Confessions of an eco-sinner

Tiger prawns

Date: 2008

Author: Fred Pearce

Type: popular non-fiction book

Full reference: Pearce, F. (2008) Confessions of an eco-sinner: travels to find where my stuff comes from. Colchester: Random House / Eden Project Books [link]

Availability: from the publisher (UK£7.19), (new, $10.86; used, from $4.24), (new, £5.99; used, from £0.01).

Page reference: Black, R., Davies, N., Mead, T., Statham, P., Taylor, L. & Wilkinson, L. (2011) Confessions of an eco-sinner. ( last accessed <insert date here>


A short, snappy look at the cradle to grave journey of everyday items (Source: Ellen 2009 link).

It’s a fascinating portrait, by turns sobering and hopeful, of the effects the world’s more than 6 billion inhabitants—all eating, consuming, making—have on our planet, and of the working and living conditions of the people who produce most of these goods (Source: Anon 2008a link).

Pearce has written a book for the ecologically and socially minded. He has travelled some 180,000 km to over 20 countries to research it; investigating the origins of products, and crucially the human conditions surrounding them – actually walking the walk and finding the answers to his own curiosity about things. He describes the research, which took him a full year, and the resulting book, as “an odyssey to track his personal footprint” (Source: Murray-White 2008 link).

At first glance, this title appears to be another in the current onslaught of “green” books. However, journalist and author Pearce extends his exploration from the ecological to the social and economic implications of our “stuff.” By choosing several categories of possessions—food, clothes, beer cans, and garbage—and seeking out the origins or hunting down the resting grounds of each, Pearce sets off on a journey crisscrossing the globe (Source: Hammond 2008, p.110 link).

Pearce deftly shows us the hidden worlds that sustain a Western lifestyle, and he does it by examining the sources of everything in his own life; as an ordinary citizen of the Western world, he, like all of us, is an “eco-sinner.” For a year Pearce travelled the world, both tracing the life cycle of these items but also meeting the people who produced them for him. It was an experiment that reinforced some long held truths, but also shattered a few eco-adages/rules. Pearce travels beyond the carbon footprint of our consumer society to explore the forgotten social footprint, bringing us to the unlikely and sometimes unseemly places where our stuff is born, and where it goes to die (Source: Clark 2010 link).

In tracing the lineage of his “stuff,” Fred Pearce’s graceful and engaging book illuminates the invisible ways in which our ordinary possessions connect us to workers we will never know and forests we will never explore. Starting at the intersection of environmental threats, excessive consumption and exploited workers, confessions points us toward a far more nurturing, meaningful and humane future (Source: Gelbspan nd link).

Pearce likes eating curry. "I have often wondered," he says, "where the prawns in my Saturday night curry come from, but I have never got a straight answer." It turns out they come from a part of Bangladesh near the Bay of Bengal. So he goes there, and finds a whole area that has been devastated by prawns. Or rather, by our appetite for prawns. The old landscape of small farms and mangrove swamps has been replaced by a vast monoculture of prawn farms. As Pearce points out, this is bad for wildlife - tigers, he says, are being replaced by tiger prawns. But this is just the start. This system is hugely corrupt. Prawn farming requires good irrigation, and those who control the water expect payouts from the farmers. If not, they cut the supply off. There are also prawn thieves, a prawn mafia, prawn oligarchs and prawn slaves. There are lots of beatings and rapes. Prawn dealers in Bangladesh operate in roughly the same way as drug dealers - they trample on people, because there is so much money to be made. It's our fault. We eat the prawns. . . . We're ruining the world because we're trying to encourage economic growth, and the way to do this is to encourage aspiration. In the west, we are rich and aspirational. In other words, we are greedy and insecure. And now, as Pearce shows us, people in Bangladesh are starting to be aspirational, too. Soon they'll be greedy and insecure. Then they'll want their own sweatshops. The demonic process will continue (Source: Leith 2008 link).

Pearce identifies thereby how difficult it is—from a consumer’s perspective—to act in an ‘environmental-correct’ manner. He . . . shows that in some cases it is better to buy green beans from Kenya instead [of] from England as most of the CO2-emissions stem not from transport but from the production process (Source: Halldórsson et al 2009, p.91).

This book brings together the complex and convoluted connections that exist between seemingly unrelated people, places and things. . . . Ultimately, Pearce challenges us to realise that even those of us with good intentions are inevitably ‘eco-sinners’ (Source: Ramsay and Wrathmell 2009, p.58).

It's not a book that's attempting to rewrite the way we live or to chastise us too much for our ecological sins. But it is an attempt to find out what all of us think about from time to time, which is exactly where does my stuff come from? Exactly what are the environmental consequences of growing, whether it's the coffee in my mug or the cotton in my shirt or whatever it is? (Source: Gordon 2008 link).

Inspiration / Process / Technique / Methodology

Pearce boards lots of jets for his 100,000-mile consumption quest, mostly to African and Asian countries where our low-cost labour force lives. He conducts revealing on-the-ground interviews with factory owners, managers and the underpaid workers who live what many of them perceive to be a step up from rural poverty (Source: Grant Black 2009 link).

