Ethical Consumption: Align Your Spending Habits With Your Beliefs

If you use social media, you’ve probably heard this phrase before: “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism.”

The concept suggests that in capitalist countries, which thrive on mass consumption, there are few if any ways to make purchases that don’t cause harm in some way, whether that’s through environmental destruction or cruel labor practices. 

And over the past few years, thanks in large part to social media, this concept has been gaining more public interest, peaking in February of 2023. 

A Google Trends chart shows rising searches for the phrase
Source: Google Trends

You’ll find people who repeat this phrase like a mantra, and others who say that the meaning has been lost once it started making the rounds on social media. 

I’m not going to add to that discourse in this article—I’ll leave that to the ethicists and influencers. 

Instead, I want to acknowledge a hard truth:

Even though most of us know that over-consumption causes harm, we cannot avoid being consumers. 

Our society is designed to require us to spend, and we are constantly bombarded with marketing messages encouraging us to purchase new things. 

At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore the environmental damage and human rights violations that happen as a result of overconsumption. 

Living with these two truths isn’t easy, but the fact that you’re here, reading this article, is a sign that you’re ready to make progress on this issue. 

So instead of debating whether or not there is ethical consumption under capitalism, let’s explore ways we can more closely align our spending habits with our morals and ideals.

 

Ethical consumption means less consumption

Avoiding consumption altogether is virtually impossible, unless you go to major extremes. But the first step toward ethical consumption for most people is finding ways to reduce spending overall. 

There are many ways you can cut back on your consumption, but the key first step is to become more thoughtful about where your money is going. 

And to do that, you need a budget. 

With a simple budget, you can gain a deep understanding of your spending habits. You can identify areas where you can cut back to save money for things you truly want and reduce your participation in unethical consumption. 

For example, let’s say you look at your budget and realize you’re spending $200 on new clothing each month. If you’re buying new clothes, it doesn’t take long to hit the $200 mark, even if you’re shopping at more affordable places.

But could you save yourself $100 by committing to more thrift shopping instead? The clothes will still be new-to-you, but you’ll have an extra hundo to put toward whatever you want, and you won’t have to worry about contributing to all the negative consequences of fast fashion. 

If you don’t have a budget already, we’ve got plenty of resources to help you out. Start by downloading our free student budget template, and then check out the other resources below: 

 

Beyond budgeting, there are lots of other ways you can eliminate some of your spending. Here are a few suggestions: 

Shop local as often as possible. Does your neighborhood have a farmer’s market? Are there local coffee shops you can visit instead of big chains? What about flea markets and artisan fairs? The more you can support local businesses, the more ethical you can be with your purchases. 

Second hand and thrifting. Any time you’re making a purchase, consider whether you could buy the item second hand. With thrift stores, consignment shops, and sites like Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist (yes, it still exists), you can often find the same products at a much lower cost—a far better option for the environment than always buying new. 

Use community resources. Local community centers and libraries are excellent resources for finding ways to cut back on consumption. Libraries not only allow you to borrow books, but all sorts of other items, from baking pans to telescopes. Community groups can connect you with other resources, like public gardens, co-ops, and share transportation options. 

 

Red and green flags: Identifying ethical brands

Once you’ve found ways to cut back on consumption altogether, the next thing you can do is be more mindful about the brands you’re buying from—especially those you buy from frequently. 

But discerning which brands are aligned with your beliefs can be tricky, given how much effort many companies go through to portray themselves in a positive light. 

I recommend making a list of the brands you currently shop from, and then use the following red and green flags to determine whether they’re aligned with your ethics, or whether you need to find an alternative. 

 

Check the rankings of your favorite brands 

There are multiple online platforms you can use to verify how ethically sound your favorite brands are—or to suss out a new brand before you make a purchase. 

Ethical Consumer is one of the best resources for anyone who wants to shop ethically. You can search for your favorite brands on the site (though you’ll need to subscribe to see full results). 

But even better is Ethical Consumer’s large guides to ethical shopping, which not only provide details on brands, but also give you more tips on how to shop sustainably for virtually anything. Here’s their guide for fashion, for example, and you can see the others by clicking on the banner across the top of their site. 

There are other platforms that also have ratings you can use to determine which brands and corporations are ethical. Here are a few more to check out: 

 

Learn how to spot greenwashing 

Greenwashing is a term referring to a shady marketing practice, when a business portrays itself as more eco-friendly than it really is. 

Greenwashing can be extremely hard to spot, because it usually involves vague language and claims that sound good, but upon further inspection, are meaningless. 

For example, this 2018 press release from Nestlé received a lot of flack for its big claims—100% recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025—but virtually no clear outline of how the company planned to get there. 

Another great example, cited by Earth.org, comes from 2018, when Starbucks released a new “straw-less list” to reduce plastic waste. The only problem: Those new lids had more plastic in them than the previous option of a lid plus straw. 

These are the rare examples that get called out, but it’s likely most cases of greenwashing go largely unnoticed. To see what I mean, check out any of the videos from TikTok creator Matt Rosenman, who rebrands food products to seem healthy. (You can apply the same techniques to claims of sustainability or ethical sourcing.) 

@mattrosenman Replying to @xxlenteja Healthy @cocacola at your service. It’s time to thrive. #rebrand #healthfood #cocacola #healthysoda ♬ original sound – Matt Rosenman

This kind of deception is why it pays to be a skeptical consumer. 

To guard against greenwashing, companies should have a clear strategy to reach realistic and impactful goals, and they should be able to explain those in terms anyone can understand. 

 

Look for these labels and certifications when shopping 

It’s true that companies will try to deceive you into thinking they are more ethical than they really are. But fortunately, there are also organizations out there that work hard to provide recognizable symbols and words that businesses can only use if they’ve met certain ethical standards. 

You’ve probably seen these on packaging before, but let’s review what each one means: 

certified B Corporation label

B Corporation from B Lab is one of the most rigorous certifications for social impact. If you see this symbol, it’s a sign the company has gone above and beyond to act ethically. 

 

Cruelty Free International label

This symbol, from Cruelty Free International, means the product has not harmed animals. 

 

Fair Trade Certified label

Fair Trade Certification is awarded to companies that provide safe and equitable working conditions and sustainable environmental processes. You’ll see this symbol on products at the grocery store, as well as on some consumer packaging. 

 

USDA Organic label This USDA Organic logo is the best way to determine whether food products were farmed and packaged ethically. There is often confusion about what organic truly means, but this image from the USDA website clarifies what this specific label signifies: 

A chart from the USDA shows specifics on organic certification
Source: USDA

 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions 

Let’s say you have a brand you love, but you can’t figure out whether they’re operating ethically. They don’t have any of the labels we’ve mentioned above, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing anything unethical. 

What should you do? The best bet is to ask directly. Try reaching out to the company via social media or the contact page on their website and asking for more information on their ethical practices. 

Sometimes, they may not get back to you, and you’ll have to consider whether you want to keep shopping with that brand without sufficient information. 

But often, they’ll provide you with more information or answer your questions—and from there, you can use your own judgment to determine whether the company aligns with your personal ethics. 

 


 

It’s not easy to be an ethical consumer in our society. But with some small lifestyle changes, and greater awareness of ethical labels and standards, you can make consumer choices that better reflect your true ideals.