You lust after Everlane’s ethically sourced jeans. You indulge in Ben & Jerry’s social justice-forward ice cream. You clean your home with naturally derived products from Seventh Generation. You get your specs from Warby Parker, in part because that way you can easily donate a pair to someone in need. You’re part of a growing consumer movement to reward upstanding companies with your loyal business.
A recent study conducted across the U.S. and U.K. found 8 out of 10 consumers think buying from companies in line with their values (what the researchers term a “BUYcott”) is more important than boycotting bad business practices, even as boycotts remain popular. In turn, there seems to be more opportunities than ever to shop according to social values.
But still, there’s a price to all this consumer activism. Organic food tends to be much more expensive than conventional counterparts, for instance. And fast fashion, with its nightmarish history of environmental and human rights abuses, still beats more considerate fashion brands on price. Being a conscious consumer is a challenge for your wallet, yet it’s not impossible.
What matters most?
From health care to education to clean energy to ending hunger, you know society has a lot of work to do. But if you’re working with a limited budget, start by narrowing down your shopping list of concerns.
If you’re having trouble figuring it out, think about what affects you in your day-to-day. If you live by the beach, perhaps you want to shop exclusively with companies that minimize or eliminate plastic packaging since you know what that kind of waste does to marine life. If you’re vegan, think about extending those choices to your wardrobe and personal care products. If your family members worked in factories or farms, maybe you want to support companies that thoroughly vet their supply chains and pay all employees a living wage.
Once you’ve determined which values and businesses you want to focus on, it’s time to dig into the research. Large companies may make this information public on the corporate responsibility or investor relations portions of their websites, but don’t stop there. Corporate Responsibility Magazine provides data on corporate practices as well as an annual list of top 100 companies, each ranked on key issues like environmental policies and worker relations. The Dow Jones Sustainability Index has a wealth of information in its “Libraries” section, including a corporate sustainability assessment that ranks hundreds of companies on criteria like community involvement and environmental impact. B Corporations certifies companies based on a range of environmental, diversity, and human rights factors. There are also watchdog groups and certification agencies for more specific concerns, like fair trade.
For smaller, private companies, make use of the customer service department or speak with a manager: If the business is serious about its social values, you should be able to get swift responses to your queries.
This may sound like a lot of work, and at the onset, it is. For the purposes of not overwhelming yourself or your bank account, start with one or two causes you’re passionate about and re-evaluate any time you get a serious bump in income.
When to say no
Once you’ve established a values baseline, it can help you approach the other side of conscious shopping: the boycott. There has been a dizzying array of companies called out for boycotts over the past few years, especially since the 2016 election. As a sign of the interesting times we live in, one of the more popular boycott movements has involved the president’s own companies. In the past, President Trump has himself called for boycotts of CNN, the NFL, Macy’s, and Apple.
Politics are as good a motivation as any to shop or not, but a successful boycott needs to have concrete goals in mind. “When there are hundreds of businesses on a no-buy list, that dilutes the political message and there’s a smaller chance that any one company will be hurt by its inclusion,” wrote Ann Friedman in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. “Too often, consumers are just trying to register their displeasure, which is certainly their right. But they don’t stop to ask themselves a basic question: What, exactly, do they want their boycott to accomplish?”
For example, a company may actively be quashing its employees’ efforts to unionize and you want that to stop, so you boycott. Or you want to express your outrage that a sporting goods chain sells assault weapons. This is totally different than boycotting a company for buying ad space during The Apprentice 10 years ago, or refusing to use a service because you find its CEO personally odious.
By definition, boycotts narrow your options as a consumer, and that can lead to higher-priced goods or services being the only ones left. It’s perfectly fine to absorb the higher cost in order to take a stand, but make sure your voice is heard in other ways, too, using social media, letters to the company, or public demonstrations.
There is one cheap trick to get around heinous, cost-cutting companies and help the environment while you’re at it, and it works for many items, from clothing to kitchenware: thrift stores. A lot of what we buy ends up thrown out far sooner—and far more often—than we realize. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, 21 billion tons of textiles end up in landfills every year. And that’s just cloth. Globally, 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste (everything from iPhones to hair dryers) hit landfills in 2016, according to United Nations University’s “The Global E-Waste Monitor 2017.” In the U.S., we throw away 20 million mattresses and box springs every year, according to Cascade Alliance. Buying secondhand goods takes some of this unwanted stuff out of the waste stream and it’s nearly always cheaper than buying new.
“While you may not be using your money to support specific eco brands, you’re still doing your part,” says eco-living expert Colleen Coughlin. For instance, “By buying secondhand, you’re eliminating your contributions to supporting fast fashion.” Beyond clothing, this goes for computers, furniture, appliances, even cars.
Plus, you can find some really awesome vintage goods, which are always just a little bit cooler than brand-new. If you don’t have the time to scour stores in person, join online resale groups; investigate sites like ThredUp, Poshmark, Glyde; or hit up the old standbys Craigslist and eBay.
Buying local whenever you can has several benefits. On the environmental side, locally made goods require less packaging and transportation to get from manufacturing to your cart. Plus, shopping at independent businesses supports your local economy. For every $100 spent at a local business, about half generates secondary spending in the community, compared to just $14 of every c-note spent at a chain. The way our economy is, shopping local is easier said than done, but often you can find indie options for little luxuries like coffee, farmers market fare, and books, to name a few.
If you do have to shop at a big box store (and you will at least some of the time), choose one that shares your values. Target, for example, focuses on diversity and inclusion in its hiring practices, makes an effort to stock sustainable products, and supports many local and national charities. Costco has strong employee relations policies, including a confidential ethics hotline. The company also focuses on human rights, animal welfare, and sustainable fisheries in its merchandising.
Of course, there’s a reason that the internet is teeming with socially conscious brands. By taking things online-only, many companies can keep their overhead low enough to focus on ethically produced, high-quality goods and services that are also relatively affordable. If you’re worried about your environmental footprint, Coughlin recommends returning your packaging to the shipping centers. Some companies like UPS will reuse packaging if it is in decent condition.
Overall, it can all seem overwhelming at first, but shopping with a social conscious and on budget all comes down to a few simple moves: know who you’re purchasing from, buy local whenever you can, and shop secondhand to save the planet (and your wallet).
Angela Colley and Callie Enlow contributed to this article.