Ethical Consumer | ‘Shooting Wildlife’ Optics Report III

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Released this week, Ethical Consumer’s new report ‘Shooting Wildlife III’ “explores the debates surrounding the ethics and impacts of sport hunting and updates the 2016 and 2018 ‘Shooting Wildlife?’ reports – examining how 30 optics companies approach this sensitive subject” according to its Executive Summary.

It also expands on the work done in the previous two reports to explore optics companies’ links with the military (according to the report’s authors Anna Clayton and Marlous Veldt that’s because of the military industry’s large impact on the environment and therefore wildlife).

If you’ve not read either of the previous two ‘Shooting Wildlife’ reports, in essence, they aim to give consumers information which will allow them to make a choice about which optics to buy based on whether or not they want to support companies with links to hunting.

That information is never (in our experience anyway) presented in-store or at, for example, the British Birdfair where every optics company with a toehold in the UK promotes its products. And given their influence through the huge advertising spend of those companies, it’s rarely provided in birdwatching magazines either.

That clearly isn’t fair to would-be purchasers who might have used that information to decide which new binocular or telescope to buy.

It’s worth pointing out that given that the reports are produced by an expressedly ‘ethical’ magazine, the suggestion has always clearly been that anyone seeking out the reports won’t want to support organisations like the gun-rights advocacy group the National Rifle Association (NRA) or trophy hunting’s principal lobbyists Safari Club International. That has never been explicitly stated though: Ethical Consumer (EC) is all about enabling choice (to, presumably, an ‘ethically-minded’ audience), and that is precisely what is on offer here.

 

Overview

Before bringing up our own discussion-points, it’s worth saying from the outset that this is a fantastic piece of work. Potential readers looking for product reviews or comparisons won’t find them, but the one hundred and eleven pages here (up from sixty-seven in the first report) are packed with thought-provoking (read: challenging) data. And it’s beautifully laid out too, with plenty of white space between paragraphs. While the original reports were clear enough, shaded or coloured boxes now separate references and page numbers from the main text, and while that text has had to shrink a little to include all the extra information it is extremely legible.

Legibility is important of course, but nobody wants to read pages of dull or meandering text. For those of you who may have balked at ‘111 pages‘ please note that every page here is worth reading and is genuinely absorbing. Having said that, while the report is arranged in seven sections (including well-written articles titled ‘Sport hunting ethics in brief‘, ‘Impacts of hunting: an updated review‘, and ‘Military Links‘), most optics owners (and future owners) will probably head straight to the Company Profiles which make up over two-thirds of the entire report before circling back.

Under these Company Profiles, twenty-nine manufacturers are assessed for their ‘green’ credentials, their use of hunting imagery, and their support for the likes of the NRA.

Some of the summaries that open each profile are quite shocking – if you don’t want to fund the slaughter of wildlife for fun, anyway. For example on Page 83, we’re told that Swarovski “offers an app specially for driven hunts, and references both driven and ‘big game’ hunts on its website. Its TV show, Swarovski Optik Quests, aired in the US, featured water buffalo and axis deer hunts and sports hunting featured prominently in its (social) media content. many of its other social media content. Swarovski was therefore considered to have a strong link to sports hunting“. In contrast, on Page 79 EC writes that Opticron “stated that it did not market any products to hunters and would “not sponsor or endorse individuals or organisations involved in trophy hunting or similar activities.” Although references to hunting had been found in the product description of two of its Trailfinder binoculars, these had been removed in November 2020. Several products were marketed for wildlife management. Opticron was therefore considered to have no link to sports hunting“.

Again, EC doesn’t tell us what to buy. It does say, for example, that “Ethical consumers who hold animal rights’ issues close to heart should avoid: Nikon, Bushnell, Vortex, Meopta, Minox, Leica, Steiner, Burris, Swarovski, Leupold, Vanguard, Zeiss, Hawke, Bresser, Explore Scientific, National Geographic, Acuter, Barr and Stroud, Barska, Vision King, Bosma and Alpen” (ie nearly all of them, many of which are more widely associated with the US than the UK and Europe), but the real point here – as we said above – is about enabling choice.

 

Impact

As a general rule, how we spend our money is up to us, of course, but where we spend it – and who we accept sponsorship from – could make an enormous difference (or at the very least help us to feel better about our global impact). The implication contained within the reports is that if consumers turn to wildlife-friendly optics manufacturers they will be encouraged in turn to improve their offerings and marketing. Conversely, if we walk away from those companies that are in bed with hunting organisations that could sufficiently impact the bottom line to persuade them to think again.

