As consumers we have so much power to change the world by just being careful in what we buy.
Have you watched any of these eye-opening fast fashion documentaries? From exploited garment workers in third-world countries to the devastating environmental impact of our shopping habits, they will radically challenge the way you think. Whether you’re simply curious to learn more or you’re determined to make a change, I want you to feel empowered to start shopping ethically.
However, when we live in such a corrupt world, it can be virtually impossible to know where to start:
- Isn’t ethical shopping complicated, restrictive and expensive?
- What difference can I possibly make as one person?
- Why should I be expected to spend more to do the right thing?
- Isn’t it the responsibility of businesses to change the way they operate?
- How do I know if I can trust a company? What if they’re greenwashing?
If you’ve ever found yourself asking these kinds of questions, then I completely understand. In a fast-moving, exploitative and unsustainable system, ethical consumerism can feel like a drop in the ocean in terms of its impact.
But we all have a responsibility as individuals, and I hope that this guide inspires you to vote with your wallet for the kind of world you want to live in. We can make waves and demand positive change by having self-awareness and making a few simple adjustments to our buying habits.
What Is Ethical Shopping?
Ethical consumption means making more conscious choices about how and where you spend your money. It’s about aligning your purchasing habits with your personal values and choosing to support ethical brands that care just as much about their impact as they do their profit line.
This involves transparency in their supply chain and a commitment to fair working conditions, as well as awareness of their environmental impact and how they treat animals.
Broadly speaking, we can therefore say that ethical brands will prioritise the three main pillars of People, Planet and Animals. In the business world, this often falls under the slightly more intimidating heading of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility,’ so let’s break it down simply:
An ethical shopper cares about human rights
Why is it so hard to find stuff that isn’t made in China? In a nutshell, because the Western world outsources the vast majority of its production and manufacturing to third-world countries where the labour is much cheaper.
In 2019, China accounted for a staggering 28.7% of the world’s global output alone. Other poor countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Indonesia are also now heavily affected by the textile industry in particular (check out this article for info on why you should break up with fast fashion ASAP).
It’s easy to forget about all this when you’re enjoying a day out shopping, but ethical consumers care about the people who made their stuff. Ethical businesses will likely give back via charitable initiatives, but, most importantly, they will be transparent about their supply chain and have an auditing system in place. This should ensure that the factories they work with:
- Pay a living wage
- Have fair working hours
- Meet adequate health and safe conditions
- Don’t engage in child labour or forced labour
- Allow workers to form unions
An ethical shopper is mindful of sustainability
We only have one precious planet, and we are quickly destroying it. As with human rights abuses, when a problem is out of sight, it’s also out of mind. Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest isn’t taking place on your doorstep, but it contributes about 4.8 billion tonnes of CO2 a year towards climate change and global warming (with beef production responsible for 41% of this devastating activity).
Heavy petrochemical processes and toxic wastewater from manufacturing also pose a direct threat to ecosystems, the health of local workers and communities, as well as the world’s population at large.
Offsetting carbon emissions is becoming increasingly popular for brands showcasing their eco-credentials (e.g. planting a tree for every order placed), but it’s also important that brands make an effort to minimise their carbon footprint and impact on the planet’s resources. For example, using natural and sustainable materials or considering the packaging they use to ship your order.
An ethical shopper treats animals with respect
Have a watch of the documentary films Earthlings and SLAY to understand more about the meat and dairy industries, animal testing, and the role of animals in fashion. Trigger warning: they’re pretty graphic so you may find them upsetting.
Whilst you may be tempted to focus on the human and environmental aspects, the ethical consumer movement should absolutely take animals into consideration. When we show compassion and respect towards other species, we can’t help but show respect towards our fellow human beings and planet. In this way, how we treat animals becomes the bedrock for how we treat others more generally.
Just remember that cruelty-free and vegan aren’t one and the same! Cruelty-free certification denotes that a brand doesn’t test on animals, whereas vegan means that an item contains no animal by-products.
Is It Difficult To Be an Ethical Consumer?
This might all seem like a lot to tackle, but taking steps towards ethical consumerism doesn’t have to cause a headache. We can at least start with the one thing that is within our control: our own actions and behaviour.
The capitalist culture that we live in primes us to mindlessly spend and feel as though we always need more, more, more to be happy. So being an ethical consumer is most difficult in the sense that it is counter-cultural and requires strength of will to push against societal norms.
When products appear perfectly packaged on your favourite store shelves, it’s much more comforting to rinse your hands of any responsibility and indulge in that short-term dopamine hit. But we should acknowledge that being silently complicit in corrupt systems makes us a part of the supply-and-demand problem.
