What is Ethical Shopping—and Why is it the World's Most Powerful Force for Change? (Updated for 2022)

Ethical shopping is a growing movement--and it's beginning to make a huge impact

Discussing ethical shopping as a theory of change is a somewhat new phenomenon. We’re far more familiar with traditional methods of doing good, like volunteering our time or donating our money.

But while Americans generously donated $428 billion to charities in 2019, we spent 325 times more than that last year buying stuff!

How much of that went to huge corporations that don’t support your beliefs--or worse, that use the money you give them to actively work against what you believe in?

Ethical shoppers prefer to spend money with companies that support the same causes they do.

And it really does make a difference.

Before we get to the impact, let’s take a look at the who, what, when, where, and why of ethical shopping.

Who is the ethical shopper?

Ethical shoppers come from all walks of life and are represented across most age groups and income brackets.

The simplest definition of an ethical shopper is someone who buys from brands that align with their personal values whenever practical. Of course, that broad definition leaves room for a lot of nuance.

Statistics show that the sustainable shopping sector is growing all the time, meaning more people are joining the ranks of ethical shoppers.

These conscious consumers spend a combined $300 billion per year on ethical products, with number in recent years increasing 10% year-over-year. That increase is likely to continue, with a whopping 73% of millennials say they're likely to change purchasing decisions based on environmental impact.

One common belief that all ethical shoppers share is that it is possible to effect change by voting for your values with your dollars. And they’re right!

What do conscious consumers buy?

The particular products that ethical consumers buy vary greatly depending on the individual. They may be interested in environmentally sustainable products, cruelty-free items, fair trade or organic ones, products made in the USA or other countries or localities, or any combination of those and other factors!

Just as important as what a sustainable shopper buys is what they don’t buy. Experienced ethical consumers make it a point to avoid buying products from brands that harm the environment, test products on animals, fail to treat their workers fairly, or engage in other practices that do harm to other people and the planet.

There can also be substantial overlap between conscious consumers and minimalists. Many sustainable shoppers choose to lessen their environmental impact by buying only what they truly need, when they need it. Although on the other hand, many point out that in order to achieve the significant economic paradigm shifts needed to overcome major challenges like climate change and global poverty, we have to prove that businesses that pay good wages and use highly eco-friendly practices are able to be successful--and for those businesses to succeed, they need people to buy things from them sometimes. In other words, if it's true that every time you buy something you're casting a vote, then maybe never buying anything at all is kind of like sitting out the election, and does not help prove that a better way of doing business is possible.

Because ethical consumerism is heavily contingent on the shopper’s own personal values, there’s no “right” way to do it, other than to make sure your purchases line up with your own beliefs!

When do conscious consumers shop this way?

In a perfect world, we would all buy ethical products 100% of the time.

But in reality, that can be difficult. Sometimes an ethical alternative can’t be obtained in time, or at a price you can afford, and sometimes it may not even exist at all!

Conscious consumers do the best that they can to shop with their values, but they understand that one impulsive Amazon purchase isn’t reason enough to throw in the towel.

The great thing about ethical shopping is that the more demand we create for ethically made products from mission-driven companies, the more supply there will be. So, shopping sustainably not only supports your values in the short term, but it paves the way for more options to be available down the road!

Hopefully, one day, ethical options will be the default rather than the exception.

In the meantime, all we can do is what we can do. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and if you feel discouraged, remember this quote from Helen Keller:

I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.
— Helen Keller

Where does the conscious consumer shop?

Well, DoneGood has built an entire shopping site dedicated to answering that question! Our marketplace site has tens of thousands of products from ethical and sustainable brands of all kinds, all in one place so they're easy to find, and you know the dollars you spend are doing good for people and the planet. Forbes called DoneGood, "The Amazon for Social Good."

But that's not the only way to shop more ethically. There are a lot of ethical businesses online and likely some in your community. Most ethical brands operate with sufficient transparency so that their customers can clearly see how their purchases aid the causes that they care about.

However, as ethical consumerism grows, more and more brands are wanting to hop on the bandwagon. That’s great when these brands are really putting in the work to make their products and supply chains sustainable.

