Ethical Consumerism: What You Should Know

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If you’ve ever chosen a brand of coffee because it’s “fair trade certified,” switched from a big bank to a local credit union, or bought clothes or books from a locally owned store instead of a big national chain at the mall or online, you’ve engaged in what’s known as “ethical consumerism.” What exactly is ethical consumerism, and how can you be a more ethical consumer?

According to Ellis Jones, PhD, an associate professor of sociology at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and the author of The Better World Shopping Guide, ethical consumerism means “consumers attempting to use the money they spend as an economic voting system. The average American family spends around $22,000 every year on goods and services. Think of it as casting 22,000 votes every year for the kind of world you want to live in.”

In other words, using the power of your shopping dollars to support values that matter to you.

Why Choose Ethical Consumerism

Of course, those values can be different for different people, but in general, Jones says, people interested in being more ethical consumers focus on a few main categories of issues, including:

  • Human rights: child labor, fair trade, livable wages, and workers’ rights, health, and safety
  • The environment: climate change, recycling, renewable energy, sustainable farming, ocean conservation
  • Animal protection: humane treatment, factory farming, habitat preservation, animal alternatives, and vegan friendliness
  • Community involvement: family farms, local businesses, sustainable growth, campaign contributions, political corruption
  • Social justice: harassment and discrimination (based on race, gender, age, sexuality, ability, religion, ethnicity), unethical business practices, illegal activities, executive pay

“Some people are primarily green consumers, and their shopping choices are focused on the environment,” Jones says. “Others are particularly interested in shopping locally, so they focus on farmer’s markets, community supported agriculture programs (CSAs), and local small businesses. That’s all a part of the big tent idea of ethical consumerism, which is anything where people feel like they’re trying to influence real-world outcome and corporate behavior by sending companies messages with their shopping.”

How to Be an Ethical Consumer

So how can you use your family’s shopping dollars to support the values that matter to you? Start by doing your homework on the companies you buy from, right? Not necessarily. “’Do your homework’ is the worst piece of advice for ethical consumers,” Jones says. “You’re setting yourself up for failure. I’ve been working on this issue for 15-20 years and I still struggle to get accurate data about these companies. It’s virtually impossible to research every company you buy from.”

Instead, he recommends focusing on “bang for your buck” places to start. The biggest change you can make first: change your bank. “Where you bank is super important,” Jones says. “Most of the big banks, while they may appear to pay their employees fairly well and many are LEED certified as environmentally friendly, what is your money doing in their accounts when they invest all over the world? That’s difficult to scrutinize, and that’s where the bad stuff is.”

When possible, he suggests, move to a smaller bank or local credit union. “It’s a real pain to do it, but you only have to do it once.”

What if you can’t or don’t want to switch banks or you’ve already done that and want to do more? Many people would like to have an impact with their grocery purchases, for example. “The way many people fall into ethical consumerism at the supermarket is they start buying organic produce because they don’t want their family to eat pesticides,” Jones says. “Then they find out about fair trade, which focuses on safe, equitable working conditions and sustainable livelihoods.”

Finding Ethical Products and Businesses

But ethical consumerism in the grocery aisle can also be challenging. There are labels to look for, like “Fair Trade Certified” and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic certifications indicating that produce or meat has been grown and processed according to federal standards on things like soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. But in some cases, the standards behind those labels have been watered down. “These days, the designation of organic is almost meaningless,” Jones says.

The Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy and research organization and watchdog in the organic industry, issues regular reports on the marketing claims made by manufacturers of organic products from yogurt and cottage cheese to snack bars, toothpaste, and infant formula. “Their findings show that some of these labels are meaningless while others are 100% meaningful, but it’s hard for you to tell as the consumer by just looking at the label,” Jones says.

So is there any label you’ll find in the supermarket that helps you shop ethically without having to do hours of research? Jones recommends B Corp certification, which appears on a product’s label as a simple capital B with a circle around it. “B Corp is short for benefit corporation, and it’s a certifying nonprofit that certifies companies through a fairly rigorous process,” he says. “That certification is the current gold standard. If you want to know what you can do in your local supermarket, look for that B with the circle.”

“Certified B Corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose,” says the group’s website. “B Corps are accelerating a global culture shift to redefine success in business and build a more inclusive and sustainable economy.”

Shopping locally is another way to be an ethical consumer that doesn’t require a lot of research. “The economic playing field in our country leans heavily toward enormous corporations and disadvantages smaller businesses,” Jones says. “During the pandemic, between 20% and 40% of small businesses went under permanently. Your local independent businesses, everything from bookstores to restaurants to auto repair places, are likely struggling. Any business you appreciate having as a local, independent option, it’s important to give your money to.”

If you decide to be a more ethical consumer, don’t think you have to be perfect or not do it at all. “I use Amazon,” Jones admits. “Almost everybody does. Being an ethical consumer is not an exercise in perfection. It’s an attempt to raise our overall ethical GPA through how we spend our money. If you go from an F to a C, that’s progress. It’s like voting. Our collective votes are the only thing holding this democracy together. Don’t take on a bunch of guilt or try to be a perfect consumer. Do one thing at a time and move in the right direction because, collectively, it matters.”

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