Shopping Ethically Isn't As Expensive As You Think

by Caila Smith
Originally Published: 

Christmas is fast approaching, and even if you’re almost through with your shopping, it’s never too late to learn and practice the art of shopping ethically.

A concept once misconstrued as a privilege for the wealthy, conscientious consumerism doesn’t need to go hand in hand with a high price tag, activists like Tanja Hester, author of Wallet Activism, remind us.

“Because of bad marketing, people think that you have to buy Patagonia or be zero waste or drive a Tesla in order to ‘live your values,'” Hester tells The Cut in a recent interview. “There are things that every single person can do. People who earn more have a responsibility to do more, but there’s still plenty you can do with the smallest resources.”

Sometimes simply taking a moment to think about your purchase before forking over the cash or your card is the most beneficial place for someone to start shopping ethically. In Hester’s recent book, she encourages her readers to ask themselves these four simple questions about their purchases before hitting “pay now.”

“For whom?”

Meaning, who will reap the benefits of this purchase? Every action has a reaction, and intentionally creating space for this concept is perhaps the first step towards shopping ethically. Ask yourself, is this an item I’m buying purely to fuel my serotonin, or is it something I could do without?

Sometimes, less is more.

What am I funding?”

Do we want to be a contributor to the supply and demand of this product? How is the added need for this item going to impact warehouses, workers, or our earth? These are all essential questions we should ask ourselves.

One expense I’ll never distrust is acts of service. When someone helps me clean, gives me a massage, or teaches my kids the steps towards becoming a gymnast, there is little to no waste involved. Not only that, but I know where my money is going — toward people in my community. And when you support local, your money comes back full circle.

“Is it too cheap?”

Finding a sweet bargain can feel almost too good to be true when you’re down on your luck. But if something is super cheap, there is usually a reason for it. Maybe the working conditions needed to obtain this item are repulsive, workers aren’t getting paid a fair wage, or the products used to make the item are questionable. And sometimes, it’s all three.

“A lot of companies claim to be ‘sustainable,’ but then you look at the price and think, Okay, $10 or $15 and free shipping, is that really doable? Could they have really paid a living wage to people to make that shirt for that price? Does that price encompass transoceanic shipping? Obviously you can’t know everything, but you can use common sense about what seems realistic,” Hester says.

“Can other people do this?”

Asking yourself whether someone local could help you achieve the same level of satisfaction with a purchase isn’t the only question at hand (although that is a step in the right direction when shopping ethically).

We should also challenge ourselves to ask if the company we are buying from has a storefront or if their pricing is doable for most people. Of course, some of us will splurge at times, and that’s okay. But the important thing is to ask yourself these questions before processing payments.

With any purchase, big or small, we ought to think about the ripple effect that will follow. Because when it comes down to it, shopping ethically doesn’t revolve around how many dollars we spend. Shopping ethically is about how and where we spend them.

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but shopping for pre-loved items is “in” right now. Not only is another man’s trash another man’s treasure, but thrifting is an excellent way to save your wallet and the earth while bringing home one-of-a-kind items you can leave as is or spruce up to and make your own.

But perhaps the most significant way we can walk the path towards shopping ethically is by shopping with intention. Instead of the only goal in mind being, “I’m going to buy this specific item,” we should also research and reflect before buying said item.

That could mean avoiding historically busy shopping days, which congest transportation of goods and adds to the worker injury rate. But if you need to make purchases on those days, Hester recommends choosing the slowest delivery option possible to help slow the chaos of warehouses during these dates.

Putting in a little extra thought doesn’t have to cost us an additional dime. Actually, it might help ethical shoppers save one. If we were to think long and hard about some of the routine purchases we commit to buying, I believe many of us would realize how much money we are spending on “stuff” that we don’t need. And ultimately, how responsible the majority of us are for putting money into the pockets of mega-billion dollar companies who don’t utilize that money to make the world better.

One person, and one purchase, can’t change the world. But a million people shopping ethically together can.

Find more tips in Hester’s book, which you can buy here.

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