What Does it Mean to Shop Ethically?

You’ve got a lot of power tucked away in your wallet. Every time you choose to spend your money on one product over the other at the grocery store, drugstore, or clothing store, you’re sending a message to the companies that make and distribute those products. So how do you make that choice? Is price the biggest factor? It’s totally understandable if it is; after all, money doesn’t grow on trees (as we’re constantly reminding our children). But do you take other things into consideration when doing your shopping? 

For example, are you concerned with the way a company treats its workers, the effect it’s having on the environment, or their policies on cruelty to animals? If you are, you are one of the many people who are interested in shopping ethically, or consciously. If you’re interested in shopping this way, you’ll also be faced with a lot of different information on labels that can be confusing – and sometimes misleading. Let’s look at what it means to shop ethically, how easy it actually is to do, and what some of those labels should mean.

Conscious Consumers

When it comes down to it, Americans are pretty generous and we want to do good. For example, we donate almost $400 billion dollars to charity each year! But we also love to shop: that $400 billion is nothing compared to the at least $130 trillion we spend on buying stuff. But it’s becoming more and more popular to try and combine both of those impulses, and to use our dollars to support companies whose values we align with. 

back of a woman with holding shopping bags over her back

While the market for more ethical or sustainable products is still pretty niche in some ways, it is also growing rapidly. Consumers who want to shop more consciously spend a combined $300 billion per year on ethical products, a figure which is growing by 10% year-over-year. It’s no wonder that that number is growing: 73% of millennials surveyed said that they’re willing to pay more for sustainably-made goods. In addition, 84% of consumers said they consider a company’s ethics and values before making a purchase, with almost half (48%) saying they consider it to be of equal importance to the price of their products. 41% of consumers have boycotted a company if they don’t agree with the ethics or values it stands for.

Supporting companies with values you believe in, and that operate transparently, is pretty much what it means to be a conscious or ethical consumer, and there can be a lot of nuance in how people do that. You can do it whenever it’s possible, whenever it’s practical, or you can vote with your dollars by taking them elsewhere when you feel that a company is violating your beliefs. And remember, one impulse purchase of something that isn’t ethical, or choosing value over values sometimes doesn’t mean you have to give up completely on your quest to become a more conscious consumer. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good!

So if you’re ready to get out there and be a more conscious consumer, you should first be familiar with the labels you’ll come across. The following explanations will tell you what is meant by these descriptions, and how much trust you should actually put into them. Remember, it can take a little bit of research to know just how serious some companies are about their values. 

Ethical Goods

a yellow sign with the word right and an arrow pointing right on top of the word wrong with an arrow pointing left.
Ethical means different things to different people. But it often refers to how things are made and how workers are treated in a company.

The term “ethical” itself can mean different things to different people. It can refer to products that are made and sold with the good of workers, the environment, animals, and even all of society in mind. This could mean, for example, that a product is locally (and therefore more sustainably) produced by workers who are treated fairly, and are able, in turn, to fully participate in their communities. For some, though, it mostly has to do with the treatment of workers, or just the treatment of animals, or just the impact the product has on the environment  – so be careful with this broad label. 

For example, a clothing company could call its faux leather “ethical” because no animals are harmed in its production, but they may treat their factory workers poorly, or might not be considering the environmental issues with their materials. When it comes to the term “ethical,” it’s best to check out a company’s specific claims.

Fair Trade

The foundation of fair trade is price, but fair trade ingredients should be made by workers who are not only compensated fairly, but who also work in good conditions, and in a safe environment. This means there’s no child or slave labor involved. Companies have to pay farmers a minimum price, and to protect them if the market price falls. Some fair trade certifications require that farming cooperatives use profits to improve their communities, by building schools, for example.

Fair trade is great in theory, but you really need to look for certifications. Some research points to the World Fair Trade Organization’s certification being more meaningful than that of FairTrade International.  

Sustainablegreen earth with green arrows around it

When we talk about a product being sustainable, we’re focused on its impact on the environment. This can mean: eco-friendly packaging, plastic-free packaging, sustainably-sourced ingredients, not using palm oil (largely responsible for deforestation), or producing things locally. This is a broad term that definitely requires some investigation into what a company actually means by it.


If you see the words “cruelty-free” on a product, it means that a product is not tested on animals. Be careful – it doesn’t mean that it’s vegan, so if you are, be sure to check ingredients. Another reason to be careful? This label is not regulated, so any company can make this claim on a product. Ask questions of the company, or choose products with the “Leaping Bunny” certification on them – the process for gaining this certification is much more thorough than that for a PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) certification. 

Is Voting with Your Dollars Worth It? 

According to one study, 56% of us stop buying from brands we consider to be unethical. So does making the choice to shop ethically actually make any kind of difference? It’s a slow process, but it looks like voting with your dollars can actually help. For example, child labor rates dropped by one third between 2000 and 2012, and they’ve continued on this downward trend since then. In addition, according to the 2019 Ethical Fashion Report from Baptist World Aid Australia, 24% more fashion companies have committed to paying their workers a living wage, and 61% are investing in using sustainable fabrics. one hand coming out of a laptop with a hundred dollar bill giving it to another hand coming out of a laptop with a shopping bag.

It can take effort on your part to find the most ethical companies, or to determine the practices of companies you regularly buy from, and it might cost you more to choose ethical goods, but it seems that the more of us do it, the more impact it will make. 

If you’re choosing to be a more conscious shopper, more power to you! Don’t get discouraged: remember, most ethical brands typically won’t be 100% ethical – just do a little digging to choose ethical brands that align with your specific values. And remember, too, that no shopper is going to be ethical 100% of the time either! But making changes to your shopping habits could just help make the world fairer, cleaner, and kinder. 

About The Author:
Cassandra Love

With over a decade of helpful content experience Cassandra has dedicated her career to making sure people have access to relevant, easy to understand, and valuable information. After realizing a huge knowledge gap Cassandra spent years researching and working with health insurance companies to create accessible guides and articles to walk anyone through every aspect of the insurance process.

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