Is It Possible to Be a Frugal and Ethical Shopper?

Two women window shopping

Thad Zajdowicz / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

These two values can feel deeply at odds with each other, which can make shopping decisions very challenging.

They say ignorance is bliss and, when it comes to shopping, I have to agree. There was a time when shopping was a pleasurable experience, but that ended once I learned too much. Now, instead of looking at something and thinking, “Oh, that looks nice. How much is it?”, my head is filled with other, competing thoughts: “Where was that made? How was it made? Who made it? What’s in it? How is it packaged?”

Add to that my instinctive urge to be thrifty and frugal, and I’m often left weighing whether or not I should fork out for an expensive item that ticks the ethical boxes (an act which, I could argue to myself, is unethical in itself), or opt for a cheaper item that keeps more money in the bank right now.

Being a conscientious, ethical shopper is a never-ending struggle, but it becomes particularly difficult at this time of year, when it seems the whole world is going crazy for holiday shopping. How does one strike a balance between buying ethically, intelligently, and thoughtfully, while also saving money?

I found an article from The Simple Dollar to be very helpful at navigating this tricky balance. Called “Financial Success and Ethical Consumption,” writer Trent Hamm offers some wise suggestions.

First, he advises, it is important to figure out what matters most to you.

By narrowing down your priorities to one or two key criteria that must always be met while shopping, then it becomes easier not only to make decisions, but also to feel that you’re committing to improving a specific area of concern.

As much as we ethical consumers don’t want to admit it, “Every single company in the world is likely doing something that you would ethically disagree with.” Hamm writes:

“Ethical consumption, in the end, means buying products from a company that is doing something that bothers you less than the behavior of another company. It’s going to be comparative, because no company is perfect.”

So what might those criteria be? Perhaps it’s made in America, transparent supply chain, no animal testing, fair-trade or B-corp certified, organic or all-natural, biodegradable or compostable materials, plastic-free, zero waste, free from palm oil, sold locally. The list goes on and on, and it will look different for every person; but it must be distilled down to the things that matter most, or else you’ll drive yourself crazy.

Why is this important?

“If you are not clearly pushing a central value or two with your ethical consumerism, your ‘voice’ becomes deeply muddled and almost meaningless. If you’re trying to balance a dozen issues you care about, you’re going to constantly be compromising some of those issues with every purchase and your ethical purchases aren’t going to send any sort of clear message to anyone.”

Next, Hamm recommends digging deep with research.

Once you’ve committed to a few key issues (one or two, he says), then do your research. Look for companies that adhere to the standards you expect and support them wholeheartedly. Do real homework that gets to the core of these companies’ practices. Don’t believe the press releases or self-touting, greenwashing praise on websites.

Clothing that’s ‘made in America’ may sound good, but does it mean that fabric made elsewhere is simply being assembled by a few Americans? If so, is that still OK with you? An organic, all-natural body care product that has a pure ingredient list could come in a terribly wasteful plastic container that goes into the recycling bin afterward. Perhaps that makes it less appealing, and you should find another source.

Save this research. Store it in a document for future reference and ongoing updates.

Third, spread the word — always politely.

Tell people about the decisions you’ve made, the criteria you’ve established for yourself, and why you believe these issues matter. Speak out on whatever social media platforms you use, where people like Facebook friends and family will pay attention. This is not preachy; it gives others the opportunity to learn and think for themselves about issues that really do deserve more of a spotlight than they often get.

“By talking about your decision to buy something ethically and the research you’ve done into companies you’ve found that cater to that ethic in a polite fashion, you’re amplifying the value you get out of every extra dollar you spend on those more ethical purchases. You’re not only personally supporting companies that do those things with your dollar, you’re also using your voice to persuade others to check out those companies and perhaps spend their dollars in that fashion.”

Finally, ethical shoppers should think about redefining “the boundaries of the question."

Go beyond the basic assumption that you need something and will buy it. Challenge whether or not you actually need something. Can you do without it? Can you change your own lifestyle to accommodate its absence? Alternatively, can you make it yourself? Homemade versions, depending on what an item is, can be a good way to save money. Hamm uses the example of cake mixes:

“Let’s say, for example, that you’re at the store looking at a cake mix and you have no idea what half of the ingredients are. Rather than buying that cake mix, you just buy flour, butter, baking powder, eggs, sugar, and some milk and make a cake from those ingredients yourself.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I’ve realized I’m unable to juggle all the things that matter to me. So for this holiday season, my priorities will be (1) shop local and (2) buy Canadian-made whenever possible. Following those criteria will be tie-breakers, such as the least amount of packaging and plastic and natural fibers. It's a tricky balance, especially when I factor in trying to spend as little money as possible, and yet get good value from purchases.