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). []