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. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

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. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

7 tips for becoming an ethical shopper

It starts with educating yourself and supporting products and companies that align with your values.

By Lauren Schwahn / NerdWallet

Sustainability, labor 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,” says Dr. Ellis Jones, author of “The Better World Shopping Guide” and assistant professor of sociology at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. “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.

1. 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 says. “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.”

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 says the more seals or certifications a product or company has, the better. When in doubt, turn to third-party organizations for guidance. For example, the Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit watchdog group, rates farms and manufacturers of items like yogurt, eggs and toothpaste.

2. 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, says Casey Taylor, a partner in Bain and Company’s retail practice. Investing in reusable, high-quality or easy-to-repair items can help minimize 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 says.

3. Seek secondhand goods

When you choose previously owned items, you aren’t contributing to the labor 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.

4. 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 says.

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

5. Shop locally

Visit your neighborhood bakery or farmers market rather than a large chain. Supporting local businesses or buying locally grown produce is generally better for the environment because it decreases the distance that products have to travel, Taylor says. It also gives consumers the opportunity to ask merchants directly for details about how products are sourced and made.

6. Pick a responsible financial institution

Financial institutions and products are part of the equation, too, Jones says. You can search for a bank or credit union that’s committed to social and environmental values. Community development financial institutions, for example, help underserved consumers build credit and acquire loans.

Some credit cards automatically donate to charitable causes like nature conservation and cancer research with every purchase. Consider applying for one that donates to causes important to you.

7. Be prepared

Find small ways to make the ethical choice the easy choice. You can reduce waste by keeping reusable shopping bags or a coffee cup in the car or by the front door. That way, you’ll have them when you need them.

“Simple choices add up if you think about the number of times that you walk into a store or pop by a coffee shop,” Taylor says.

Developing positive habits takes practice. But with a little effort, shopping ethically can become second nature.


3 steps to avoid fake organics:

Certified B Corporations:

The Freecycle Network

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Small business relief effort inundated with 850 applications

The economy in and around Everett has struggled amid fallen revenues and uncertainty about the future.

‘Hundreds of millions’ in bogus jobless benefits paid out

Washington state has been reported as the top target of a Nigerian fraud ring.

Marysville drivers wait overnight for Chick-fil-A opening

The popular chicken restaurant began serving at 6:30 a.m. Thursday. Police plan to guide traffic for days.

Tulalip Resort Casino and Quil Ceda Creek to open Tuesday

Guests must wear a mask and occupancy is limited, the Tulalip Tribes announced Wednesday.

As Arlington gym closes, a Snohomish barber continues to cut

PA Fitness closed after the state attorney general filed a lawsuit. “We would lose,” a co-owner conceded.

FAA says it will let Boeing employees vouch for plane safety

The agency defended the current system but identified areas for improvement. Some lawmakers disagree.

Fraudsters using local identities for phony jobless claims

The Everett School District, for example, saw about 310 false claims using employees’ personal information.

State sues an Arlington gym for violating stay-home order

“It is my constitutional right to be open,” says a co-owner of PA Fitness. He plans to countersue.

Heavy traffic expected when Chick-fil-A opens in Marysville

The city warns there will likely be delays for days along 88th Street NE. near the new restaurant.

Somers announces $14 million in relief for small businesses

One program will target aerospace companies. The other will focus on service and retail industries.

Paine Field terminal to close for 71 days of ramp repairs

Alaska is down to one departure per day due to the coronavirus outbreak’s effect on travel.

Quarantini time! New state rule allows cocktails to-go

Enjoy a margarita or a Manhattan with lunch or dinner to go. At Buck’s in Everett, you keep the mason jar.