How we can make ethical shopping a changing force

Good For Us founder Chris Jensen calls for innovative ways to make ethical shopping - buying from brands that do right by workers and the environment - more widely and easily accessible.

ethical shopping
Ethical shopping entails supporting companies with good environmental, human rights, animal welfare, labour and community involvement records. Image: Eugenio Marongiu /

Ethical shopping is one of those ideas that seem so obvious in hindsight.

If we could get consumers to consciously choose to buy from brands that were doing the right thing by workers and the environment, then bad companies would go bust, good companies would thrive, and we would have a fair and sustainable economy.

I can still remember my excitement when I first started researching ethical shopping in my final year of studies. I had pinned my hopes on the success of this idea that business leaders could confidently make responsible decisions knowing that their customers would support them.

Five years later, I am forced to concede that ethical shopping has not delivered on the promise.

In 2010, electronics firm Sony unveiled ambitious plans to achieve a zero carbon footprint but they have not been able to compete with competitors that have less ambitious goals for market share in the computer or mobile phone markets.

Retail giant Walmart’s share price remains steady despite years of reports of labour rights issues.

Chemical company Bayer has shrugged off reports that allege a link between their pesticides and the demise of bees, which our food chain heavily depends on.

Time and time again when key issues are on the line, the trendy, the convenient and the cheap have taken precedence.

Ethical shopping needs to enter the mainstream, but we lack the critical mass of consumers needed to make a meaningful impact on corporate decision making.

Yet, as American consultant and author Alice Korngold wrote only a month ago, only corporations will save the world. Making up some of the largest economies of the world and deeply interconnected with key global issues, companies are a key part of the solution to many urgent challenges.

And while, as Alice shares, some companies are making great strides and understand the business case for taking the long view, there are still too many that allow short term profits to outweigh the longer term considerations.

Ethical shopping needs to enter the mainstream, but we lack the critical mass of consumers needed to make a meaningful impact on corporate decision making.

For example, Indonesian palm oil and paper giants were on the receiving end of years of sustained environmental campaigns before they eventually agreed to move to sustainable practices. Apple successfully launched the iPhone series under a cloud of accusations that factory workers were mistreated.

If corporations are the only ones that can save us, then ethical shoppers are the only ones that can convince them to do so.

So what can shoppers do?

Those that want to shop ethically can now easily find out what companies are up to by looking up websites that provide ratings and information.

At Good for Us, we compile information on areas such as environment, human rights, animal welfare, community involvement and more. With this information and ratings, consumers can choose to buy from companies that are doing the right thing.

By choosing companies that have a good record, we can ensure our dollar is going to help (and not hinder) progress on the issues we care about.

We’re not the only ones providing this information, organizations all around the world such as, Good Guide, Ethical Consumer and CSRHub, are providing easily accessible information on which companies are best to buy from and which are best to avoid.

With these tools, consumers can easily cut through all the marketing spin to find out which companies are behaving as good corporate citizens. But few are making use of this information when deciding who they buy from.

We have to find innovative ways to make ethical shopping mainstream.

There are some examples of success in ethical shopping. Last year, it played a role in rallying action in response to sexist comments from controversial radio hosts. Outraged citizens boycotted products advertised on the programmes of conservative talk back hosts Rush Limbaugh in the United States and Alan Jones in Australia. Advertisers began pulling sponsorship from the programmes, causing the loss of millions in revenue for their stations. It resulted in the hosts toning down their rhetoric before sponsors returned.

Online advocacy organisation Sum Of Us has also seen success in rallying consumers to boycott or petition companies with poor environmental or labor practices. But all of these successes are based on boycotting and negative action, and is not enough to encourage an ecosystem of companies thriving on ethical shopping.

We need to learn from very examples that we loathe. Why is it that Apple can still sell millions of iPhones despite allegations of worker exploitation? Why do people buy cars that are damaging to both the environment and their bank account?

Our relationship with these brands goes far beyond the buying the products we need.

The act of shopping is not simply buying things we need and want, it is a pastime and a passion. It’s an exciting, social experience where both shopping itself and the brands we desire are a part of our identity.

For ethical shopping to succeed, it must move beyond being an awkward afterthought to being an integral part of our shopping experience. It must change from being a depressing topic of conversation to something we delight in sharing with our friends about.

To do this, we need to bring the same brilliant minds that enjoy making shopping so compelling. We need the help of everyone that makes us so connected to the brands we love: the creatives, the social media gurus, the app and game makers.

This is no easy task, but we must make finding good brands not only easy for the average consumer, but as exciting and fun filled as shopping already is for many people. When this happens, ethical shopping can finally deliver on its promise.

Chris Jensen is a core team member of Ground-Up Initiative and the founder of Good for Us which seeks to make our every day actions a force of good in the world.

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