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How To Be an Ethical Consumer Without Breaking the Bank

There are many affordable ways to spend your hard-earned cash in accordance with progressive values.

During most of my time as a student at the University of Chicago, I rarely thought about the wider social impact of the vote in my pocket. My prevailing argument against my ethically minded, upper-middle-class friends who always have "disposable income" was that the ethics of consumer choices are relative. If the cost of buying fair- trade coffee over regular coffee means that I had to forgo buying toothpaste that month, then my decision to pass on the "ethical" product could not be branded as socially irresponsible.

I tended to make decisions about which printer paper to buy based on price. I didn’t give a second thought to whether more trees were planted for every ream I bought. I cared more about the springiness of my vegetables than whether the farm where it was produced maintained environmentally sustainable farming practices.

For people whose consumer choices are completely restricted by day-to-day needs -- people who really need the $5 they can save at Wal-Mart -- spending is not a social act, or even a personal choice.

But in the past few weeks and months, I have started to pay more attention. It is not that my boycott of unethical food will save the planet or bring a megacorporation like McDonald’s to its knees. But when I deny my role in global issues such as human-rights violations and climate change, I am shirking my social responsibility -- and this is habit-forming. Perhaps the immediate goal is not to build a more ethical society (whatever that might mean), but to build a society in which people are more aware of how their decisions affect the world and desire to make informed choices.

The amount of conflicting information about a product or a company can be overwhelming. We should give credit to a company like Wal-Mart for carrying organics, but the company also has a lot of allegations of labor violations. In the cocooned environment of our supermarkets and shopping centers, the story behind each product is hidden. It is easy to believe that our meat and vegetables, wrapped in seamless, shiny packages, have always existed that way. Indeed, often the only criterion by which we can compare our choices is price -- and there are many institutions set up to keep the unhealthy and unethical choices the cheap ones.

The government subsidizes large-scale agricultural production that relies on the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides (which deplete the soil of nutrients, pollute the air and water, wreak havoc on the wildlife and reduce the nutritional quality of our food), while leaving independent farms that practice more sustainable farming to fend for themselves. Corporations that have economic ties with brutal dictatorships such as the one in Burma are hardly required to advertise this on their products, which are oftentimes cheaper as a result of the transactions. Low-cost, factory-farmed beef, high in saturated fat as indicated by the marbling in the meat, usually has a higher grade from the USDA than healthier, grass-fed beef.

To process the enormous library of conflicting data and regulations, I adopted the tactic of scaling down the problem to make it manageable. When it comes to produce, ethical products usually aren’t the cheapest that I can buy, but they’re also usually not the most expensive. I can afford to pay a small premium for locally grown organic produce from time to time. Or, better yet, I can catch the farmers market on the weekend and often not pay a premium at all. Meat and processed foods are more complicated since sometimes there isn’t an organic or local alternative, but I have found ways to address my buying habits one purchase at a time. Web sites like allow me to look up the ethical score of notably questionable brand names through an easy search. I discovered there are a lot of changes I can make.