How to Shop Ethically Without Breaking Your Budget

Most of us want to get the most value for our dollar when we’re buying things. At the same time, one aspect of our purchases that many of us care about is ethics. What are the ethical implications of our purchases?

That kind of ethical concern can take on a lot of forms. Perhaps you’re concerned about the environmental impact of the things you buy. Are they manufactured in an environmentally friendly way? What about the packaging? Others might be concerned with the treatment of animals. Does the company treat animals in an ethical fashion? Many of us are concerned about the ethical treatment of workers. Are the workers at the factories or in the fields paid well? Are they treated well?

Sometimes, we find ourselves making purchases with a bit of a guilty feeling. At other times, we even avoid purchases or spend more on purchases to avoid those ethical dilemmas.

All of these feelings are complex, and they’re made even harder when we’re concerned about our money, too. How do we balance all of these ideas and concerns without spending tons of money on the most ethical goods?

Here are seven strategies to use.

Don’t buy.

The first strategy is easy. Just stop buying stuff. If you don’t need something, don’t buy it.

This choice makes it easy to spend less money and thus keeps money in your pocket. It also guarantees that your money isn’t going to unethical companies, either. It also means that you’ll have plenty of money to support a much smaller number of more ethical products and services, and since you’re reducing your purchases, you have more time to pay attention to the purchases you do make.

You can achieve all of that by simply saying “no” more often. Stop buying things you don’t need.

Buy secondhand, swap, trade and repurpose.

Another strategy to use is to simply buy items secondhand. Once items are being sold secondhand, your acquisition and use of them has far less ethical consequence because you are not buying a new product fresh from the manufacturer. You don’t support a manufacturer by buying its product secondhand; rather, you’re just supporting the local thrift store, the person running a yard sale or the person selling on Craigslist.

This is particularly important when your concerns are more environmental in nature. Buying secondhand is a great way to simultaneously minimize the amount of junk that makes its way into landfills, minimize the number of new items being produced and also minimize your own expense.

Decide what matters most to you.

It is essentially impossible to find an ethically “perfect” good, product or service. Almost all production causes waste. People aren’t ethically perfect. Even if a particular business does a lot of things well, they can’t be sure about the entirety of all of its supply chains. You can find an ethical problem with essentially every producer of goods and every service provider if you look close enough.

What you have to figure out is what matters most to you. Figure out one or two ethical issues that matter the most to you and focus on making ethical purchases with regard to those specific issues. Lean into those issues and don’t worry as much about other issues.

Perhaps you care about how much of a company’s manufacturing and sourcing comes from America above all else. Or, maybe, you care about how the company treats all of its employees and all of its sources with fair wages and good treatment. Maybe you’re most concerned with companies minimizing the environmental impact of its production and products and want to avoid big polluters and waste producers.

There is no truly wrong answer here. Whatever it is that concerns you the most, lean into that.

But aren’t those other issues important? Sure, but if you try to lean into every possible ethical concern, you lose the time and ability to understand and adequately research how each company you might buy products and services from addresses the ethical concerns you care about the most. Choose one or two and really understand them front and back. That way, you know you’re making ethical choices on the core issue or two most important to you.

Lean into good, not just away from bad.

It’s easy to discover that one company is acting horribly in terms of an ethical area that concerns you. Maybe you discover that a company has abysmal practices when it comes to employee treatment, for example. Simply boycotting that company is an easy choice, right?

Don’t just think of ethical shopping in terms of avoiding really unethical businesses. You should also think of ethical shopping in terms of intentionally supporting highly ethical ones.

When you find a company or organization that really hits a home run in the ethical dimension you care the most about, lean into that company. Buy its products for all of your uses. Give its products as gifts. Laud that company publicly.

Ethical shopping doesn’t just mean avoiding the worst companies. That often results in companies aiming to be just slightly better than the worst. Rather, aim to intentionally support and buy from the most ethical companies in the issue or two you care about, and make it known why you buy from them by sharing. This encourages competitors to strive for those high expectation of ethics.

Focus heavily on businesses you use frequently.

You make the most impact by making a better ethical choice about companies and services you use frequently than ones you use infrequently.

For example, you should strive to make sure that the financial institutions you use are as ethical as possible. Make sure that the energy companies you do business with are as ethical as can be in the areas you care about. Make sure your primary grocery store is an ethical employer, particularly if employment issues are your main concern. Make sure that the brands you most commonly buy are ethical behaviors in the areas of your ethical concern.

You will have far more impact if you spend your energy making sure you’re maximizing your ethics in terms of the businesses that hold your money and the businesses that take the largest portions of your money. Start with the big slices of your financial pie and move down.

Yes, this means that you might make occasional small purchases without understanding the ethics, but that single occasional small purchase has a tiny impact. Spend your energy on where your dollars make a much larger impact.

Know about certifications, and know what they really mean.

When you’ve identified your specific area of ethical concern, it’s a good idea to learn about the various certifications that companies and products can earn within that level of concern and what those certifications actually mean.

What does it mean to be “USDA organic”? That might be very important if your area of ethical concern is pesticide use, for example. What does it mean to be “fair trade certified,” and who’s doing the certification?

There are many areas of ethical concern that have certifying organizations. Sometimes, you’ll find these on product packaging or websites. At other times, you’ll have to find certifying organizations independently and they’ll often list products and companies on their website. These certifications help — if you can trust the certification, then the certifications can lead you to trusted products.

Don’t be afraid to be wrong and to change directions.

Sometimes, you’ll find out that you were wrong about an organization. Maybe it’s more ethical than you thought, or maybe it isn’t as ethically wonderful as you believed.

Regardless of which side of that balance you find yourself, it’s OK to be wrong about your initial views. Don’t hold onto them; let new information change your course of thinking and your decision making.

Similarly, you may find that a new ethical issue has become more important to you. It’s OK to step back and use this new issue as the primary guide for purchasing decisions. You can always continue to support an ethical company you discovered before, even if your main ethical concern is a new one.

It’s OK to be wrong. It’s OK to change your mind. The goal is to make better steps going forward, not to feel guilty about mistakes made in the past.

You don’t have to be perfect. Just aim to be better.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.