Ethical consumerism: what you need to know

If you have already chosen a brand of Coffee because it’s ‘certified fair’, gone from a big bank to a local credit union, or bought clothes or books at a local store instead of a big national chain at the mall or online, you you are engaged in what is called “” ethical consumerism. What exactly is ethical consumerism, and how can you be a more ethical consumer?

According to Ellis Jones, PhD, associate professor of sociology at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and author of The world’s best buying guide, ethical consumerism means “consumers who try to use the money they spend as an economic voting system. The average American family spends about $ 22,000 each year on goods and services. Think of it as 22,000 votes per year for the kind of world you want to live in.

In other words, use the power of your purchases to support the values ​​you hold dear.

Why choose ethical consumerism

Of course, those values ​​might 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, decent wages and rights, workers’ health and safety
  • The environment: climate change, recycling, renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, 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, sex, age, sexuality, ability, religion, ethnicity), unethical business practices, illegal activities, executive compensation

“Some people are primarily green consumers and their purchasing choices are focused on the environment,” says Jones. “Others are particularly interested in local purchases, so they focus on farmers’ markets, community-supported agricultural programs (CSAs) and small enterprises. It’s all part of the Big Tent idea of ​​ethical consumerism, which is anything where people feel like they’re trying to influence real-world outcomes and corporate behavior. by sending messages to businesses with their purchases.

How to be an ethical consumer

So how can you use your family’s shopping dollars to support the values ​​you hold dear? Start by doing your homework on the companies you buy from, right? Not necessarily. “Doing your homework is the worst advice for ethical consumers,” says Jones. “You are preparing for failure. I have been working on this issue for 15-20 years and still struggle to get accurate data on these companies. It is virtually impossible to research every company you buy from.

Instead, he recommends focusing on the “bang for your buck” starting points. The biggest change you can make first: change banks. “The location of your bank is very important,” Jones says. “Most of the big banks, when they may seem to pay their employees quite well and many are LEED certified as being environmentally friendly, what is your money doing in their accounts when they invest all over the world? It’s hard to scrutinize, and that’s where the bad things are.

When possible, he suggests, move to a small 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 change banks, or you’ve already done so and want to do more? A lot of people would like to have an impact on their grocery shopping, for example. “The way a lot of people fall into ethical consumerism in the supermarket is that they start buying organic products because they don’t want their families to eat pesticides,” says Jones. “Then they learn about fair trade, which focuses on safe and fair working conditions and sustainable livelihoods. “

Find ethical products and companies

But ethical consumerism in the grocery aisle can also be a challenge. There are labels to look for, like “Fair Trade Certified” and organic certifications from the United States Department of Agriculture indicating that the product or meat has been grown and processed according to federal standards on things like soil quality, husbandry practices, pest and weed control, and the use of additives. But in some cases, the standards behind these labels have been watered down. “Naming organic products makes almost no sense these days,” Jones says.

The Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy and research organization and a watchdog for the organic industry, regularly publishes reports on marketing claims made by manufacturers of organic yogurt and cottage products cheese at nibble bars, toothpaste, and baby formula. “Their findings show that some of these labels don’t make sense while others are 100% meaningful, but it’s hard for you as a consumer to tell by just looking at the label,” says Jones.

So, is there a 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 label as a simple capital B surrounded by a circle. “B Corp is short for Benefit Corporation, and it’s a nonprofit certification body that certifies companies through a fairly rigorous process,” he says. “This certification is the current gold standard. If you want to know what you can do at your local supermarket, look for this B with the circle.

“B-certified companies are companies that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profits and goals,” the group’s website states. “B Corps is accelerating a global culture change to redefine business success and build a more inclusive and sustainable economy. “

Buying 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 towards huge corporations and puts small businesses at a disadvantage,” Jones said. “During the pandemic, between 20 and 40% of small businesses have gone bankrupt permanently. Your local independent businesses, from bookstores to restaurants to auto repair shops, are probably in trouble. For any business that you value as a local, independent option, it’s important to give your money away.

If you decide to be a more ethical consumer, don’t think you have to be perfect or not be perfect at all. “I use Amazon,” Jones admits. “Almost everyone does it. Being an ethical consumer is not an exercise in perfection. It is an attempt to increase our overall ethical surrogacy through the way 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 that holds this democracy together. Don’t beat yourself up and 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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