was how you work this into a relationship, so Jane [Leo’s wife] was pretty horrified by some of the things the ethical auditors said and said ‘over my dead body’, whereas I was very keen to do it and there were things that she was keen on and I wasn’t.
They were unforeseen things. We also had our second baby earlier this year and that has introduced a whole new thing like washable nappies after potty training our first daughter, which brings me back to circumstances, there’s no point saying these are the rules and everyone’s got to live by them.
It’s very easy to be very preachy about the subject and I was very aware of that. It was very much an attempt at what an individual can do. People wonder ‘what difference can little me make?’ and I wanted to try to see what individuals can do and be empowered knowing that you’ve made a change, and I certainly came from a school of thought that believed that you couldn’t do that thinking it was the government’s problem.
On a scale of one to ten, how ethical are you now?
I would never ever go down that road. The problem with doing this is that you can never score yourself. It took me a while to realise this. The mentality, I worked out, was that you’ve got to try and do something today that you weren’t doing yesterday.
You know what you’re doing and that’s the way I settle on it myself. Again, I stress it’s whatever fits your personal needs.
So you're happy with your new lifestyle?
Yes, It was certainly a life-changing experience, if you’ll excuse the over-used phrase, and it’s an irreversible thing as well. I can’t ever see me going back.
Is there anything you miss?
The one thing I still find hard to do is not fly. The ethical auditors said not to as it’s so damaging to the environment. I was a massive fan of the budget flights to Europe and long-haul flights, and I think we’ve not only flown once in the last three years.
That’s been one of the hardest things, because I’d love my daughters to travel and experience new cultures, and I don’t really agree with that rule. I’m not going to rule it our forever but I have cut down.
And the most positive change?
Food. The thing we do the most – that was radically overhauled, in terms of where we were sourcing food and the politics behind the food, and that’s one thing that has a constant effect on our life now.