Ethical Shopping

It’s Christmas Eve, and since Angela and I are just sticking around town this holiday, we decided to go run a few errands earlier today. One of which was to go buy Staples to pick up some printer paper (I specifically say Staples, because they’re at the end of the street, about six blocks away). Okay, buying printer paper shouldn’t be a major life decision, and I don’t want the fact that I’m posting about it to make it seem larger than it is. However, it is typical of the many decisions that we, as consumers, make almost everyday. What do you consider in buying something like printer paper: buy recycled paper? buy the cheapest? buy the highest quality? buy a national brand or a local brand? and so on.

We ended up buy a few reams of Xerox 100% Post-Consumer Recycled Paper. It’s only 20 lb. and 84 brightness, which is thinner and duller paper than I usually like. However, it was on sale at Staples and, as the name implies, is 100% recycled (post-consumer content, which is important). We’ve made the decision that recycling our paper (among other household items) is important to us, and purchasing recycled paper goods helps to complete that cycle. Else, you’re really not realizing the full environmental benefit of your own recycling.

Most all of our our choices as consumers come down to so much more than just price and the goods themselves. There is meta-data associated with goods that reflects so much more than what is inside the package we’re purchasing. Of course, other than possibly the environmental aspect, one of the most common is buying from a source to help the economies of one group or another. Buying from local farmers to keep the money working close to home, purchasing from retailers who choose to pay a living wage instead of minimum wage, buying fair-trade products rather than the cheapest foreign made product. These are examples of ethical shopping1, or using one’s conscience to help make a decision instead of, or in addition to, the stuff inside the box.

We try and put our money where our hearts, minds, and mouths are. Of course, sometimes our priorities end up being in direct conflict with one another. Spending my money at a bookstore that donates money to progressive political causes (like, Barnes & Noble, for example) can’t be anything local, as there aren’t any here in Virginia, to be sure. Some even argue that consumers should just always buy the cheapest product and give any approximate savings to the cause they originally considered supporting. That’s a great notion, as it cuts down on middle-man costs. Unfortunately, in practice, where to you give your money to and how likely are you to actually go through with a 45¢ donation to them? Personally, I feel that just isn’t practice and choose to go ahead and buy fair-trade coffee (can’t ever get local grown coffee anyway) and buy goods made in places that pay workers decent wages rather than mail them a check myself2

So here’s a somewhat ordered list of the things, other than price and quality of product, that we consider in our household:

  1. Environmental impact: Buy recycled/ used goods; buy items which pollute as little as possible, such as recycled paper and vehicles with good fuel economy.
  2. Health: buy natural/ organic or non-preservative foods; such as free range chicken and no-pesticide vegetables3.
  3. Local: buy foods grown locally and goods made locally when possible; use local services, like our farmer’s market, Virginia grown buffalo meat, and the Staples down the street (yes, it’s a local chain, but it keeps decent paying jobs in our neighborhood, which it needs).
  4. Fair Markets: buy goods from business that pay living wages and through fair-trade markets, like Costco (who pays much better than it’s competitor Sam’s Club and their employees stay with them much longer), Gridge’s coffee, who sell certified Fair-Trade coffee, or Novica where you can purchase from crafts-people in developing countries.
  5. Progressive Causes: purchase from retailers and producers who also support like-minded causes, in politics, environment, fair-trade, etc. Barnes & Noble and Starbucks are two large corporations that donate overwhelmingly to progressive candidates. Ford is a automobile manufacturer who takes environmental manufacturing and green building very seriously.

Again, depending on the circumstance, those priorities move. Also, it’s rare when they can all be satisfied. However, we feel like at least keeping this sort of thing in mind does more good than bad. We are going to use up resources and we might as well make the act of doing so produce some additional end results that can help make the world a little better.

So does any of this matter to any of you? Do you have other things you consider or is your order vastly different from mine above? Let me know. I’d love to see how other people think about this, if at all (I may be vastly over-estimating how much my money matters).

  1. While this sort of thing has been on our minds for most of our lives, the term "ethical shopping" was one I first read in a piece in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago. It seemed to sum up the whole notion sufficiently. []
  2. Although, to be sure, it is possible. is a new site dedicated to making micro-payments to individuals and companies in developing companies. You can make both donations and loans. []
  3. Consumer Reports has a nice little article about when this makes sense and when it’s just not worth bothering (via Kottke). []