Have you ever really thought about what it is exactly that you’re buying? Most of us see something we like, and if we can afford it, we buy it without giving it a second thought. But with every dollar we spend, we’re actively casting a vote about what we’re willing and not willing to accept from companies.
While consumerism has an important role in the economy, it’s essential to think more before buying. It’s easier than ever before to be an ethical consumer, with the Internet and media offering practically endless sources of information about brands and companies, where and how services and products are made. Plus, there are blog posts and consumer helplines that help those who’ve had bad experiences, or reveal inside information that helps to expose unethical practices. While we may need to question some of this information to determine how accurate it may or may not be, there is no doubt that the facts are out there for ethical consumers to obtain.
The key may be to remember that every time you shop, your dollar is making a difference – let that be a positive difference, not only in your local community but of the entire world, by keeping these important ethical practices in mind.
1. Do your research
Doing your research is key to being an ethical consumer, and thanks to Google, it’s fairly easy to find out all you need to know when it comes to nearly every industry under the sun. You might begin by looking into where your food comes from, particularly ingredients for your favorite go-to dishes, and things like coffee. If you drink coffee regularly, this one is really a must to check out as there’s a good chance that the farm workers who helped to produce those beans were working in extremely inhuman conditions just to cut costs.
You’re likely to start discovering some rather disturbing practices, like child labor, underpaid workers and sweatshops among many others. In addition to learning about those, be sure to research the solutions in order to educate yourself on what you can do as an individual to help. Some of the most common include things like organic farming which keeps those farm workers safe from hazardous chemicals, fair trade sourced foods, microeconomic loan programs, and products that give back, just to name of few.
When you have time and want to play detective, see if you can find out some of your favorite retailers’ stances on important issues. For example, you love that clothing brand, but once you dig into what it’s really all about, you might find that the cotton used in the material came from farms utilizing forced child labor – now, that beautiful dress probably doesn’t look as stunning as you once thought. Does the company have a website with statements on issues that matter to you? If not, chances are, they aren’t concerned with them so you may want to look for a new brand that cares.
2. Read all of that fine print
When you see an ad that states something like “A portion of your purchase will be donated to XXX,” you probably immediately think, this is a great company that truly cares about the world we live and its impact on it. Now you can shop guilt-free, right? Sadly, some companies realize this and may be using it to their advantage to get you to buy. They know most people don’t read the fine print. But that’s not you. At least not anymore. Be sure to read it all, or simply ask what portion of your purchase will actually be donated. You may be surprised to find that oftentimes, it’s a very minimal amount, typically between just 1 and 5 percent. If you were tempted to buy purely because of the thought of doing something good with your money, you may want to look elsewhere.
Becoming diligent and learning how to careful check those labels is one of the most important things you can do to be an ethical customer. Instead of happily shopping those amazing clothing sales without a care in the world – which most of the time features clothing made in overseas sweatshops – take a look to find out just why you’re getting such a great discount. You can have an impact on disturbing violations of human rights simply by making sure that you purchase clothing that was made in places that don’t have sweatshops, like the United States or Canada. You can also look into companies that use ethical manufacturing practices, or shop more at consignment shops, thrift stores and the like to to limit the environmental impact.
3. Make Sure What You’re Buying is Authentic
Another key issue that an ethical consumer faces is learning how to tell if an item they’re interested in is a counterfeit. While most might assume that those items are only sold on street corners or sites like eBay, the reality is far different. A number of retailers have been caught selling illegal merchandise, especially when it comes to high-priced, big-name products.
To avoid becoming a victim, check out one of the many consumer guides out there to find out how to spot a fake. Some of the most common valuable imitations tend to be watches, jewelry, wallets, handbags and electronic devices. Illegal merchandise like this is usually made under sweatshop conditions – when you combine that knowledge with the poorer quality of the product, you’ll quickly realize that buying a counterfeit is a bad idea.
4. Look into labor disputes and other problems
If a company has a history of labor disputes, strikes and the like, that can be an indication that it’s not a business that supports ethical consumerism. Walmart, for example, is one of the most well-known companies to fall under that category – in fact, a number of them simply closed without any warning to employees whatsoever – and many have alleged that it was the result of a payroll disagreement. There are loads of other examples too – and if you really look, you’ll find a multitude of similar reports about other stores too, which can help you make the most ethical purchasing decisions.
