Shopping Your Guide to Shopping Ethically: How to Get Started

Ethical shopping. It sounds like one of those things we should all be doing, but for many of us, it’s hard to know where to get started. Should I buy ethical shopping bags? Support small businesses? Wear sustainable fabrics? The list is endless and overwhelming.

The truth is, there are a million different ways to shop ethically, and how you do it is up to you. This guide offers practical tips on changing your habits, so that you can get started on shopping ethically.

What is Ethical Shopping?

Like the word ‘organic,’ there is no official definition of ‘ethical’ as it applies to consumers. Just because it appears on a label, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re holding an ethical product. Becoming an ethical shopper is going to take some awareness on your part, but the good news is that you get to decide where to start.

First, you need to figure out what ethical shopping means to you. Trying to do All the Ethical Things at once will only wear you out, so start small. What issues are you passionate about? Let your personal ethics guide your shopping decisions.

The following scenarios are all examples of ethical shopping:

  • You dislike a brand’s sexist ad campaign so you decide to stop purchasing their products
  • Stop using plastic bags at the shops and carry a reusable bag instead
  • Keep a reusable coffee cup in your car
  • Seek out ethical clothes from brands that use sustainable materials
  • Purchase furniture and clothes secondhand
  • Ask your butcher where the meat comes from and how it was raised

Shopping ethically means shopping intentionally, and being aware that the way you spend your money can make a difference.


Why Shop Ethically?

The products we buy do not end up on the shelves by magic. They often go through a lengthy process of development and transport, which can be harmful to other humans, animals, and the environment.

Consider the clothes you are wearing: do you know who was involved in making them? It’s possible that the material was made in a textiles factory where people, possibly children, are overworked and underpaid.

The purpose of ethical shopping isn’t to make you feel bad about the things you have; it’s to make you aware of how they came to be. If you disagree with a company’s business practice, you can spend your money elsewhere.


Ethical Shopping Considerations

There are many issues to consider when you think about your shopping habits, such as:

  • Sustainability: Does the company encourage sustainability through their business practices?
  • Labour practices: Does the company engage in fair work practices?
  • Supply chain: Did every company involved in the making of this product behave ethically?
  • Environment: Was the environment damaged as a result of this product’s creation?
  • Carbon footprint: What were the carbon emissions involved with making this product?
  • Materials: What is this product made of? What materials were used in the manufacturing of this product?
  • Humane practices: Were any animals treated inhumanely to create this product?
  • Methods: How did you get to the shop? If you drove, is it possible to walk or take a bike?

Again, don’t pressure yourself to meet all of these criteria when shopping ethically. However, you may find that when you start asking these questions, you’ll start noticing things you didn’t notice before and looking for ways you can shop more ethically.

For example, the next time you’re at the supermarket, pay attention to how much plastic ends up in your shopping basket. Are there things you could do differently to reduce your plastic consumption? At first it may be hard to break old habits, but creating new habits is necessary if you want to change the way you shop.


When Should I Shop Ethically?

You have an opportunity to be an ethical consumer with every purchase you make. However, there are certain situations where you can make a solid effort to shop ethically, by relying on small businesses with clearly stated ethical practices. These include:

Grocery shopping

Coles and Woolworths control 70% of the market, and place an emphasis on lowering prices. While we all love lower prices, there is a downside to shopping at the big supermarkets. Farmers are forced to change their farming practices in order to meet supermarket price demands, which might mean feeding animals hormones so that they grow faster or using chemical sprays on produce.

Clothes shopping

The fashion industry has a lot to answer for, from unethical treatment of workers to the amount of harmful materials that end up in the oceans. You can make a difference by buying items that you plan to wear at least 30 times, and choosing companies that are transparent about their manufacturing process.

Children’s toys

If you’re a parent, take a quick scan of the house. Are there any toys, particularly plastic ones, that are no longer used? These toys may well end up in landfill after a short lifespan. The environmental impact to manufacture, package, ship, and dispose of a single toy is substantial, especially considering that many toys are made of materials that will live on for decades in a landfill.


Ethical Shopping Tips

Do your research. Find out which companies align with your beliefs, and make an effort to shop there. See the next section for resources that can help you shop smarter.

Ask questions. It may feel odd to ask a butcher how his cows are raised or a boutique owner who makes her clothes, but you’ll find that people who engage in ethical practices are happy to talk about them. If they’re not, then maybe it’s time to find a new place to shop.

Visit the farmers market. You’re shopping locally, and by buying in season you’re being more sustainable. Don’t forget your reusable bag!

Don’t be deceived by appearances. Companies use words like ‘natural,’ ‘eco-friendly,’ and ‘healthy’ to make us think that we’re buying an ethical product, but that’s just marketing. Don’t assume that a product is ethical because of the way it looks.

Buy second-hand. We’re not suggesting you buy everything second-hand, but there are a ton of gently used products out there looking for a new home. Many vintage clothing stores or charity shops have great items just waiting to be discovered.

Donate, don’t discard. Before throwing away used toys or clothing that is still in good condition, donate it to a charity shop. Just don’t treat the charity shop as a precursor to the landfill, as that’s where your items will end up if they’re not fit for resale.

Repair and repurpose. We live in a world where it’s often cheaper and more convenient to ‘buy a new one’ instead of repairing something that’s broken. Look for ways you can fix or reuse items before getting rid of them.

Shop less. Ask yourself if you really need it before you buy it. Curbing impulse isn’t just about your wallet (though that helps), it’s an ethical decision.

Make reusable cups and bottles a habit. Plastic bottles and single-use coffee cups are overflowing in our landfills, and that doesn’t have to be the case.


Ethical Shopping Resources

Technology is making it easier for us to make ethical decisions when shopping in a range of industries. Comprehensive websites and apps are available to help; here is a list of resources.

  • Ethical Clothing Australia: Voluntary accreditation to ensure Australian brands’ supply chains are legally compliant.
  • Shop Ethical!: A consumer’s guide to ethical shopping; has companion app.
  • Fairwear: Non-profit that works to improve conditions for garment workers.
  • Sustainable Table: Environmental non-profit focused on ethical eating.
  • Good On You: Check fashion brands before buying to learn about their impact on people, animals, and the environment.
  • Shop Ethical!: Learn about the social and environmental record of popular supermarket brands.
  • Choose Cruelty Free: Use this app to make cruelty-free beauty product choices.
  • Olio: Connects neighbours and retailers to prevent food waste.
  • Sustainable Seafood Guide: Look up types of seafood for a sustainability assessment on each species.

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