But there are also bound to be some companies who want the glory without really investing the effort and/or money to truly become more sustainable. They make superficial changes to their marketing and engage in greenwashing to try to fool customers.

Even though the internet is a great resource for finding out what’s the truth of a company’s values and what’s just hype, it can be exhausting to do extensive research each and every time you want to buy something.

That’s why DoneGood exists. To help you sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to ethical shopping. All of our DoneGood approved brands are thoroughly vetted to ensure that they have substance and not just style, so you can shop with confidence.

Why do conscious consumers change their shopping habits?

Ethical consumers change their shopping habits because they believe that voting for their values with their money is important, and can influence change.

They want to make sure that all the money they spend is having a positive impact on the world, not just their charitable donations (especially because for most of us, the dollars we spend in a given year vastly exceed the money we donate).

For a lot of conscious consumers, their introduction the ethical consumerism actually starts as a boycott of certain companies or brands they know to be harmful.

Finding out negative things about one company usually leads them to examine their shopping habits as a whole, and they may find that a lot more brands aren’t worth supporting!

Once you’ve eliminated the brands working against your beliefs from your shopping “diet,” the next logical step is to fill in the gaps with ethical brands that share your values. Once you see how many amazing brands there are out there doing amazing work, you may never want to stop!

For example, we talk about the importance of voting in elections (and voting in elections is so important), but we all cast our ballots every day for the kind of the world you want to live in! Whether we're aware of it or not, we may be giving our money to companies that then give our money to a presidential candidate that we don't support.

To avoid that, many choose to avoid companies that are donate to a candidate they don't agree with. But once they start boycotting, many also start buycotting--actively supporting brands that are fighting climate change, supporting good wages, and otherwise acting in line with their values.


The impact of sustainable shopping

Here it is, the best part.

Ethical shoppers have put in their time sourcing the best products from brands who care about making the world a better place, and sometimes willingly paid more for everyday essentials made in a more sustainable way.

What do we have to show for all that?

Has it made a difference?


Voting with your dollars works.

Child labor rates dropped by over one third between 2000 and 2017, and they’ve continued this downward trend since then.

According to the 2019 Ethical Fashion Report from Baptist World Aid Australia, 24% more fashion companies have committed to paying their workers a living wage, and 61% are investing in using sustainable fabrics.

56% of us have stopped buying from brands we consider to be unethical.

Sustainably-marketed products are responsible for more than half of the growth in consumer packaged goods since 2013!

A 2020 Nielsen report says that businesses that have been helping with problems related to the coronavirus pandemic like hunger, or providing supplies to frontline workers, and that are taking steps to protect their employees, are not only doing the right thing, but they're also more likely to attract strong, lifelong supporters and customers.

So, executives are frantically piling into conference rooms to discuss their “corporate social responsibility.” In 2011, less than 15% of S&P 500 companies issued annual corporate social responsibility reports, but in 2020, over 85% did.

Because that’s what attracts ethical shoppers, who are a large and growing portion of the general public. And attracting more (ethical) consumers means companies make more money.

When the right thing to do also becomes the more profitable thing to do, it becomes the thing that gets done.

The economic landscape is changing before our eyes.

Companies are changing, and in turn our economy and our culture is changing, all because of conscious consumers who have banded together in their commitment to shop according to their beliefs.

The market will always be beholden to the demands of the consumers. If we, as ethical shoppers, continue to demand goods that are made with business good wages, investments in communities, and eco-friendly and refuse to settle for less, then the market will supply more of those products, and therefore we will get more good paying jobs and fewer products that destroy the planet.

We’re seeing the proof already.

The impact of ethical consumerism is huge, and it’s only getting bigger.

You have incredible power with your purchases. Who you choose to give your money to makes a world of difference.

Wanna find brands that are doing good things the big guys aren’t? Check out our alternatives series to find them!


Cullen Schwarz
Head of Good Thoughts, DoneGood

Recovering politico and Obama alum who created DoneGood to avoid wearing suits every day.

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