The ethics of optics
As consumers, we are encouraged to be more ethical: when buying food, cars, holidays, clothes, cosmetics, household products, furniture and more. We are encouraged to eat less meat, favour low-carbon birding (Caletrío 2018) and, if we are to travel internationally, to opt for ethical ecotourism companies. Recent studies have highlighted the role that birders can play in habitat creation by buying ethically sourced, ‘bird-friendly’ coffee (Williams et al. 2021)and chocolate (Arnold et al. 2021). So, should that ethically minded thought process also extend to buying optics?
Ethics are innately personal and a level of critical analysis is required when making any ethical decision – you and I might share some ethical preferences but disagree on others, or assign different weights to them. Does a low-meat diet and buying second-hand clothes, for example, give you enough brownie points to travel overseas? Is there ever a case where one person’s personal ethics can be deemed ‘wrong’?
The impacts of consumer choices are also subject to debate. Boycotts, or threats of boycotts, often have no negative impact on the financial value of a company. Indeed, the immediate value of a company may even increase. However, the media and wider conversations generated by consumer campaigns can drive internal company change or spark new businesses that fill a gap in the market, such as green energy companies and carbon-neutral transport, or they might prompt consumer standards and accreditations, such as Fair Trade or Forestry Stewardship Council (FCS) certification.
In 2016, Mark Constantine commissioned Ethical Consumer to produce a report examining the ethics of the sports optics industry, including birding optics. The result was Shooting Wildlife: who makes your binoculars, spotting scopes and optics? (Ethical Consumer Research Association 2016). The main issue highlighted by this first report was the connection between the wildlife-watching optics industry and sports hunting. Of the 30 optical companies reviewed, 25 had strong links to the hunting industry, including 17 who made products for and marketed directly to the big-game and trophy-hunting markets. Subsequent reports in 2018 and 2020 (Ethical Consumer Research Association 2018, 2020) have shown little change in these findings.
In 2020, Shooting Wildlife III addressed trophy hunting itself in detail. The report concluded that it is not a valuable tool for conservation, citing negative impacts on animal population demographics (e.g. Milner 2007), population genetics (e.g. Harris et al. 2002) and behavioural changes (e.g. Kirby et al. 2008), as well as research suggesting that the British public is generally strongly against hunting in its various forms. However, many scientists and conservationists have argued that a ban of trophy hunting, as called for by many celebrities, politicians and campaign groups, would be counterproductive, imperilling wildlife habitats, threatening jobs in Africa and having a wider impact on a multitude of other species that depend on land managed for trophy hunting (Dickman et al. 2019).
In such discussions, framing is important. Ethical Consumer was criticised for the front cover of the 2020 report, which showed a male Lion Panthera leo viewed through a rifle sight. This, it was argued, could alienate readers who wished to see a less emotive approach, including many experts who tread a delicate middle path that brings together both sides of the debate. An over-simplification of issues such as trophy hunting can result in a counter-productive outcome, especially if your primary ethical driver is biodiversity conservation rather than animal welfare. The conservation ethics and complexities of trophy hunting could fill many pages, and a good starting point for further reading are the papers by Amy Dickman (e.g. Dickman et al. 2019, 2021, Dickman 2021).
Many of the optics companies described as being ‘unethical’ because of their links with trophy hunting also sponsor conservation and birding initiatives – a perfect example of how the overall ethics of any company will depend on the value individual consumers put on the different aspects of the company’s actions.
However, one thing that I dislike is that this sponsorship can be used to prevent transparent discussions from taking place. Many birders and photographers, myself included, have received equipment in return for a positive review and exposure of the product on social media. I now question the appropriateness of some of these relationships: influencers who condemn many forms of hunting whilst wearing pro-hunting brands, or charities who promote sustainability whilst taking funding without critical analysis. In some cases, such sponsorship can essentially gag a recipient and shut down open discussion owing to the threat of funding being cut or products being taken back. It’s not about turning every offer of sponsorship down indiscriminately but rather about being aware of all aspects of what you’re promoting. I have accepted sponsorship from brands in the past that I would no longer use and have switched to brands that I feel are more ethical.
In the most recent of the three Shooting Wildlife reports, which reviewed 29 companies (two of the original 30 companies merged), the environmental credentials of the optics companies and links to the military, arms and gun rights were investigated. No company had ‘good’ environmental reporting, just five had ‘reasonable’ reporting and 24 were categorised as ‘poor’. With respect to carbon footprints, only four companies were considered to have ‘good’ carbon management and reporting. The conclusion, echoed across many areas of consumerism, is that buying second-hand is the most environmentally friendly option.
