How To Be an Ethical Consumer Without Breaking the Bank

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.

Many wonder if consumers will still be willing to take on ethical purchases in the face of a recession. In a September post on the Ethical Consumer blog, the authors wrote, "You don’t need to be feeling wealthy to boycott products, or indeed to choose to cycle a particular journey rather than drive it … Expecting ethical consumption to disappear in the current recession is particularly crass if you understand the movement as a rational attempt by consumers/citizens to address very real systemic political problems in the world around them."

The market for ethically produced goods has had steady growth over the past 20 years, even through the economic downturn in 1992. More recently, on Oct. 9 -- a day when the Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbled 7 percent and finished at a five-year low -- the Wall Street Journal announced the release of a new market research report forecasting "high growth for the natural and organic food and beverage trends." Ethical consumption is here to stay.

Striving for a more sustainable mode of consumption has naturally led me to greener behavior. I started by asking myself hard questions about if I really need something and what will happen to the product when I’m done with it. Most of these changes have no significant toll on convenience. I drink at the water fountain instead of purchasing bottled water, forgo filling up the gas tank for a week, and read papers online instead of printing them in the library. I do not pick up the leviathan phone books that appear in my apartment lobby in giant stacks every other month, which inevitably go from the lobby to my apartment then straight to a landfill. I carry plastic waste from my apartment to campus for recycling.

Ultimately, I have become a more discriminating consumer, and this selectiveness has in turn has allowed me to think more critically about the destination of my dollar. I cannot presume to set the example for those who have a much more dire need to cut corners to make ends meet, or for anyone. But I know that in my particular case, despite classifying myself as a "poor college student," I have found that I can spend my dollar in a way that better represents my values without any conspicuous financial setbacks.

There are ways of neutralizing one’s effect on the environment, even if you aren’t going to research every product. On the Conservation Fund Web site, I used the carbon calculator and found that I produce around 5 tons of carbon emissions every year. For a donation of $45, the Conservation Fund can neutralize that carbon footprint by planting four trees, which is enough to remove 5 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. On, drivers can calculate their car’s annual pollution production and donate a recommended sum to clean-energy projects. There is an ever-increasing number of ways to purchase "green" neutralization solutions.

I am not aiming to take part in a vital symbolic movement to redefine the lifestyle of modern man -- I am taking easy, straightforward measures to reduce the amount of waste and pollution I generate. And sometimes it helps to be a nerdy college student. I spend most of my time in the library, where I can bask (somewhat) guiltlessly in communal heating and lighting.


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