It can also feel easier to do nothing when something appears overwhelming, but we should be wary of striving for perfection. Every product brought into existence will have an impact, and even the best of systems will have their problems. This doesn’t absolve us from continuing to pursue the best possible solutions we can.
How do you know whether a company is truly ethical?
The problem with ethical shopping is separating the companies who are talking the talk from those who are walking the walk – aka the dreaded greenwashing.
With customers becoming more conscious than ever before, ethics and sustainability are quickly becoming lucrative marketing buzzwords that help to sell products. However, just because brands label products as ‘sustainable,’ ‘all-natural’ and ‘eco-friendly,’ doesn’t automatically mean that these claims are backed up with any meaningful evidence.
When assessing whether a company is ethical, a good first port of call is to look for third-party accreditation from trusted labels like The Vegan Society or Fairtrade. You can also use dedicated apps to check a brand’s ethical ratings:
- Cruelty-Free Kitty or Ethical Elephant (check whether your cosmetics are cruelty-free/vegan)
- Think Dirty (identify any hidden toxic chemicals)
- Good On You (see how ethical your favourite fashion brands are)
Does shopping ethically really make a difference?
Not only does it feel good to shop with moral integrity – it also has political power. It may feel like your efforts are in vain when others continue to mindlessly shop, but remember that change begins slowly at first before having a snowball effect.
For instance, just consider the plummeting reputation of fur as a material. We have animal rights activists to thank for this shift in mentality.
Reports show that thanks to ethical consumerism, 61% of fashion brands are now committed to using more sustainable materials, child labour rates have dropped by a third, and 56% of people say that they will boycott brands they feel are unethical.
Start conversations within your social circles and be a role model – it’s amazing how the seeds of change can grow from the most humble of roots.
10 Tips To Shop More Ethically
Rather than waiting for businesses to change (hint: this won’t happen whilst they’re continuing to make profit!), here are 10 practical tips that you can implement today to be a more responsible consumer.
1. Buy less, repair & repurpose
Of course, before we start any meaningful discussion about how to shop more ethically, it’s worth pointing out that the most ethical option is to simply buy less. This not only reduces waste – it reduces the demand for new things being produced. I’m not saying that you’ll never need to purchase anything new ever again, but I’m sure there are plenty of times you’ve mindlessly bought stuff that you didn’t really need.
Without a doubt, the most sustainable and ethical products are the ones you already own. So before you whip out the credit card, ask yourself a few questions. Does something else you already own fulfil the same purpose? Could you repair it – for example, taking a pair of boots to be reheeled or sewing up a hole? Or, could you get creative with an upcycling project – breathing new life into an old piece of furniture or turning an old pair of jeans into some shorts?
2. Swap, rent & buy secondhand
Your second port of call should be to make the most of resources already in circulation. It’s so easy to get fixated on the latest fad trend or gadget, but within a few weeks it will have lost its sheen.
If you have a friend who is a similar dress size to you and you like each other’s style, consider doing periodic clothes swaps. This is a great way to give you all the newness you crave, without bringing more stuff into the world. Similarly, if you have a formal occasion coming up, then try renting rather than buying. This often works out more cost-effective than purchasing something you’ll probably never wear again.
Lastly – curate your own sense of style by shopping vintage or secondhand in charity shops. You can pick up some ridiculously good bargains! Good for your wallet and good for the planet, too. Win-win!
3. Boycott unethical brands
We can challenge corporate power simply by making more intentional choices about where we spend our hard-earned money. For instance, now that I know the impact of fast fashion companies – particularly the poor conditions for garment workers – I no longer choose to support these brands.
If you’re not sure about a company, then do a bit of research before you spend via the handy brand checkers I suggested earlier. You can always reach out to brands and ask them questions directly about their ethical and sustainable credentials, too.
4. Go plant-based
Remember that your weekly food shop accounts for a consistent proportion of your overall consumption. In short, what we put in our mouths matters – not only for our own personal health but also for the planet.
I know that this may be an unpopular opinion with those who don’t want to make any fundamental changes to their lifestyle, but honestly? Going vegan has consistently been recommended as the single best thing you can do for the environment.
In fact, a study by the University of Oxford found that by cutting meat and dairy from your diet, you could reduce your carbon footprint from food by a staggering three-quarters.
A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.
Joseph Poore, lead author of the study
It goes without saying that it’s also the more ethical and humane choice when we don’t have to consume animals. There are now so many choices available in the supermarkets, so whether you just commit to one plant-based meal a week or you want to transition today, this is a great way to have a positive impact.
I’ve written more about where to shop as a vegan over here!
5. Shop locally
Shopping sustainably means being aware of where things come from. So to reduce air miles and support your local community, make the effort to shop for goods and services locally.
