Ethical Consumerism

Ethical Consumerism

This may sound a little strange, but being a consumer these days isn't always easy! Shopping used to be about searching for the highest quality and lowest price for the products and services you needed. But for a growing number of people, shopping has taken on a completely different spin over the past few decades. Quality and price are still important, but other factors have become prevalent in shaping consumer decisions.


Being a shopper is like anything else in life--you can do it with or without awareness; and awareness can exist at many levels. For example, becoming aware of your own consumer decisions can be a powerful way to curb spending and budget your money. This helps you and cultivating this level of awareness is a good place to start.


When you elevate your awareness and also consider how your spending habits impact the world you live in, you become mindful of your wide-reaching influence and of how you can use your money as a tool to effect change on a global scale. You understand that you can meet your daily needs while also supporting needs and health of other individuals--human and otherwise--and the planet.


This kind of awareness fosters ethical consumerism. When ethical consumers shop, they consider:


  • what a product contains or is made of
  • all aspects of how a product was produced, distributed, and sold
  • how the product will be used and ultimately disposed of.


Does that sound complicated? It doesn't have to be if you know what to look for in a product and which companies you can trust.


Ethical priorities vary among people: some people feel it's more important to buy products that are vegan friendly whereas other people will shop around for products that don't pollute the environment. There is a plethora of ways you can be an ethical consumer, and every bit of global awareness helps tremendously.


Studies and marketing panels indicate that the most relevant ethical issues people consider are (ranked according to level of importance):


1. Organic

Buying organic has shifted from being a consumer trend to being a consumer habit and now, for a growing number of people, it's become a consumer need. With the increasing public awareness of how dangerous pesticides are for humans and how toxic they are to the environment and non-target animal and plant species, consumers are ever-mindful of eating as much organic food as they can afford or have access to.


At first, people were most interested in buying organic fruits and vegetables. But that quickly spawned a change in consumer perspective and now people are seeking organic everything--beverages, dairy, eggs, meat, oil, flavourings and sweeteners, supplements, clothes, shoes, toys,alcohol, and even organic cigarettes!


Recently, the ante has been upped even further. The "new organic" is a return to biodynamic agriculture, which is the art of tending to the land in a respectful and holistic way that supports the microecosystem of the farm or forest farm. With a biodynamic approach, the health of the soil and its microbes is as important as the health of the crops being grown, and equally important is maintaining the natural ecological interrelationships among soil, microbes, plants, and animals.


Certified organic or biodynamic standards also prohibit genetic modification, thereby further protecting your health and the environment. When you're shopping for certified organic or biodynamic goods, check the label for the logos of Canada Organic, USDA Organic, EcoCert, Quality Assurance International (QAI), Demeter Biodynamic Certification, and CERES.


2. Animal Welfare

Animals and animal-derived products are an integral part of various industries. How those animals are treated is a major concern for most people and ethical consumers act on these concerns. They ask: Is the product derived from an animal or does it contain any ingredients derived from an animal? If so, was the animal raised or hunted respectfully, was it killed humanely, and were its health and freedom to enjoy life prioritized prior to its death? Was the product or any of its ingredients tested on animals?


If you want to minimize negatively impacting animals, you can trust products that have been certified by Cruelty Free International, The Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics, Choose Cruelty Free, the Vegan Society, Vegan Action, and PETA, and that bear the logos of these organizations.


3. Local Production

Supporting local businesses helps to minimize food kilometers (which total the distance a food has travelled from source of production to the ultimate destination of consumption) and therefore decrease impact on the environment. It also supports the local economy, promotes small family-owned business, and decreases patronization of exotic imports or “big box” stores.


Consumers can define "support local" on a community, regional, or national scale. In a broad sense, purchasing locally produced goods usually excludes purchasing products manufactured in exploitive sweatshops that compromise worker safety and health. Look for the Made in Canada icon throughout the site to promote Canadian companies that help keep Canada's economy strong.


4. Fair Trade

This is a big social issue that continues to garner attention as a growing number of people are becoming aware of how free market prices and cartels can negatively impact small producers, especially those in economically underdeveloped countries. Small producers such as individual farmers and small community coops rarely (if ever) have enough leverage to negotiate fair market prices for their goods--especially when they're selling goods that are in high demand on the global market.


Fair trade associations act as intermediaries between buyers and producers to ensure that producers aren't cheated and that the community economy isn't jeopardized. Fair trade associations are not stewards. Instead, they work closely with producers to create economically and socially influential community guilds and associations, encourage capacity development, increase awareness of global market trends and mechanics, and promote long-term sustainability of the local market.


Spot certifications from Fair Trade International (as well as any of its international chapters), Canadian Fair Trade Network, Fair Trade Federation, World Fair Trade Organization, Fair for Life, Institute for Marketecology, or Fair Trade USA, on product labels to be assured that your purchase isn't encouraging exploitive markets.


Some people argue that making ethical consumer choices still doesn't address the underlying problem of excessive consumption of goods. I agree that excessive consumption is a bigger problem and one that can't necessarily be remedied simply by purchasing goods that are organic, biodynamic, cruelty free, environmentally friendly, and/or traded fairly. Excessive consumption can only be resolved by buying less.


However, ethical consumption is more than simple psychological appeasement for people who love (or simply need) to shop but want to feel good about the companies they support. Ethical consumerism does make a difference because it demands that companies be mindful, it sends a clear message that exploitation of any kind isn't acceptable, and it encourages new companies to create a business mandate that prioritizes ethical practices and ethical investments. World economies won't transform overnight but ethical spending helps guide us in the right direction.


I'll delve into each of these topics in greater depth in future blog posts, so subscribe to our RSS feed to receive updates on the issues that matter most to you.



Zander, K. et al., 2013. Appetite. 62: 133--142.