my two cents

How Can I Afford to Shop Ethically?

Photo: Lambert/Getty Images

You can’t even buy a coffee these days without encountering a buffet of “ethical” and “sustainable” options — most of which I suspect are just a marketing ploy. (I am still confused about whether almond milk is worse than cow — but I draw the line at pea milk, sorry.) Still, it’s clear that how we spend money (or don’t) is one of the most powerful actions that we can take to support the people and causes we care about. So how can we navigate our daily financial lives with those values in mind without getting mired in decision fatigue and misleading claims? In her new book Wallet Activism, author and podcast host Tanja Hester offers an easy, accessible guide for “how to use every dollar you spend, earn, and save as a force for change.” The goal, she explains, “is for everyone to figure out what’s doable in their lives at whatever stage their lives are in.” We talked to Hester about which decisions matter most, why decluttering is overrated, and the four questions to ask yourself the next time you buy something.

The prospect of trying to shop and manage money more ethically seems overwhelming and time-consuming, not to mention expensive. How can it be less so?

I totally understand why folks would say, “Well, I can’t do this.” Because of bad marketing, people think that you have to buy Patagonia or be zero waste or drive a Tesla in order to “live your values.” But just buying less is powerful and important. There are things that every single person can do. People who earn more have a responsibility to do more, but there’s still plenty you can do with the smallest resources.

I also think that it becomes much easier once you figure out the values and causes that you want to prioritize. That helps you automate some of the thought processes. If you’re a vegetarian and someone offers you a hamburger, you don’t waste any mental energy wondering if you should eat it. You just say no. Similar to that, if you have a couple of categories that you decide you will not spend money on or invest in or give money to, then it simplifies things. On the flip side, it’s important to have at least one category that you do want to support. For me, that’s cultural events, like going to museums or a concert or buying a book. I am happy to spend money on those things without second-guessing myself. It helps to have those categories figured out so that you don’t feel decision fatigue all the time. Obviously there are limits — you can’t give yourself carte blanche to buy sports cars. But find a few things that you feel great about supporting and then go ahead.

Your book includes four questions to ask yourself in order to make financial decisions that align with your values. Can you describe how you’d put those questions into practice, say, if you see something online that you want to buy?

Let’s say that you see an ad for a shirt on Instagram that you like. The first question that I encourage folks to ask is, “For whom?” As in, who is going to benefit from me taking this action? This is not to make anyone feel guilty. It’s just to help us remind ourselves that every single thing we buy has an impact on other people. And it consumes resources that could have gone unused or could have gone somewhere else. It also helps us think, Will I really benefit from this thing, or could I live without it? 

The next question is, “What am I funding?” Any time you buy a thing, you are creating demand for more of that thing because you’re sending a signal to the company that it’s profitable to produce it and that there’s a market for it. Do you feel good about doing that?

Another important question is, “Is it too cheap?” This is where you ask yourself what you know about this shirt. Can you tell where it was made and what the brand’s business practices are? A lot of companies claim to be “sustainable,” but then you look at the price and think, Okay, $10 or $15 and free shipping, is that really doable? Could they have really paid a living wage to people to make that shirt? Does that price encompass transoceanic shipping? Obviously you can’t know everything, but you can use common sense about what seems realistic. If it’s a $5 shirt, it’s a pretty safe bet that it was made with exploited labor from the worst materials under the worst conditions.

The fourth question is, “Can other people do this?” In order to find good solutions, we need them to be widely available. That can mean a lot of different things: Is the store physically accessible? Is the price point something that a lot of people could afford? Which is not to say you shouldn’t buy something just because it’s expensive, but you should understand that that’s not going to solve problems at scale.

I like that you consider price points on either end of the spectrum. A lot of people assume that shopping ethically is too expensive, but you’re pointing out that it needs to be affordable to be widely effective.

Of course, if you want to buy something expensive and high quality under the “buy less, keep it longer” philosophy, then that’s fine. But it’s not realistic to promote that as something everyone can do. And the best ways to make meaningful change involve actions that are accessible and have a low barrier to entry.

Also, most of the stuff that ends up being good for other people or good for the climate crisis is also good for your own finances. It’s not a choice of, “Do I buy this shirt or that shirt?” There’s also the choice of, “Could I buy a secondhand shirt, or could I buy no shirt and use what I have?” There’s nothing better for your personal finances than buying less or buying less new stuff.

What are some other accessible ways to make a positive impact with your financial choices?

There are some onetime actions that are really impactful. And it’s not always about shopping. One involves where you bank. If you use a big bank, think about switching to a smaller bank or local credit union. All the big banks do business with the fossil fuel industry, so if you don’t want to be a funding source for that, try switching to a bank in your community that’s much more likely to be giving out loans for people’s mortgages and small local businesses. Obviously it’s a chore to switch over your deposits and accounts. But you do it one time, and then it’s done forever.

Also, just thinking about the timing of when you shop is much more powerful than people think. If you can manage to avoid really busy periods, like the holiday season and Black Friday and Prime Day, then you won’t be contributing to the high worker injury rate that happens around those times. Or, if you need to shop then, it helps to choose the slowest shipping available so that you’re not adding to the madness of the warehouse. Avoiding peaks as much as you can makes a difference.

There’s a lot of marketing around sustainability and ethical labor, but it’s hard to know what that really means. How can we know if a brand’s business practices are legitimately aligned with what they say they are? 

First of all, you shouldn’t feel like you have to vet every single company you give a penny to. The most important thing is to look at your biggest expenditures or your biggest bits of financial power. Don’t stress over the $1 decisions; stress over the $1,000 decisions. Then you can do some research on websites like Open Secrets to learn about a company’s political giving or what kind of projects they’re funding. One good, easy litmus test that I use personally is to look for companies that have policies about what to do with their products after you’re done with them — where to send them or how to recycle them or how to return them to the company. That doesn’t have to be everyone’s test, but it’s mine.

I also enjoyed your critique of the decluttering movement. Can you explain why you’re not a fan?

Obviously I’m not saying that we should be hoarders or hang on to a bunch of stuff that we’re never going to use again. But this idea that we can just donate things that we don’t like anymore is harmful for two reasons. One is that it just gives us permission to buy more, and so it feeds into a consumption habit. The second is a lot of the stuff that we discard is not going where we think it is. Most of the clothes that are donated to thrift stores are never sold, so a lot of them go to landfills. The rest of it gets put in a container, shipped overseas, and then becomes some other country’s problem to deal with, usually an impoverished nation. And that’s not what anyone intends when you go drop your bag of clothes at Goodwill.

A better solution would be to either try to get more use out of that thing or to try harder to find it a real home — offer it to friends, sell it at a garage sale. You want to put it into someone’s hands who will use it. That is more labor-intensive, but if you think about that when you’re buying something, it’s a good way to not shop too much. Like, Am I willing to put this on Facebook Marketplace when I’m done with it? That’s a good filter for whether or not you should buy it.

How Can I Afford to Shop Ethically?