Are You a Socially Responsible Consumer?


August 31, 2010   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

Shopping Tags

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years, you’ll have noticed how the global recession forced companies to try harder than ever to win your attention and your hard earned cash.

While tough economic times make us all very cautious of how we spend our money, it also offers the perfect ground for the bargain hunters amongst us.

But is a good deal the only deciding factor when you go shopping? Do you know what lies behind that 5 buck t-shirt? Should you care?

Everything we buy has a social, economic or environmental impact, positive or negative. You could be inadvertently encouraging unnecessary animal testing by choosing a specific brand of cosmetics, for example. On the other hand, the cup of fair trade coffee you had this morning might be helping the development of sustainable business communities in Costa Rica.

Why do these choices matter? Because by considering the ethical value of your shopping, you will ultimately make the world a better place for yourself.

Not convinced? I’ll give you a cynical example:

Increase the value of your property: by abandoning your local, independent shops in favor of giant supermarkets, you may be killing local trade, diminishing the character of what may have been a bustling shopping street, eventually making the whole area less attractive in real estate terms.

Sure, supermarkets are convenient and cheaper. But, remain loyal to smaller, non-chain shops and not only will you get more personal, knowledgeable service, find higher quality and more exclusive products, but it will also do no harm to the market value of your neighborhood.

Read on for 5 everyday choices you can make as an ethical consumer:

    1. Food
        • Look for fair trade brands. You’ll be surprised at how affordable prices are. The Fairtrade certification ensures sustainable livelihoods for producers and workers in developing countries, by negotiating better trading conditions. 
    2. When buying fresh ingredients, try sticking to seasonal ones. This ensures your food has been produced within reasonable distance and offers the best possible nutritional value. Is it really worth eating half ripe mangoes that had to fly thousand of carbon-emitting miles to reach your shopping basket?
    3. Try having one meat-free day a week. According to a recent UN survey, meat production is responsible for one fifth of the world’s green gas emissions. Personally, I love my bacon too much to become a full-fledged vegetarian, but one out of seven days sounds like a happy compromise to me.
    4. Consider composting: if you have even a small garden or backyard, start composting your food waste. It’s the ultimate saving tip: every single bit of food is used … and then re-used! If you don’t want to face the task yourself, check if there are local groups that will collect your food waste for composting.
    5. Clothes
        • If you’re shopping at big chains, check their website for a corporate responsibility page. This is becoming increasingly visible on companies’ websites and it will reassure you about the conditions under which their clothes were manufactured and traded. 
    6. Re-use: visit thrift shops and yard sales. Vintage really is the new black. What better way to create a unique style, save serious money and give the landfill a welcome break? Attend local Swishing parties and swap your unwanted clothes – they really are great fun.
    7. The boring stuff
      It pays to do some research on ethical utilities providers. Check for the ones using renewable sources of energy. Some are investing in wind farms or using part of their revenue on carbon offset programs. This isn’t done for purely selfless reasons. Companies investing in renewable energy show they have serious, long term growing plans and are worth sticking to. 
  • Good money
    Your financial adviser should know of available ethical investments. This could go from pension funds that avoid industries such as tobacco, pornography or gambling, to investment plans working strictly with companies associated with good labor standards, for example.
  • Before you buy
    Consider how you are disposing of your old possessions. There are a number of recycling options available. Try Freecycle for passing on anything in good working order. Organize yard sales. Dispose of electronics responsibly: TVs, laptops, mobile phones, as well as batteries, CDs and DVDs contain hazardous material and must be disposed of accordingly. A lot of retailers offer drop-off points for phones and other small items. Next time you replace your washing machine, remember that some shops will collect your old one for free. Look for charities that are willing to take on and repair electronics, to sell it on. 

You don’t need to take to the streets or make big loud statements to make a positive difference to the world. Lots of small steps add up to big changes. Who’d have thought 10 years ago that Starbucks and McDonald’s would have fair trade coffee on their menus – and at decent prices? It was a move dictated by the power and choice of consumers.

Act with your wallet. Buy responsibly; recycle and re-use; buy second hand; save money.

I’d love to hear your tips on being an ethical shopper.


Getting Started with Money

Learn More About Money

More on Money

Money Individual Reviews