Ethical consumerism: How to shop responsibly for the holidays

b corp ethical consumerism holidays intentional money Dec 09, 2022

Ethical consumerism: How to shop responsibly for the holidays 

 Spencer Kelly & Recha Bergstrom, MD

After record-setting sales of $889.3 billion last holiday season, the National Retail Federation predicts that Americans will spend between $942-960 billion this year. Individually, Deloitte forecasts that each American will make $1,455 worth of holiday-related purchases.

Deloitte also notes that the top three preferred shopping destinations for 2022 are online retailers, mass merchants, and department stores. So, most of the nearly $1 trillion in holiday spending will be enriching large corporations and supporting their practices.

However, with a shift in mindset and a more intentional approach, it may be possible to have your holiday spending support impactful companies and causes while still getting the gifts you want your loved ones to enjoy.

What is Ethical consumerism?

Business Insider defines ethical consumerism as “the practice of spending money in a way that aligns with your values.” Ethical consumerism is based on the idea that when making purchasing decisions, it is important to consider factors beyond the price and performance of the final product. Where was the product made, and by whom? What is the product made out of? What are the political, ethical, and environmental values of this company behind the product? If the answer to any of these questions is troubling, then to purchase that product would seem to be an unethical act in contradiction with your values.

Ethical consumer advocates also argue that a purchasing decision can be a political act. By choosing to buy from unsustainable or politically corrupt companies, we are supporting the continuation of their improper practices. By choosing instead to buy from sustainable or politically-active companies, we can make an impact with our everyday purchases.

To be sure, ethical consumerism has problems in its own right. For one, value-aligned buying may be cost-prohibitive for many people. According to Deloitte, sustainable shoppers spend 14% more than the average consumer. This raises questions of accessibility and economic justice: ethical consumerism could simply be seen as an affluent pastime from which the disadvantaged are excluded.

There are also fundamental questions as to whether ethical consumerism is effective, or even possible. Some critics claim that there is no such thing as a completely ethical product, and that there are always tradeoffs with quantity, quality, price, and availability. Others argue that companies often engage in greenwashing, portraying their products as sustainable when they really aren’t, so it is impossible to gauge the true ethicality of an item. Overall, some see ethical consumerism as “a false choice that puts the moral burden on the consumer instead of the producer.”

While ethical consumerism may not be the cure-all that its most ardent advocates make it out to be, there are still ways that the average consumer can make minor switches in their spending habits to support more principled and impactful companies. The sections below give practicable examples of ethical consumerism that can be employed this holiday season.

 Seek certification

 Perhaps the easiest and most reliable way to engage in ethical consumerism is by buying from a business that has been certified as ethical or sustainable.

 One of the most prominent socially-aligned certifications is B Corp. B Corp is a private certification that companies can obtain only by meeting high standards of performance, accountability, and transparency on their social and environmental impact.

B Corp certification requires that a company demonstrate “high social and environmental performance,” make a “legal commitment…to be accountable to all stakeholders,” and “exhibit transparency” by having their practices publicly tracked. B Corp certification also necessitates continued reporting and verification. To maintain certification, companies must subject themselves to ongoing evaluation and meet the above standards on a consistent basis.

 Buying from a B Corp is an easy method of ethical consumerism because the selection of certified B Corps include numerous recognizable brands, and the list is constantly growing. Some B Corps that may be relevant for holiday purchasing include Allbirds, Athleta, Ben & Jerry’s, Nespresso, Patagonia, and The Body Shop, among many others. A full database of the over 5,000 certified B Corps can be found here.

 Another certification to look for is Fairtrade. Fairtrade is a certification scheme generally applied to commodities produced by small-scale farmers in developing countries. Fairtrade Standards include rigorous economic, environmental, and social criteria. Certified products tend to have higher prices due to the Fairtrade Premium, which sets aside a portion of the export price of a product for redistribution back to the producers. Fairtrade currently benefits over 1.8 million farmers worldwide who have received well over half a billion euros in Fairtrade Premiums since 2015.

With over 30,000 certified products available, there are abundant Fairtrade options for holiday gift shopping. Fairtrade’s product database lists categories ranging from cocoa, coffee, sugar, and tea to wine, jewelry, clothing, and sports balls. Fairtrade America also has a database with certified products from the U.S. including Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (also a B Corp), Gourmesso coffee pods, Terra Thread clothing, and Origanami bedding.

