The “unwashed student” trope is often unfairly levelled at many of us, especially when said student has an interest in the environment or animal welfare. Caricatures abound of the long-haired, scruffy activist, too busy debating the merits of lentils vs. quinoa or the best way to free the cows to have a good bath. With this in mind it is with some trepidation that I raise the question of environmentalism and personal hygiene. However, given that so many of us are now trying to live in a way that is both planet and wallet friendly and we all (hopefully) use soap or related products on a regular basis, it seems pertinent. In terms of soap, then: is it possible to be green (and clean) on a budget?

Price vs. Planet

Despite the caricatures of soap-dodging students, most of us do use the stuff and want it to be as natural and eco-friendly as possible. Many high street soap brands come with a high amount of superfluous, non-biodegradable packaging. Furthermore, they are often manufactured in countries with a large carbon footprint, and transported here in a similarly environmentally damaging way. However, although they may be wrapped in reams of plastic and flown thousands of miles, they are cheap; some supermarket value ranges come in at under 20p for a 125g bar of soap and more discerning types could easily find a more attractive product for less than £1 on the High Street.


Even if the consumer can find a more modestly packaged soap made in the UK or EU, the ingredients can still be problematic. Many soaps contain synthetic ingredients which can exacerbate skin conditions and other health problems. Consumers concerned with animal rights also face difficulty: many beauty and personal hygiene companies have been forced to end animal testing, but a large number of soaps still include animal fats. There are certain shops that pride themselves on providing soaps made from only natural, vegetarian ingredients and selling them in as eco-friendly packaging as possible but, at prices often more than 4 times as high as other soaps, many of us do not have the luxury of choosing these regularly.


A quick internet search shows that there is a far greater range of planet and animal friendly soaps available than the High Street would suggest. Nevertheless, with postage the products are only marginally cheaper and issues such as packaging and air miles arise once again. A more radical solution is proffered, however: if you can’t find cheap, ethical soap, make your own! It sounds perfect, but I confess I fell at the first hurdle; the prospect of sourcing lye seemed like too much work, and the lack of a well-ventilated area in which to use said lye anyway seemed too potentially fatal. Many dedicated D.I.Y soap-makers may disagree, but surely there are few people for whom this would be a realistically convenient alternative to picking-up a standard brand at the supermarket.


As with many of the decisions those attempting to be green on a budget will face, it seems that you get what you pay for. Those of us without the time or inclination to make our own will struggle to find an eco-friendly vegetarian soap for the same price as the standard product. Perhaps the benefits to the planet are worth a few more pounds a month but, ultimately, it is the manufacturers who have the responsibility and the resources to make the sacrifice – and not in the self-serving sense of “greenwashing”.

Notes from the Ed…
Unfortunately while it’s generally true that natural, kind to humans, kind to animals and kind to the planet often costs more, it’s worth considering the direct costs of hand and body lotion to soften your skin after using hard chemical based soaps, not to mention the indirect costs to your long term health. For those on slightly more than a student budget have a look at the organic soaps at

About the Author
Claire Green is a Spanish student at the University of Glasgow. She is involved with a variety of feminist and socialist political campaigns, and regularly writes on these issues.

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