A Guide to Ethical Shopping

By Stacey Leasca · July 07, 2023 · 9 minute read

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A Guide to Ethical Shopping

Many people these days want to put their money where their beliefs are and shop more ethically. That might mean supporting brands and retailers that do less harm environmentally or are actively promoting a healthier planet. It could mean having transparency about the fairness of their labor practices or the charitable efforts their company undertakes. Just how popular is ethical shopping? In a 2023 report, consumer insights platform TalkWalker and Khoros found that 82% of consumers want companies to put people and the planet before profits.

Finding out which businesses are doing the right thing and which aren’t, however, isn’t always easy. Plus, many people may worry that ethical consumerism just isn’t affordable.

Here’s help and reassurance. Read on for guidance on how to be a more conscious consumer, as well as how it may even save you some cash.

What Ethical Shopping Really Means

The term “ethical shopping” essentially boils down to people becoming more aware of the goods they are buying.

What’s “ethical” is subjective to each person, but finding out how each product is made, if the company supports fair labor and other socially responsible practices, and if the product is environmentally-friendly is a great place to start.

Money has a lot of power, so if people choose ethically-sourced and ethically-produced products more often, more companies may want to jump aboard the ethical and sustainable shopping train.

Since ethical consumerism is all about where our money goes, investing in companies that you believe are doing good in the world can also play an important part in consuming ethically.

Recommended: What Is Socially Responsible Investing?

Issues You May Want to Consider

Many companies — particularly clothing producers — have been called out for their outsize impact on the environment. According to the United Nations (UN), the fashion industry is considered to be the second most polluting industry in the world.

Indeed, clothing production is responsible for more carbon emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, points out the U.N. The garment industry is also one of the top consumers of water in the world: It takes nearly 2,000 gallons of water to make a typical pair of jeans.

💡 Quick Tip: Typically, checking accounts don’t earn interest. However, some accounts do, and online banks are more likely than brick-and-mortar banks to offer you the best rates.

But thinking about ethical shopping can also go deeper than figuring out how a product is produced.

It may also be important to you to consider who is making that product and how that worker is being treated. Are the workers at the factories working in safe conditions? Are they being paid fairly? Seeking out companies with fair labor practices, including fair pay and benefits, can be important to many consumers.

You may also want to consider how well a company treats its suppliers. For example, does your favorite coffee shop pay its farmers a fair amount for their beans?

For some consumers, how a company treats animals is also an important consideration.

Ethical Shopping Made Easier

Once you know what to look for, you can research your favorite brands to learn how they measure up on ethics and sustainability.

You can find out a fair amount about what your favorite companies stand for by going to their websites and digging in their About Us, FAQ, and Info pages to judge for yourself. Generally, the more detail they provide, the better.

Do you see a step-by-step explanation of their supply chain? Do they proudly say that employees have paid sick leave? Or, even better, do they have any ethical certifications (more on that below)?

There are also a number of groups and organizations that are dedicated to making social and environmental data available to consumers who are interested in ethical shopping.

In other words, they’ve done the vetting for you. Here are a couple to check out.

Better World Shopper

This public research project rates over 2,000 companies based on their track records on human rights, the environment, animal protection, community involvement, and social justice.

The Ethical Fashion Directory

Produced by the organization Dressmember, this database can help you find clothing you can not feel good about but also fits your budget. You use the search bar to sort through the list of ethical brands by price and category.

💡Quick Tip: If you’re creating a budget, try the 50/30/20 budget rule. Allocate 50% of your after-tax income to the “needs” of life, like living expenses and debt. Spend 30% on wants, and then save the remaining 20% toward saving for your long-term goals.

Understanding Labels and Certifications

To become a more ethical shopper, it helps to understand which terms are meaningful and which terms aren’t worth much.

Companies are increasingly using the word “sustainable” to describe their products or the process of making them. However, that term can mean just about anything the retailer wants it to, since the word’s use is not regulated with any oversight (unlike the word “organic,” which comes with more stringent guidelines for use).

“Natural” can be confusing, too. Many natural fibers tend to have a lower carbon footprint than synthetic fibers because they do not use as many chemicals during the production process.

But just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s more eco-friendly. Remember the aforementioned jeans? Those were likely made, at least in part, of cotton, which takes up a lot more water to produce than other fabrics.

Fortunately, there are labels, or certifications, that do carry weight. You may want to keep an eye out for the common ones below.