 B Corp and Fairtrade are likely the most popular certifications, but other similar socially-aligned certifications are available from Rainforest Alliance, Cradle to Cradle, and Climate Neutral. However, lacking certification by any of the above organizations does not mean that a product is unsustainable or unethical. As some critics claim, certifications like B Corp are elitist, favoring multinationals and excluding small businesses. However, seeing that a product is certified is one mechanism that can increase confidence in the ethicality of your purchase.

Support social enterprises

 As discussed in a previous post, social enterprises are a diverse range of firms united by the use of their business to solve social problems. Social enterprises present a prime opportunity to ethically consume goods that will contribute to a greater social cause.

For instance, when shopping for holiday party food, seek out Newman’s Own at your local grocery store. Founded by actor Paul Newman in 1982, Newman’s Own generates revenue by selling products like sauces, snacks, and frozen goods. Instead of pocketing this income, 100 percent of profits are donated to charities benefiting children. Since their founding, they have donated $570 million using this approach. Newman’s Own offers numerous holiday-friendly food items, including Newman O’s cookies, stone-fired pizzas, and their famous salad dressing.

Instead of buying books from Amazon, check out the selection at Better World Books. This new and used online bookstore operates on a one-for-one model: for every book they sell, another book is donated to someone in need. Better World Books also donates a portion of profits to support libraries and literacy groups around the world. Since their founding in 2003, Better World Books has donated over 35 million books and raised over $34 million for libraries and literacy groups.

 A unique stocking-stuffer this Christmas could be a bar of soap from Uganics. Uganics is a Ugandan women-led enterprise making soaps, creams, oils, and candles that also act as a natural mosquito repellant. Purchasing from Uganics supports their mission of providing accessible repellents to prevent malaria infections in Africa. Consumer sales cross-subsidize products for low-income Africans, who can buy Uganics items at a lower cost.

There are numerous other outstanding social enterprises to support this holiday season. While there is no central database for social enterprises or clear certification to denote their status, social enterprises can be identified with some quick research into a business’s background and values. By purchasing products from a social enterprise, you can contribute to whatever social impact that enterprise is trying to create.

Shop secondhand

Most people’s first impulse when holiday shopping is to buy new items. However, buying used products is a viable strategy to find unique gifts, often at a lower price, and minimize your environmental impact in the process.

Secondhand shopping is already popular in the fashion space. The used clothing economy is projected to surpass the size of the fast fashion industry within the next decade. And online thrift stores like ThredUp, Depop, and Poshmark are making it easier than ever to buy worn garments. Because buying used clothing extends the life of already-existing items and reduces waste, the international charity Oxfam has declared that “secondhand is the answer to sustainable fashion.”

Electronics are an underrated category of used items. With its frequent advances in innovation, the tech sector may not seem conducive to secondhand shopping. However, used electronics can offer incredible value precisely due to irrationally-fast price depreciation once newer models come out. Shopping on peer-to-peer sites like eBay will likely result in the lowest prices, but for an extra sense of security buying certified refurbished tech directly from manufacturers is the safest option. With global e-waste generation reaching nearly 54 megatons last year, buying used technology is an especially impactful purchasing route to take this holiday season.

 Buying used is an excellent option for countless other product categories. Virtually any item imaginable can be found used on sites like eBay, Craigslist, or Facebook Marketplace. Choosing to shop secondhand can be one of the more holistically ethical consumption decisions you can make, with benefits for the world and for your wallet.

Being Intentional

These examples are just a small sample of the many ways to practice ethical consumption. Important to note is that this practice can look different depending on your personal values and ideas of social impact. Taking the time to reflect on your values and how they align with or oppose your purchase patterns is a worthwhile activity to conduct. Your individual spending this season will ultimately have an impact, for better or for worse. Being intentional about what you buy and from where can ensure that your $1,455 in holiday spending will have a positive social impact.



You can be the change you want to see in the world through effective, efficient, and impactful philanthropy. Check out my course, The Physician Philanthropist, for a comprehensive education on and strategy for maximizing the impact of your giving both for you and your causes

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