6 Easy Ways to Shop More Ethically

Shopping ethically doesn’t have to mean giving up fashion, delicious food or things you love.

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Abby Hayes
Abby Hayes
Instant news, Twitter and cheap travel have made many U.S. consumers more globally aware in the past decade than ever before. When we hear about things like Bangladeshi garment workers dying in a factory collapse or fire, some of us can't help but be moved.

Tragedies like these make us want to change the world – to make things better for our fellow human beings. Yet, this seems like such an overwhelming task that many of us go on wishing, rather than taking steps, to make the world a better place.

Despite the vastness of the task of "changing the world," you really can make a difference. One of the best ways is to shop ethically.

As a U.S. consumer, you're one of the wealthiest people in the world – even when you don't feel like it. And since you have more money to spend than 90 percent of the world's inhabitants, where you choose to spend that money makes a big impact. By shopping more ethically, you can promote a better world – and snag some cool or useful stuff in the process.

Shopping ethically doesn't have to mean giving up fashion, delicious food or other things you love. With these six options, you can get the things you love, want and need, while voting with your dollars to make the world a better place.

1. Shop locally. Shopping locally ensures that money stays in your community's (or, at least, country's) economy. Shopping at small, locally-owned businesses has the added advantage of helping you understand exactly where your products are made.

The complex processes and structures of big box stores make it difficult to trace the supply line for any given piece of merchandise. But local store owners are more likely to know and care where the products they sell are made. Many local stores also focus on sustainability and fairness in trade, so they'll only sell products from ethical companies.

2. Buy used. Taking yourself out of the new-goods supply chain altogether is a great way to save. When you buy secondhand, you ensure that used goods get a second life – and don't wind up in a landfill. Plus, when you buy used, you can use the money you save for new, ethically-sourced products that might not otherwise fit into your budget.

If shopping at thrift stores makes you uncomfortable, consider consignment shops instead. These shops usually have a tough vetting process, so the clothing and other goods they sell are in good condition and are usually in style and in season.

3. Research your retailers. It's OK to buy new products from time to time, but to make more ethical purchases, educate yourself first. Websites like goodguide.com rate products and companies and can help you sort out which are the most ethical. Sometimes, when you need a specific product and are on a tight budget, you may still have to choose a company or product that is the lesser of two evils.

4. Shop fair trade. The fair trade movement has been around for awhile, and you can now shop for fair trade items online and in many local stores. While it has some flaws, the core of the fair trade movement is ensuring that employees – especially those in developing countries – are paid fair, livable wages for their work.

These days, you can get nearly anything fair trade, but it's important to look for fair trade certification when buying products from industries that are typically linked to practices like child and slave labor – like the cocoa industry.

5. Look for direct partners. For a more personal touch, consider shopping with stores and websites that directly partner with product-makers in developing nations. Many of these shops are run by nonprofits focused on getting women out of sex trafficking, employing disabled individuals or helping parents find living-wage jobs.

Though you'll typically pay more for these products, you'll know that your money is being well spent to help individuals in desperate need. Plus, these direct partners often offer one-of-a-kind handmade products that you can't get anywhere else.

6. Participate in boycotts. Deciding where not to spend money is just as important as deciding where to spend it. It's probably not sustainable for you to boycott every single company with unethical practices, but you can pick a few to completely avoid.

You don't have to be militant about a boycott, but you can make your voice heard by not buying from companies with policies and practices that conflict with your principles.

Abby Hayes is a freelance blogger and journalist who writes for personal finance blog The Dough Roller and contributes to Dough Roller's weekly newsletter.