Do you want to be a more responsible buyer, but don’t know where to start? Do you want to consider the ethics of the companies you’re buying from but aren’t sure how? Here’s three things to consider before any purchase, that will get you to ask the right questions and lead you to more ethical buying habits.
I get it. All of us want to do better, and anybody would choose the ethical option if it were that simple. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Every company has a marketing team whose job is to convince you they care, and it’s hard to differentiate them from companies that actually care. It’s nigh impossible to have all your needs met exclusively by companies that share your values. There’s an unfair amount of pressure on you as a consumer to make more ethical choices.
“If it’s so important to the world, why do we even have the choice to buy things from unethical companies?”
I’m with you. The solutions to the problems we face due to generations of unfettered capitalism is beyond the scope of this blog post, but what I can do is share with you the 3 considerations I make before any purchase, to make me a more responsible consumer.
That’s what we’re looking for. Being a responsible consumer can be pricey because companies cut costs by engaging in exploitative practices. Saving the world shouldn’t be expensive, but if you’re put off by the price of ethical buying, think about the cost of unethical buying.
For example, the textiles industry is notorious for being exploitative and wasteful. Fast fashion is quick as a blur and cheap as chips because it’s manufactured by underpaid, overworked sweatshop operators in countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, and China. Then it’s shipped around the world on great, lumbering cargo carriers that pollute our air and seas.
We need more responsible consumers, so let’s jump into what you can do to keep these three values at the core of any purchase you make.
When you’re considering responsible purchases, you need to look at the company behind the curtain (and not just when you’re buying curtains). The easiest way to do that is by looking them up on a database like https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/
If that doesn’t tell you what you need to know, check their website. Do they have a social/sustainability statement on their website? Read it carefully. What does it say? Does it say that they “care” about their workers? That’s not enough. What do they do to eliminate exploitation from their production chain? Ethical companies are transparent about their good ethics because it makes for great marketing. If you can’t find the solid reassurance you’re looking for, it probably doesn’t exist.
What’s it made of? Recycled materials or virgin plastics? The materials used are the easiest thing to check. And as always, if a company uses ethical materials, they’ll make it easy for you to find out.
But that’s not all we care about. Can you tell where the product was made? Where the materials were sourced? Local is, of course, always better.
Does the company do anything to offset their carbon footprint? Very few companies have an excuse to not be net-zero by now. If they aren’t, do they have any solid commitments to achieve net-zero? Remember that just like consumers, companies can’t always be perfect. Smaller, independent businesses put in a lot of work to be more ethical and sustainable. Making your business environmentally responsible is important and urgent, but it’s also not easy.
One of the best things you can do for the environment is buy things and keep them. Look to buy from companies that offer repair services, so that you can repair the inevitable wear and tear that life inflicts to help you avoid having to buy again.
As above, running a responsible business is more expensive. It’s a crying shame! But it’s reality. When I make purchases, I always consider whether they’re cost-effective, but I don’t mean “cheap” because responsible buying often isn’t cheap. Have you ever heard the “boots theory”?
“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money. Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles. But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet. This was the Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”
Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms: The Play
Putting aside the message about socioeconomic unfairness, there’s another lesson in this quote. When we’re privileged enough to be able to afford higher quality goods, we have an opportunity to consume less. If you can buy a pair of boots that lasts a decade or more… well, you’ve reduced the number of boots that need to be made. Not all of us are fortunate enough to be able to afford good boots. If you are, then you should.
That doesn’t mean “expensive is better”. Do not pay for brands. Most top brands are the biggest offenders when it comes to unethical practices. They have huge amounts of money and resources which they could use to build more sustainable business practices, but instead they use it to bury their dirty secrets. Do your research just as you would for any other company.
It can be overwhelming when you begin to think about responsible buying for the first time. Don’t expect yourself to change everything overnight. You’ll probably have decades of unlearning to do, and then lots of regular learning to do on top. Don’t give up. Keep at it and forgive yourself for not being perfect. The world needs more people like you.
Written by Josh Sultan, check out more of his work on www.sultanjosh.co.uk