A Guide to Socially Responsible Gift Shopping

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Ethical consumerism is a hot environmental and human rights topic, and rightly so: US citizens throw away over 250 million tons of stuff a year and too many big corporations are failing to meet human rights standards for their workers. While many consumers try to practice ethical shopping in their everyday lives, there’s been an increasing interest in and a need for mindful gift shopping and sustainable celebrations in particular.
Not only do celebrations result in an abundance of “eco-unfriendly” decorations, tableware, and food; they sometimes result in gifts that aren’t sustainably produced by companies that don’t treat their employees well.
How can gift-givers tackle this issue and participate in ethical shopping? Our socially responsible shopping guide offers some tips around ethical gift-giving to help get you started.

Benefits of Ethical Consumerism

First things first: What exactly is ethical consumerism? Ethical consumerism is "the practice of purchasing products and services produced in a way that minimizes social and/or environmental damage, while avoiding products and services deemed to have a negative impact on society or the environment.”
It’s important to note that “ethical” in this context refers to matters such as sustainability and the promotion of human and animal rights. Keeping this in mind, let’s dive deeper into some benefits of ethical consumerism:

  • Environment: Consumers can have an impact on a wide range of environmental issues such as climate change, pollution, and wildlife protection by looking for companies that aim to reduce packaging waste, make environmentally sustainable products, and focus on investments in renewable energy, eco-innovations, and ocean or rainforest conservation.

  • Communities: In a perfect world, we would live in a society that promotes human rights and pays people family-sustaining wages. Unfortunately, many companies participate in child or slave labor, do not pay fair wages to workers, and/or provide unsafe working conditions. Consumers can focus on buying products from companies where their workers are treated with respect and paid well to ensure healthy local and global communities.

  • Animals: Everyone wants to protect our furry friends. Unfortunately, many companies still test their products on animals or use unsustainable methods of raising them for food. Consumers can make a difference by purchasing products from companies that focus on treating animals humanely, don’t participate in animal testing, and invest in habitat preservation and animal-free alternatives. 

Obstacles to Ethical Gift Shopping

Finding ethically sourced products is a worthwhile goal, but you might run into a few bumps while shopping. Here are some obstacles to ethical gift shopping to be aware of: 

  • Cost: Unfortunately being friendly to the environment is not always friendly on your wallet. Ethically sourced products often cost more because companies that make them have invested in environmentally friendly practices and fair wages for their workers.

  • Time: Doing research on what companies invest in sustainable practices and what exactly those practices are can take a bit of time. Additionally, instead of simply ordering a gift online and having it delivered to your door, you might have to go to a specialty store to find what you’re looking for.

  • Impact: Many ethical shoppers question if their purchase is really going to make that much of a difference. How could one little decision possibly make any real-world changes? Is it really worth it?

  • Selection: If you have a very specific gift in mind for a friend, be aware that a company might not carry that gift in a particular style or—if it’s clothing—a specific size. Although many companies have jumped on the ethical product bandwagon, they may only offer a limited selection.

How to Shop Ethically and Sustainably

Although the obstacles to ethical shopping can seem a bit discouraging, there are solutions to overcome these obstacles to shop ethically and sustainably:
  1. Source Carefully: Ethical sourcing is a key part of ethical consumerism and ensures that workers are treated well and paid fairly, production facilities are safe and clean, and products are made with responsible and sustainable methods.

    To ensure that companies are practicing ethical sourcing, check out their website’s policy page. A company that ethically sources should have in-depth information about their labor law standards and whether they practice sustainable sourcing methods. If you’re short on time, there are plenty of online lists of companies that ethically source. Product labels (see below) are also an efficient way to see if products are ethically sourced.

  2. Look at the Labels: Labels can give you important information about a product and help you save time when researching ethically sourced products. For example, a Fair Trade certification ensures that products meet specific, social, environmental, and economic standards. Some products include labels around what types of materials are being used in production (e.g. whether they are recycled, cruelty-free, or organic), while others include labels around a product’s place of production (Is the product made locally, or is it made abroad and shipped overseas, resulting in a larger carbon footprint?).

  3. Buy Local: An important but often overlooked part of ethical consumerism involves shopping at small businesses within your community. Buying local not only keeps money in your community, but it’s more environmentally-friendly. Products made abroad and then shipped overseas result in more harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, shopping locally also means your distance traveled and carbon footprint are both smaller.

    Not sure where to start? Look for local farmers markets, boutiques, and smaller mom-and-pop stores. There are plenty of tools and websites, like Locally, that can help you find specific gifts and brands at stores near you! 

  4. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: This practice is commonly referred to as the “three Rs” of waste management and focuses on cutting down the amount of waste we throw away. It’s also a meaningful way to counterbalance the higher price tag that often accompanies ethical consumerism. The three Rs may be especially beneficial for celebrations that require less consumption, like when you plan a first birthday party. Here are a few ways you can leverage the three Rs for ethical gift shopping:
  • Buy Used: Reduce your environmental footprint and look for used products at secondhand e-commerce sites and consignment stores. Alternatively, try to personally update and/or repair used products before gifting new ones. 

  • Choose Recycled Products: Buying gifts made with recycled materials means that you are preventing those materials from going to a landfill. If you’re not able to buy recycled gifts, at the very least be sure to purchase recyclable products.

  • Reduce Consumption: To decrease waste and save money, avoid buying things that the recipient doesn’t really need and/or will likely to be discarded.

  • Digitize: When possible, choose digital. Consider sending eCards with online gift cards instead of paper greeting cards. Birthday parties in particular are the perfect opportunity to choose online birthday cards and online birthday invitations.

Ethical Brands

To find companies that make ethical products, go online! There are plenty of blogs and guides with lists of ethical places to shop. Ethical Consumer's shopping guide and My Green Closet’s clothing directory are convenient resources to find ethical product examples and brands.
Don’t have time to go digging for ethical brands? Here’s a quick list of brands that are well-known for their ethical practices.

  • Patagonia
  • Eileen Fischer
  • Boden
  • Ten Thousand Villages
  • TOMS
  • Everlane
  • Lush
  • The Body Shop
Socially responsible gift shopping is a worthwhile way to express our values and what’s important to us. There are so many different ways to shop ethically, and with just a little effort, we can make a big difference for our planet and people! 

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