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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Ethical Consumerism

We all think we are principled shoppers, right? We buy the green paper towels and pick up local strawberries when we see them. Yet, according to proponents of Ethical Consumerism, we could be doing more and saying more with our purchasing power.

More than a few organic tomatoes in the grocery cart, ethical consumerism is a lifestyle choice. Essentially, it means buying things only when they are truly needed and only purchasing from brands or suppliers whose business practices are clear and do no harm. Doing no harm includes fair pay practices, not exploiting humans, animals or nature and working to keep sustainable materials and business practices as the core business model. Ethical consumerism also supports the use of the 'moral boycott,' or refusing to purchase items from companies who do not live up to these standards.

Sounds good right? No one knowingly wants to buy things that made it to the store shelves by exploiting everything in its path to a purchase-ready package. Yet, each day consumers make these trade-off's with a little internal monologue that goes like this -- "what's one carton of non-organic milk?" "No one gets full on mercury poisoning from a single tin of tuna, right?" "Like my ten items at the checkout are going to stop anything."

While that might be true for that single day, when you are late or your kids need something for lunch, it adds up over time. Just like it adds up when you make the choice to purchase ethically. Think about how the average grocery store has changed in the last ten years, could you buy those organic tomatoes before without a trip to the "health food" store or a farmers market? Doubtful. Companies are starting to listen, even Walmart has started to urge its suppliers to go green.

Ethical consumerism, requires research and understanding of the brands you see on the store shelves. It may also mean changing from some of the products you've used for years in order to make a statement against exploitative business practices. This is where things get tricky, because it's often hard to tell who makes each different product. Large consumer goods companies like Proctor & Gamble make hundreds of products, sometimes even store brands, which can make it difficult to switch products without also having to switch stores. Yet, that too makes a statement.

People interested in pursuing ethical consumerism, have a variety of resources available to them. Many websites have started publishing lists of brands and goods that fall under the standards of ethical consumerism, as well as those that don't. Some of the larger moral boycotts like the one involving NestlĂ© and Tesco have had some media attention, but largely in Europe where this movement has been more focused. Some products are also offering more information on their labels.

A quick word of caution, if you choose to start consuming ethically, phase it in. If you read this, and then throw out a houseful of non-ethical products it sort of cancels out the effect of going green. One of the key points of ethical consumerism is to buy only what you need as you need it. So, start phasing in ethical products as you need them rather than adding a huge pile to your landfill and starting over.

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