Whilst it’s great for our creativity in the kitchen that we have access to ingredients from all across the globe, being able to buy seasonal produce all year round means we’ve lost touch with the natural growing cycles of our food.
If you do a weekly shop at the supermarket, could you pick up your fruit and vegetables from a local farmer’s market? Perhaps you could even try your hand at growing your own veg or going out and picking fruit when it’s in season.
6. Invest in quality & reusable products
We’ve all been trained to sniff out a bargain. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with being frugal, it’s also easy to fritter money away on poor-quality products. One of the biggest mindset shifts with ethical shopping is getting into the habit of slowing down and making better purchasing decisions.
This means not being so heavily influenced by discounts and sale messages, and feeling less guilty about investing in quality pieces that will last a lifetime.
Before you buy, also think about the lifetime of the product. As ethical shoppers, we should aim to purchase reusable items rather than disposable ones that end up in landfill. This may mean spending more up-front, but your wallet and the planet will benefit in the long run.
There are plenty of things I’ve stopped buying as a minimalist in favour of more sustainable options.
7. Support accredited brands
To shop ethically, it’s helpful to have an understanding of trusted third-party labels and what this accreditation means. Brands can say whatever they like, but the proof is in the pudding. Hard-won certification means that they’ve had to prove their ethical and sustainable credentials to an independent body.
Make purchasing decisions that align with your values by keeping an eye out for brands that are:
- B-Corp certified – the ultimate gold standard in ethical business practice
- Vegan Society approved – for zero animal by-products
- Leaping Bunny or PETA certified – confirmation that no animals have been tested on
- Fair Trade – to guarantee fair prices have been paid to producers
- COSMOS certified – for organic cosmetic formulations from The Soil Association
- RSPO approved – for responsible and sustainably sourced palm oil
- RJC accredited – following a code of conduct from the Responsible Jewellery Council
- FSC certified – sourced from responsibly managed forests
- OEKO-Tex approved – ensures toxic chemicals are removed from the supply chain
8. Consider materials & ingredients
Ethical companies pay attention to the impact of their materials and the sourcing of their ingredients. For instance, moving away from harsh chemical processes and nonbiodegradable plastics and opting instead for natural, renewable and non-toxic materials.
When you’re looking for ethically made products, choose sustainable and vegan materials such as wood, bamboo, bio-plastics, alternative leathers (pineapple, apple, cork, etc), recycled cotton, hemp, organic linen and lyocell. For brands that are pioneering the way for ethical vegan fabrics, check out my post on the best vegan clothing brands in 2023.
9. Look for transparency
If it’s difficult to find any information about a brand’s ethics and sustainability, then consider this a big red flag!
Ethical brands will make their ethos clear – from published impact reports and fully accessible ingredient lists to the ways in which they give back through charitable work. You can usually find this supporting information by clicking around on the header or footer of a website. Look for ‘Ethics & Sustainability’, ‘Our Philosophy’ or ‘Our Story’ to check whether this is a brand you feel aligns with your own principles.
10. Make your voice heard
Doing everything in this list will transform your shopping habits and make a strong statement of intent, but if you want to take ethical shopping to the next level and effect wider social change, then consider how you can make your voice heard.
Signing petitions, lobbying, and joining protests can be a powerful way of demanding more ethical practices are brought into effect sooner. However, if this doesn’t sound like you, then remember that it’s just as worthwhile to raise awareness within your social circles. Have genuine conversations about ethical shopping with your friends, family and acquaintances and see what their thoughts are on the subject.
Collectively, we have so much power to make a real difference.
Shop Ethically: Use Your Purchasing Power to Change the World
In an ideal world, to shop ethically would be a given. We wouldn’t have to worry about whether human rights were being upheld or whether the environment was being treated with respect. But until this time, it’s so important to do our research and take a stand by carefully considering our shopping habits and which brands we’re supporting.
Thankfully, as a society, we’re increasingly starting to ask uncomfortable questions and demand more from companies with regard to transparency and accountability. But we shouldn’t forget that we need to do the inner work and make the necessary changes to our own lifestyles, too. Be the change you want to see in the world.
To make purchasing decisions that align with your values and that you actually feel good about, I’ve researched and put together plenty of ethical buying guides. In these, I explore the specific issues within different industries more fully, helping you to make more considered decisions and support the good guys (i.e. the companies that really deserve it!).
Check out some lovely brands that are doing things a little differently with my shopping guides on:
- Ethical and affordable fashion
- Vegan handbags
- Natural, non-toxic makeup
- Organic skincare
- Sustainable haircare
- Eco-friendly deodorants
- Clean perfume
- Responsible jewellery
- Vegan gifts for him & her
Oh, and don’t forget to let me know how you get on in the comments below. Good luck!