Spending Saving the Planet or Saving Your Wallet?

April 22, 2024
By Michael Lovaglio

There is a lot of social media buzz around being an ethical consumer. The term “ethical consumerism” has been thrown around by finance enthusiasts and environmental activists alike. Oftentimes I find myself at Target browsing through products and being confronted with the words “ethically sourced” labeled across various expensive products - the only difference at face value seems to be a significant upcharge for products which have this label, but no clear definition of what it actually means. The words “ethical consumerism,” “ethical spending,” and “ethically sourced” have been used synonymously in Forbes articles and finance subreddits a great deal; yet, I am still unable to understand what it means. These terms are used often by major corporations as a technique to sell you their product, rather than maintain accountability for their environmental sustainability.

After researching the world of ethical spending, I’ve grown to understand the issue. A company’s supply chain indicates the “ethicality” of that product; this includes labor practices, environmental impact and animal welfare, among other things. For instance, a company that specializes in the sale of diamonds but sources their products from a mine known to mistreat its workers would likely be considered unethical, at least in relation to that product. Similarly, a company that sells clothing items that are crafted using child labor would also be considered unethical in their product sourcing. Because low ethicality can be indicative of cruel and abusive practices (both to humans and the environment), the “ethicality” of a product’s sourcing has become an increasingly important factor among customers when choosing where to shop. A recent study conducted by the software company OpenText found that nearly 90% of consumers would rather shop from companies who source their products ethically. The uptick in customers emphasizing ethical consumption has been credited to a growing urge for moral behavior among consumers; people are moving to spend their money on products whose production aligns with their moral beliefs.

Needless to say, the line between ethical and unethical spending can be confusing. Many corporations may source their products ethically in one department, but questionably in another. For example, a recent Walmart controversy has exposed their practice of sourcing fish from supply chains that farm inhumanely. However, Walmart has also been praised for the way they source their crop produce. The duality of such practices can make decision-making for customers harder; myself included. I am unsure whether I should avoid only the Fish department at Walmart or the entire franchise as a whole. Chasing after being an ethical spender is intimidating, and being deemed an unethical spender can be upsetting.

Although shopping as a student may already be daunting enough - being an ethical spender is not as difficult as you may think! In fact, it may benefit your paradigm and your wallet! It may be difficult to know exactly how every product is sourced at every stage, however there are mobile tools you can use to check. Apps like “Good on You” (which I’ve personally tried) offer the ability to scan any product in a store and view a summary of the “ethicality” the company advertises (this article is not an advertisement for the app, but one of my personal recommendations to quickly understand a product's ethical history). Using the aforementioned tool, I can get all the ethical information I need to know before buying a product. With it, I’ve found three very helpful questions which I use when shopping:

  1. Does it kill or injure a human or animal?

If the company or product is known to contribute harm to a human or animal, I typically consider that as a warning sign for myself. Products that contribute to harm may have exploitative labor practices, cruel working conditions, and treat animals abusively. It is important that we maintain respect for both humanity and nature.

  1. Does it cause damage to the environment?

If it causes damage to the environment, I think I’ll pass. Products that are known to emit carbon emissions, emit greenhouse gasses, cause pollution, and cause other harms to the environment contribute significantly to environmental degradation. As a result, it destroys our planet's natural resources and abundant biodiversity, which will make our planet uninhabitable.

  1. Does it exhibit other ‘red flags’?

Red flags can mean a lot of things, but you can  look out for a few clear warning signs. If the product displays a label with vague meaning (like “cruelty free”... what does that mean to them?!), is unclear about supply chain practices (doesn’t cite supplier, does not readily provide that information, or constantly changes supply chain providers), or has an alarming list of foreign chemicals on the product information, it can be helpful to do thorough research on the product and re-evaluate whether you want to purchase the product.

Being a sustainable shopper may seem intimidating at times, but it is certainly possible. Doing research into the products you purchase does require a little extra effort when shopping but contributes significantly to both the environment and endorsement of moral labor practices. When shopping, there are three things you can consider avoiding being caught up in the jargon of environmental consumerism; whether a product is known to harm animals, whether a product causes damage to the environment, and whether it exhibits other red flags. Considering these three questions in the back of your mind can be helpful as you navigate the intricacies of ethical spending.