5. Buy Fair Trade as often as possible
Fair trade is always the best option when it comes to purchasing ethically. The Fair Trade label indicates that farmers have been paid a fair price for their harvest and that workers who were involved labored in safe conditions. It also means that working families were able to keep their kids in school and that the money earned was cycled back into the local economy where those workers live. Additionally, that label indicates that organizations like Fair Trade USA have certified that the farmers and other producers have adhered to fair trade standards. An audit is conducted of the product’s supply chain by the organization, ensuring fair trade prices have been paid.
When you buy a Fair Trade item, you’re helping to drastically improve the quality of life for farmers in many developing countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Your purchase helps to bring families out of poverty and give children food, shelter, and education necessary to thrive. And all you have to do is look for the Fair Trade symbol.
When people are given fair compensation for their work, they don’t require charity, so the more you purchase fair trade products, the more you’ll be helping to nourish a fair, growing economy.
6. Head to the farmers market more often
If you have a farmers market in your area, go! Not only will you find food that is fresher, tastier and more nutritious, buying those local foods help to support and sustain farming in your community. Plus, going to the farmers market is a lot more fun than shopping at most grocery stores. Who wouldn’t rather enjoy browsing what the community has to offer under the outdoor sunshine, and maybe even enjoying a little live music or a taste of something you’ve never tried before?
Shopping at your farmers market helps to support the local economy instead of massive food conglomerates, which means your money stays within your community and also helps to ensure the local farmers can continue their operations.
7. Go local
Whether or not you have a local farmers market, going local is an important part of reducing your carbon footprint and ethically buying. That not only means shopping like places at farmers markets, but local, independent stores. They say the average distance that food travels to get to your dinner table is 1,500 miles. Shipping it uses up massive amounts of natural resources, especially fossil fuels. It also contributes to more trash in the landfill because of the packaging and adds to pollution.
Studies have found that when you buy from an independent, locally-owned business, rather than a nationally-owned businesses, significantly more of your money is used to make purchases from other local businesses, service providers, and farms, which all works to continue to strengthen the economic base of the community. Locally-owned businesses can make more local purchases which require less transportation, and as they’re often located right in town centers rather than developing on the fringe, it generally means contributing less to sprawl, congestion, habitat loss, and pollution.
8. Shop at co-ops
Co-ops not only offer another opportunity to buy local, they’re operated with their own built-in democracy. That makes it a lot more likely for their staff to be treated fairly. Although most people picture a grocery store when they hear the term “co-op,” you’ll actually find many different types of businesses that operate this way. It all boils down to that research that you’re planning to do – look to see what co-ops might be in your area and consider making them a priority when it’s time to shop.
9. Bring your own shopping bags
We hope you’re already doing this – after all, many communities around the country have begun to ban plastic bags for purchases, encouraging customers to bring their own cloth bags. Unfortunately, the practice of using plastic bags is still common. While they may still be free to shoppers in many places, the environment, and our wildlife pays a high cost. Using reusable cloth bags is a must for ethical consumers. You might think plastic bags are more convenient, but you’ll quickly find that once you get in the habit of bringing them along, they’re much easier to fill and carry around.
Just by bringing your own cloth bags to use when you shop, can reduce your carbon footprint massively. Can you imagine the impact if every consumer developed this great habit? Here are another 25 compelling reasons to use re-usable bags!
10. Pay closer attention to packaging
Think about all of that packaging on everything you buy and how quickly that trash pile adds up. We’re beginning to run out of options for all of that garbage buildup. A simple solution is to recycle anything and everything you can, in addition to avoiding the purchase of items that come with a lot of packaging.
Lunchables, for example, are not only highly processed junk foods that many kids beg their parents for, all of that food is individually wrapped, inside of a plastic tray, and then packaged inside another box. All of that packaging is unnecessary and the food inside of it is not doing anyone’s health any favors, particularly growing children. But that’s just one example, of course. Just keep an eye out when you’re buying, and consider the packaging that comes with it.
11. Hold brands accountable and stand up against unethical practices by boycotting
Unfortunately, far too many companies and brands out there just don’t care about their business ethics – but that’s only because they believe consumers don’t care either. In many cases, sadly, they are right. They may realize that some shoppers do feel bad about unfair labor, but not bad enough to skip that 2-for-1 sale. If we all cared enough to change our habits by holding ourselves and those brands and companies accountable, businesses would take note. Boycotts work. If consumers don’t buy, companies are forced to change, highlighting the power of taking a stand for what you believe in by voting with your dollars.