Research for the 2020 report took place against a backdrop of the US presidential election, where the Trump campaign drew support from pro-gun-rights Americans, including the National Rifle Association. Some US optics brands allied themselves politically, with one company going as far as to advocate white supremacy in its marketing. In addition, three companies were found to have strong links to the military, manufacturing firearms and ammunition, and 20 companies supplied optics or imaging equipment to the military or marketed their optic products for military or tactical use.
I recently conducted an online survey aimed at the wildlife-watching community, which attracted 1,366 responses. Amongst those who considered themselves expert or specialist naturalists, 94% were aware that many optics companies marketed to hunters. That same audience showed a strong preference for ‘high-end’ optics, overwhelmingly citing the quality of the lens/optics for their decision, with much less emphasis on cost. There was also an implied expertise associated with these brands, often as a result of the company’s positioning and sponsorship deals.
My survey also showed that 41% of all respondents were interested in ethical shopping in some form. The wildlife issue they cared about most was habitat destruction, with 69% of those surveyed listing this as a concern, followed by persecution of birds of prey (66%), illegal hunting (41%) and hunting of migratory species (41%). Trophy hunting ranked much lower with just 28% of respondees citing this as a concern.
Shooting Wildlife aims to bring transparency to the industry. The reports are not intended to drive consumers to or from one company or another but simply to ensure those purchasing new optics can feel informed about issues that may matter to them and their personal ethics. I’d love to see Ethical Consumer report ratings included in future optics reviews to help guide those who want to include such factors in their purchasing decision. My hope is that the reports will also provide opportunities for optics companies to join, rather than shy away from the debate on ethics, particularly around illegal activities with links to shooting.
The global consumer market has changed, and empowered consumers who can resist a ‘hard sell’ are identified as an active threat to the status quo of marketing and industry. Complacency and disempowerment are dangerous, even irresponsible; but, once learnt, the skills involved in ethical consumerism cannot be unlearnt. Whether it’s holidays, telescopes, pensions, cameras, clothing, binoculars or coffee, understanding the impact of your purchase on the causes you care about is valuable. Your choices and your voice are powerful.
The full 2020 report, Shooting Wildlife III: who makes your binoculars, spotting scopes and optics?, and a discussion of its key findings can be accessed online at https://crueltyfreeoptics.co.uk
Lucy McRobert is a freelance wildlife storyteller. As well as being a writer, columnist and birder, she works for wildlife charities where she specialises in editorial, communication, campaigning and marketing. Her first book, 365 Days Wild (William Collins, 2018), encourages everyone to make time for nature.
Arnold, H., et al. 2021. Contrasting trends in biodiversity of birds and trees during succession following cacao agroforest abandonment. J. Appl. Ecol. 58: 1248–1260.
Caletrío, J. 2018. Are we addicted to high-carbon ornithology? Brit. Birds 111: 182–185.
Dickman, A., et al. 2019. Trophy hunting bans imperil biodiversity. Science 365: 874.
— 2021. Science + Celebrities: a call for partnership. Science + Story https://scienceplusstory.com/science-celebrities-a-call-for-partnership
—, et al. 2021. Misinformation about trophy hunting is wrong. Dead wrong. Changing America https://bit.ly/3wSqbwU
Ethical Consumer Research Association. 2016. Shooting Wildlife: who makes your binoculars, spotting scopes and optics? www.ethicalconsumer.org/technology/shooting-wildlife
— 2018. Shooting Wildlife II: who makes your binoculars, spotting scopes and optics? www.ethicalconsumer.org/technology/shooting-wildlife-ii
— 2020. Shooting Wildlife III: who makes your binoculars, spotting scopes and optics? https://bit.ly/3wVGXvc
Harris, R. B., Wall, W. A., & Allendorf, F. W. 2002. Genetic consequences of hunting: what do we know and what should we do? Wildl. Soc. Bull. 30: 634–643.
Kirby, J. S., et al. 2008. Key conservation issues for migratory land- and waterbird species on the world’s major flyways. Bird Conservation International 18: S49–S73.
Milner, J. M., et al. 2007. Demographic side effects of selective hunting in ungulates and carnivores. Conservation Biology 21: 36–47.
Williams, A., et al. 2021. Tapping birdwatchers to promote bird-friendly coffee consumption and conserve birds. People and Nature 3: 312–324.