The purpose of this book is to discover the hidden world that keeps us in the state to which we have become accustomed. I have done that by exploring my own personal footprint. I have travelled the world to find out where the cotton in my shirt comes from, the coffee in my mug, the prawns in my curry, the computer on my desk, the phone in my hand and much else. To discover who grows or mines or makes my stuff, and where that stuff goes after I have finished with it. And to find out whether I should be ashamed of my purchases and their impact on the planet, or whether I should be proud to have contributed to some local economy or given a leg-up to some hard pressed community. . . . I estimate that I travelled some 180,000 kilometres on this journey, visiting more than twenty countries. It took me to the end of my street and to the end of my planet, into the African rainforests and the Central Asian deserts, to Bangladeshi sweatshops and Chinese computer factories, to the brothels of Manila and the slums of Rio, to the summits of mountains, the Arctic tundra, the fishing grounds of the Atlantic and into the bowels of the Earth (Source: Pearce 2008, p.4).

First I wanted to find a new way of telling some familiar environmental stories, to find a new audience among people who don't want to read about issues in the abstract. So I thought a personal journey to find out about my own footprint on the world would be one way of doing that - a way of connecting our lives with the things that environmentalists worry about. And secondly because I did want to know about where my stuff comes from. None of us really knows in these days of globalization. One scientist told me when I started work that if we lived in Roman times and wanted the lifestyle we have today, we would need about 6000 slaves: growing and cooking our food, making our music, running the stables full of horses for our travel. . . . We like to think that all these things are done by machines these days. But actually there are lots of people round the world making and growing things for us. It's just that we don't know who they are. So I set out to find out. That meant not just finding out about my environmental footprint, but about my social footprint, too. . . . I had about a year working hard on the research. A few of the journeys had been done before that. Finding where our oil comes from, for instance, and fish in West Africa. But mostly I did it in a series of journeys after talking to retailers and suppliers and persuading them to give me the details about the supply chains. Some of even the simplest things like a pair of cotton socks had amazingly complicated journeys. So I had to follow. . . . One of the biggest problems was the supply chains for major commodities. For instance, as I say in the book, I never did manage to get very firm links about how cotton travels round the world. I visited cotton farms in several countries, like India and Australia, and they all told me they believed that their cotton ended up in British clothing. But the big commodity companies, like Cargill, who buy the cotton and then sell it on to clothes makers, don't tell anyone where their cotton is coming from. They are like huge spiders in the middle of a web (Source: Anon 2008b link).

Discussion / Responses

Stories like those told by Pearce show how difficult it can be to determine where the balance should rest between home-grown foods and trade-based aid. If we could pull a rabbit out of a magic hat, the answer would be to create a balance that works for the prosperity of farmers in both the developed and developing worlds. It just seems that magic hats are very hard to find (Source: Clement 2008 link).

While very interesting, I found this book lacking in the bigger picture of what is wrong with over consumption. The author paints a picture where our problems can be solved with the right mix of biofuels and ingenuity and doesn’t take on the fact that the problem is that we live in a consumerist society where people buy too much crap that they don’t need because companies make a huge profit out of doing so (Source: AJ 2009 link).

What is the Western reader and consumer to make of all this? There’s no point in simply feeling bad, particularly when information is so complex and difficult to obtain. The answers are rarely clear or easy. (Several times, Western companies who trumpet their ethics admitted to Pearce that they really couldn’t track the sources and destinations of their products.) But it’s good to keep looking and trying different strategies, one by one, with little steps that — if we all were to make them — might add up to a lot. . . . I think the best thing one may say about this book is that it is refreshing. You learn a lot without feeling in the least burdened or discouraged (Source: Loftus 2008 link).

When it comes to finding “answers”, Pearce is as much at a loss as any despairing Green zealot. He falls back upon the treacherous first-person plural, an inclusive “we” which brings together an “international community” only when intractable problems are to be faced. When the rewards of the world are distributed, the gulf between “us and them” remains. Having vigorously evoked a world using up its resources at a rate that defies replacement, he makes a leap of faith, assuming human unity in the presence of the threat to survival (Source: Seabrook 2008 link).

‘Follow the thing’ research cannot trace endless connections between people and things involved in such large and complex industries. However, Pearce . . . ha[s] surely presented a persuasive testimony of a ‘follow the thing’ approach that can inform and enlighten public opinion. Sustainability is, then, necessarily bound up with everyday living and unconscious decisions, which we need to be more reflective about.  . . . The ‘moral’ of their stories [the authors also review Snyder’s Fugitive denim link], therefore, is perhaps modest in recognising that that there is no quick fix or one-size-fits-all solution to ensure the adoption of environmentally sound and socially responsible trade systems. . . . Pearce also takes heart from the small-scale alternative business projects he encountered when buying green beans from Kenya, and when recycling his computer, which he hopes can empower grassroots producers and make a positive difference to the lives of the people involved. The strengths of these books are not, then, the answers that they give us, but the questions that they force us to ask. We may now stop to think twice about the things we put in our trolley on our weekly shop, and how much we are prepared to pay. And perhaps we will have a new-found respect and responsibility for the millions of people who produce our everyday things. The books provide cautionary tales of environmental destruction and socio-economic inequality that will persist if current production and consumption practices continue. Ultimately, these books provide us with a renewed sense of urgency to make changes to our everyday lives and our patterns of consumption, however small (Source: Ramsay and Wratmell 2009, p.60).

