Tips for becoming an ethical shopper

Sustainability, labour conditions, politics and other issues prevalent in the news have left many consumers wondering how to be socially responsible. For some, this seems like an impossible task.

“Trying to create a perfect world or be a perfect consumer is not at all realistic,” said assistant professor of sociology at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts Dr Ellis Jones, author of The Better World Shopping Guide. “We just have to try our best to practice and get better at navigating this so that collectively, our dollars start moving things in the right direction.”

Shopping ethically starts with educating yourself and supporting the products and companies that align with your values. Here’s what you can do to become a more ethical consumer.

Check certifications and ratings

Labels such as ‘Fair Trade Certified’ or ‘USDA Organic’ signify that a product’s supply chain has gone through some level of vetting. However, standards can vary widely.

“It’s not that those labels are meaningless, it’s that their meaning has been watered down,” Jones said. “Most consumers don’t have enough information to know whether that particular fair trade certification, organic certification or sustainable seafood certification is a weak one or a strong one.”

A ‘USDA Organic’ label is printed on the label of a pound of ground beef in Walpole, Massachusetts. PHOTO: AP

Jones considers the B Corporation Certification, which companies such as Patagonia and Seventh Generation have earned, the current gold standard. It takes a comprehensive look not just at products, but at entire companies’ social and environmental impacts. This includes assessing factors like energy usage and workers’ wages. But the rigorous certification process makes this label harder to find.

In general, Jones said the more seals or certifications a product or company has, the better. When in doubt, turn to third-party organisations for guidance. For example, the Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit watchdog group, rates farms and manufacturers of items like yogurt, eggs and toothpaste.

Shop less often

Overconsumption takes a toll on our wallets and the planet. Before buying something, think about whether you really need it. If you do, look for options that have a lesser impact, said Casey Taylor, a partner in Bain and Company’s retail practice. Investing in reusable, high-quality or easy-to-repair items can help minimise purchases.

“Instead of buying a new shirt from a fast-fashion retailer, you might think about buying used or buying pieces that’ll last longer,” Taylor said.

Seek secondhand goods

When you choose previously owned items, you aren’t contributing to the labour and materials needed to make new goods. Check thrift shops, garage sales and community groups like the Freecycle Network for inexpensive — or free — finds. Another sustainable solution? Rent clothes through services like Le Tote and Rent the Runway.

Choose slower online deliveries

Retailers like Amazon have made selecting fast shipping a reflex, but it’s not always the most ethical option. When shopping online, choosing standard shipping over same-day or next-day delivery can ensure multiple items in an order ship together.

“For the environment, it reduces packaging and the number of drop-offs, and for customers, it’s just one less box that you need to recycle,” Taylor said.

Better yet, shop in person or buy online and pick up in store.