The big question is perhaps, is there any evidence to show that has happened? Probably not. EC itself says in ‘Shooting Wildlife’ that:

90% of companies have some connection to hunting compared to 83% in the 2018 report. 69% target specific forms of sport hunting: trophy, driven or ‘big-game’ hunts (compared to 66% in 2018). And 48% have additional ties through pro-staff hunters, sponsorship of hunting organisations, TV shows or events, or through their own ‘academies’ for teaching skills for hunting (45% in 2018).

‘Hunting Links’, Shooting Wildlife, Page 4

So the stats we’re most interested in are all pointing upwards. That’s hardly encouraging, but it would be hugely unfair to lay the blame for that on a relatively small magazine (EC’s circulation is just 12,000) which was tasked (and has admirably succeeded) to provide information to consumers.

Since the publication of the first ‘Shooting Wildlife’ report governments on both sides of the Atlantic (and across the EU) have supported shooting and linked killing wildlife to notions of ‘freedom of choice’ and ‘enjoying the countryside’. One magazine and a handful of more enlightened birdwatchers can’t counter that (or really hope to impact such a massive market with enormous spending power – though some people do make a stand and it’s worth reading about researcher Dr Emily Joachim’s courageous (and costly) refusal of unethical sponsorship) – but it would be a huge help if other pro-wildlife websites and birding magazines would promote these reports and make links to them permanently and prominently available.

We have to ask, is that not being done now because of the advertising spend and sponsorship we referenced earlier, or fear of upsetting shooting’s more ‘out there’ lobbyists? And we also have to ask, why is there no bannering of ‘Shooting Wildlife’ on the websites of the few optics manufacturers that have no links to hunting? They’re not selling to hunters anyway, so why not be loud and proud about their ethical stance? Might that not lead to new customers?

Of course, when it really comes down to it, if there’s been little positive change, that’s on us – the consumer.

It is up to us to take on board the data and up to us to decide what we do with it. There is little evidence that UK birders have done much with it so far unfortunately (which perhaps partly explains why EC are trying again).

Chris Packham using Canon’s
Image Stabilised binoculars

The ‘Big Three’ of Leica, Swarovski, and Zeiss still dominate the optics market here, and all have strong or very strong connections with hunting. Some ‘influencers’, Chris Packham notably, have switched to brands like Canon which don’t, but for birding’s major players the lure of free kit and what are at least the best-marketed optics available appear to count more than ethics.

Of course, the top tier of birding is hardly representative of ‘nature lovers’ as a whole. They don’t change their equipment very often (because it’s so incredibly expensive and lasts so long). Most people couldn’t even consider sending £1.5k on a new pair of binoculars or telescope anyway (no matter how ‘good’ they are), and are perhaps looking more towards the RSPB’s Avocet range which depending on the model chosen comes in at a more reasonable £100 – £150 (those, incidentally, are supplied “under an exclusive trading agreement” by Viking Optical, which EC considers in 2020 to have “weak links to sports hunting” rather than none at all).

Are those purchasers reading these EC reports before buying? With so little coverage of the reports in birding magazines or major birding websites (like perhaps the RSPB website or their reserve guides), it seems unlikely. Ethics matter to more and more people, and while shooting’s grip on the US seems fixed, in the UK at least its grip is more tenuous: now would be a great time for our leading wildlife charities, magazines, and influencers to – at the very least – make sure this important information is far more widely available.

 

Cruelty Free Optics

Having said that, EC themselves also recognise that finding these reports hasn’t always been easy. Their website is massive, and while it’s also nicely laid out ‘Shooting Wildlife’ is just one of thousands (tens of thousands?) of articles and reports on everything from Ethical Online Retailers to Ethical Bicycle Brands and Ethical Bank Accounts.

We’ve linked to all three reports below, but a new website is being launched to coincide with the publication of ‘Shooting Wildlife III’ which places all the information and all of the discussions in one place: Cruelty-Free Optics. Hopefully more websites like this will be developed, as it’s great way to centralise information.

So if you’re thinking about buying optics any time soon please head over to Cruelty Free Optics and make your next buying decision a much more informed one…or at the very least download the reports below and check if the manufacturer you’re thinking of supporting with your hard-earned cash will be using your money to support trophy hunting or gratuitous shooting competitions…

  • Anna Clayton from Ethical Consumer has written a post (which has already received some unsupportive comments) for Mark Avery’s blog: you can find it here.