•  B-Corp. B Lab’s B-Corporation certification signifies a company’s commitment to upholding high human rights and environmental standards, and is based on a rigorous assessment.

•  GOTS Organic. A textile product carrying the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) label must contain a minimum of 70% certified organic fiber. Organic fibers are grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, insecticides, or herbicides and GMOs (Genetic Modified Organisms). Organic agriculture is a production process that sustains the health of ecosystems, soils and people.

•  Made in the USA. To use this label all, or virtually all, of the product has to be made in America. Products produced in the U.S. must comply with U.S. laws for workplace safety, pollution, and health. Also, the carbon footprint of these products is likely to be lower because they don’t have to be shipped from overseas.

•  Fair Trade. When you see a product with the Fair Trade Certified seal , you can be confident it was made according to rigorous social, environmental, and economic standards. Also the farmers, workers, and fisherman behind the product earn additional money from your purchase to help uplift their communities.

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Think Globally, Shop Locally

One simple way to shop more ethically is to shop locally. You can often find unique and interesting products by shopping with local, independent retailers.

People can also make a big difference by spending their dollars at mom-and-pop shops around them. For one reason, independent businesses are more likely to have localized supply chains. So shopping at one local store could potentially help bolster not just that store but also more of the local economy.

Local shopping also helps reduce carbon emissions, since a consumer may end up driving less. And if a shopper buys food grown near them, the product will not need to be shipped via air or sea, meaning its carbon footprint will be lower. As a bonus, buying local produce could also mean it’s fresher too, potentially making for tastier (and more ethical) meals.

Although local goods may be slightly more expensive, businesses may offer coupons to entice consumers to buy from them.

Consider Buying Second Hand

It’s nice to think about buying a shiny new thing, but before you pull the trigger, you may want to consider, does this need to be purchased new?

•  Buying second-hand can be more economical, as well as more environmentally-conscious. Yes, it keeps older items from ending up in landfills, and, unlike buying a brand new product, no new item needs to be produced to directly replace it.

  If you’re thinking about buying a new bike, for example, you might get just as much pleasure from getting a gently used bike through an online second-hand marketplace.

  The same holds for clothing. Gently-used garments are one of the greenest clothing choices you can make because they require no additional resources to produce and they reduce the amount of textile waste going into landfills.

•  Plus you can often score some great finds at thrift stores, garage sales, and online marketplaces where people sell their unwanted stuff. Another option is to organize a clothing swap with a group of friends.

•  Second-hand pieces typically cost less than new clothes bought on sale. In addition, they may feel much more unique, as fewer people around town will likely be sporting the same exact item.

Do You Really Need the Product at All?

Ethical shopping also means thinking about if you really need to shop at all.

Sometimes it’s okay to just say “no” to buying the latest and greatest. Sure, there’s a new phone on the market that’s cool, but do you really need it?

Becoming an ethical shopper means asking yourself this question a lot. It’s easy to give in to society’s pressure to buy new and buy often, but part of becoming a more conscious consumer is to start thinking in a different way.

One way to nip unnecessary buying in the bud is to employ the 30-day purchase rule. If a person finds an item they like but doesn’t need immediately, they agree to walk away for 30 days.

If, after the waiting period, they feel they still really want the product and can afford it, they can then choose to go back and buy it. However, the odds are fairly good that a little bit of time and space will prove that a nonessential item is just that.

Tracking Spending Can Help

One way to become a more conscious and ethical shopper is to start tracking your spending as part of whatever budget method you choose.

Looking over your checking account and credit card statements each month can help people see exactly where they are spending their money (and where they may want to cut back), while also pointing out vendors and shops they may no longer want to patronize (such as an out of the way mega-grocery store).

💡 Quick Tip: If you’re faced with debt and wondering which kind to pay off first, it can be smart to prioritize high-interest debt first. For many people, this means their credit card debt; rates have recently been climbing into the double-digit range, so try to eliminate that ASAP.

The Takeaway

Whether it’s clothing, food, or tech, many of the products we love to buy are associated with unethical practices, from human rights abuses to environmental harm.

Ethical shopping is about supporting companies that put in the work to make things better for people, as well as the planet. It’s also about choosing not to buy from brands that violate your code of ethics. While the process may seem intimidating, it’s easy to start buying more ethically with the right tools and information, plus a little research time. It may help you shave down your spending too.

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