Impacts / Outcomes

Most of all I think this particular book is important because it changed several things about the way I operate as a consumer. I’m trying not to demand rubbish for cheaper prices and I’m prepared to pay more for good produce. . . . I’ve got a greater appreciation for how much rock gets mined and how much water is consumed to provide me with a t-shirt or a gold ring. Everything comes from somewhere . . . and sometimes it’s surprising exactly where that is (Source: Clark 2010 link).

Since I read it I have found myself hesitating over everyday purchases – cups of coffee, clothes, books. It has left me wondering – somewhat helplessly – about the impact of my purchase, and about how I can compare one product against another when neither tells me where it’s from (Source: Steeds 2009 link).

The most telling thing about this book is that it has prompted me to review how I actually consume items. It’s made me think about where my food and clothes come from. The thing is, if more consumers changed their buying habits, if more consumers questioned companies on where their products were sourced and what they were doing to help promote a fairer existence for workers, then people’s lives in far corners of the world would improve. But that’s unlikely to happen, because as we wonder around the aisles of supermarkets, we do not look these workers in the eye, and we remain unmotivated to change our ways (Source: Newton 2010 link).

My aim was to encourage people who care about their impact on the planet to think a bit more, to question some easy nostrums, and to give them some information for making decisions. And of course I hoped to find some readers thinking about green issues in their lives for the first time. So it certainly wasn’t aimed at starting campaigns or anything. And it hasn’t! Actually hearing that you are using the book in the way you describe is absolutely the kind of thing I hoped it would be useful for (Source: Pearce 2010 link).

Sources / Further Reading

AJ (2009) Confessions of an eco-sinner book review. Good reads 17 February ( last accessed 21 June 2011)

Anon (2008a) Confessions of an eco-sinner. Indie bound 1 October ( last accessed 20 June 2011)

Anon (2008b) An eco sinner interview. Green muze 3 December ( last accessed 21 June 2011)

Clark, S. (2010) Confessions of an eco-sinner. 9 January ( last accessed 20 June 2011)

Clement, J. (2008) Is local food always the best choice? CFFO Commentary 31 October ( last accessed 21 June 2011)

Ellen (2009) Confessions of an eco-sinner book: community review. Good reads 22 June ( last accessed 20 June 2011)

Gelbspan, R. (nd) Confessions of an eco-sinner: customer review. ( last accessed 20 June 2011)

Gordon, J. (2008) The Tree Hugger interview confessions of an eco-sinner part one. 12 April ( last accessed 21 June 2011)

Grant Black, D. (2009) The stuff that dreams – and nightmares – are made on. The Globe and Mail 9 April ( last accessed 21 June 2011)

Halldórsson, A., Kotzab, H., and Skjøtt-Larsen, T. (2009) Supply chain management on the crossroad to sustainability: a blessing or a curse? Logistics Research 1(2), p.83-94

Hammond, J. (2008) Confessions of an eco-sinner editorial review. Library journal 133(13), p.110 ( last accessed 20 June 2011)

Leith, W. (2008) Beware the thing. The guardian 12 April ( last accessed 21 June 2011)

Loftus, D. (2008) Confessions of an eco-sinner. California literary review 21 December ( last accessed 21 June 2011)

Murray-White, J. (2008) Fred Pearce’s ‘Confessions of an eco-sinner’ on where stuff comes from. 18 June 2008 ( last accessed 20 June 2011)

Newton, M. (2010) Confessions of an eco-sinner: community review. Good reads 14 July ( last accessed 21 June 2011)

Pearce, F. (2008) Confessions of an eco sinner: travels to find where my stuff comes from. London: Eden Project /Random House.

Pearce, F. (2010) Email from Fred Pearce. 3 November ( last accessed 24 June 2011)

Ramsay, N. and Wrathmell, S. (2009) Spotlight on . . . Confessions of an eco-sinner and Fugitive denim. Geography 94(1), p.58-60

Seabrook, J. (2008) From PCs to t-shirts: the world pays for our stuff. The independent (UK) 20 June ( last accessed 20 June 2011)

Steeds, B. (2009) The hidden life of what we buy. Scoop review of books 17 November ( last accessed 21 June 2011)

Compiled by Robert Black, Naomi Davies, Tom Mead, Pete Statham, Lucy Taylor and Laura Wilkinson, edited by Daisy Livingston (last updated June 2011). Page created for as part of the ‘Geographies of material culture’ module, Exeter University.