Shop for Good: Your Guide to Conscious Consumerism

Shop for Good: Your Guide to Conscious Consumerism

Trends. They seduce us into buying a hot item, only to leave us a year later with an emptier wallet and a useless widget.

But there’s one trend we at LearnVest can get behind: conscious consumerism.

At its most basic level, buying consciously just means taking a couple of extra seconds to consider each purchase. It’s a way to buy healthier food, keep your home free of clutter and keep your budget intact.

But what we’re talking about in this case is the ethical consumption movement, or buying with an eye toward your fellow (wo)man and the environment.

Buying with ethics in mind isn’t just benevolent; it's self-interested, too.

The Basics of Conscious Consumerism

Often called “voting with your dollar,” conscious consumerism is a way to support your values every time you walk into a store. It can be as simple as using natural toothpaste, as stylish as finding a fair trade purse from a company that employs women in Ghana or as grand as boycotting a misbehaving corporation.

It’s also effective. The rise of brands like Burt’s Bees and Newman’s Own shows that consumers like you are eager to support brands that treat people, animals and the environment with respect. Conscious consumption can even be a fashion statement. Just ask one of the many proud wearers of TOMS shoes. Because of these brands' successes, large corporations are sitting up and taking notice.

Ethical, yet Selfish

Buying with ethics in mind isn’t just benevolent; it is self-interested, too. You never know when that chemical factory might decide to set up shop upstream from your beloved lakefront vacation home. And if you are aware of the ingredients in your lipstick, you can avoid cancer-causing chemicals.

More simply, you’ll find when you take an extra ten seconds to consider each purchase that the items that disappear most quickly are those impulse items that are cluttering up your home and stealthily eating away at your budget. (Case in point: plastic water bottles.)

Your Conscious Consumption Primer

Curious yet? There are a lot of things to consider when making a purchase, but you don’t need to carry around an encyclopedic guide to conscious consumption.

To get started, choose one question below to think about the next time you go shopping. If every person chose just one thing to consider when making a purchase, it would be enough to really make a difference and would send a message to companies that this stuff is actually quite important.

altIs it made from recycled, recyclable and renewable materials?

Unlike petroleum products like plastic, renewable products will continually regenerate if managed properly. From glass bottles, which can be recycled over and over again, to reusable bento boxes, you can keep landfills from filling up by choosing products that will have a second (or third, or fourth) life.

Shop smart: Renewable materials aren’t always obvious. For example, there are now plastic-like cups made from corn. So look for the little, triangular recycling symbol, labels that advertise plant-based materials and FSC-certified wood and paper products, compostable materials, and items made from post-consumer recycled content. And given the choice, go with the option with less wasteful packaging.

We like: Personal care and bath products from Lush, whose fizzy bath bombs come mercifully free of plastic wrap (and also happen to be vegan); Nike, which will take back used shoes to turn them into sports surfaces; and this intriguing, wooden toothbrush from Life Without Plastic. But the best option is anything used and vintage! (Learn how to shop vintage like a pro here.)

altIs it locally made?

If that set of pretty coasters is locally made, it means it didn’t have to be shipped over long distances to get to your door. This means less oil was used and less carbon was spewed into the atmosphere. Plus, when a product is made in the United States, you can be sure it was made under strict labor laws.

Shop smart: Manufacturers are required to label products with their country of origin if those products were made elsewhere. Retail websites will indicate items' country of manufacture. If all else fails, ask the seller where it was made.

We like: Anything from Etsy, where you can search according to location and find something right from your hometown.

altIs it free of harmful or carcinogenic chemicals?

Every once in a while, a manufacturing ingredient gains notoriety for being poisonous. There was lead, asbestos and DDT; now we have Bisphenol A (BPA) which is thought to be toxic to infants and may contribute to obesity. The U.S. has lagged behind Europe and Canada in regulating BPA and several other chemicals, so it’s up to you to look out for them.

Shop smart: Start by looking for products that are BPA-, paraben- and sulfate-free. This will either be clearly indicated somewhere (some brands boldly advertise that they are BPA- and paraben-free), or you can look at the ingredients if it is a beauty product.

We like: The paraben-free section on Sephora's website and BPA-free KOR water bottles. A portion of KOR's proceeds go to water-related causes.

altDoes it support the community?

From refraining from polluting to donating to worthy charities, we like businesses that treat the land and the people around them with respect. A special subset of this is good working conditions. Outsourcing to developing countries can be cheaper but often comes with poor oversight, terrible working conditions, wages too low to live on, child labor and other disturbing issues.

Shop smart. This is difficult to assess just by looking at a product, but some companies are notorious for cutting corners (Walmart, for example). If you’re making a big purchase, Google the brand to see how they are doing or use Good Guide as a fast assessment.

We like: The pretty accessories and home goods from eBay’s World Of Good and TOMS shoes, which donates a pair of shoes to a child in need every time you buy.

altaltIs it animal testing- and cruelty-free?

Animal testing is almost universally condemned by consumers, but there are still a few companies out there who do it. (We’re looking at you, Johnson & Johnson.)

Shop smart: This one is easy. Look for one of these two symbols that proudly declare no animals were tested, or search PETA's cruelty-free database.

We like: Bare Escentuals mineral makeup, which is cruelty-free, clear of any toxins and works like charm.

Do you really need it?

Unless you made it from organic bamboo grown in your own backyard, every product you have has some sort of impact—on your environment and your budget. So be conscious and present when you shop.

Go Green At The Farmers' Market

Get the most for your money with our insiders' tips

Shop smart: Before you hand over the plastic for a piece of clothing, a new accessory or a gadget, ask yourself these three questions:

1. Will it make me happy in the long run?

2. Do I have something similar I can use?

3. Could I buy a similar item that has less packaging, is made of renewable materials, is used, is recycled or is made by a socially-conscious company?

We like: Taking an extra ten seconds before you buy.

Learn More

We have a list of some great brands that give back. See them here.
Learn about eco-friendly clothing and why it’s in fashion, plus our favorite green retailers. Read on.
You want to eat organic, but you’re on a budget. Find out when it’s worth buying organic.


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