I Tried Shopping Ethically for One Month and Failed on the First Day

Despite the rocky start, contributing writer Tonya Russell figured out the best — and easiest — ways to be an ethical shopper.

For an entire month, South Jersey resident Tonya Russell navigated the world of ethical shopping. Here’s what she learned. / Photograph courtesy of Getty Images.

I’m a typical millennial, chowing down on avo toast and drowning in student loan debt. But, like many millennials, I’ve taken up the cause of making this world a better place — one that is cleaner and greener.

This summer, I decided to step up my contribution game and make an impact via my spending habits. For the entire month of July, I only shopped from brands designated as “ethical” — those that have a decent track record with human rights, environmental impact, animal protection, community involvement, and social justice.

If I could manage a successful month, I thought, I’d be less intimidated about making lasting changes. To me, a “successful” month would be one that didn’t drastically increase spending or require a lot of effort. (I’m a social media director for a Philly-area PR company, a fitness blogger, a marathon trainee, and a frequent volunteer at local charities, so this project couldn’t take up too much of my very limited time.) And I figured that if my transition were seamless and easy, maybe more people will be more mindful about shopping ethically, too.

To reduce your plastic consumption, Russell suggests using a biodegradable bamboo toothbrush. / Photograph by Tonya Russell.

Before I began, I did extensive research. After all, I needed to know what ethical shopping entailed and which brands to avoid. To help me navigate, I used Better World Shopper and How Good, two databases that both came up in my search more times than I could count and seemed credible. Based on my findings, I would only shop for essentials — groceries, toiletries, and clothing — from brands with a C+ or higher rating.

From day one, I faced a multitude of challenges. I realized that responsible shopping takes a lot of thought. On my first day, without thinking, I accidentally cheated and bought a C- veggie burger from a D-rated fast food restaurant (I’m not going to publicly “call out” the eatery). That’s right: I failed on my first day! Halfway through my burger, I vowed to be more diligent.

This led to me thinking more about my food consumption. Unfortunately, my fiancé and I waste so much food. He and I don’t have the same tastes, so often I’m making two separate meals. While I eat my leftovers, he never does (I can’t even fathom how much we lose when we order takeout). Also, living in South Jersey, there isn’t an overwhelming number of small businesses that can meet all of my food needs.

South Jersey does, however, have some responsible grocery chains. For the remainder of the month, I relied heavily on Aldi, Trader Joe’s, and Wegmans. Whenever I made a grocery haul in Philly, I’d frequent Sprouts on Broad Street. Because I limited my choices to these specific stores, I had a less stressful time being an ethical grocery shopper and spent a lot less time on websites trying to make sure I was supporting ethical brands. Plus, they all have store-brand products that taste good, so I didn’t have to sacrifice quality. I also began to appreciate my bi-weekly Imperfect Produce delivery. While I admit that I didn’t research its ethical rating, I had no qualms standing behind a company that sells food that would otherwise be wasted.

Most water is not ethically sourced, but this sparkling water from Wegmans is. / Photograph by Tonya Russell.

It’s important to note that, at the start of the month, I realized I hadn’t researched any water brands, which became problematic when I was trying to figure out which one to buy at Wawa. How could I have forgotten such a daily essential of mine?! I stood there for 10 minutes, searching Better World Shopper and realizing that most water brands fail ethical standards. This stems from a variety of issues; for example, the bottle’s plastic might not be recyclable or the water within the bottle is sourced from drought-ridden countries. I ended up passing on 10 different brands. The lesson I learned was carrying my own water bottle was the best means of ethically shopping for H2O. This saved me at least $3 per day and over $50 per month.

During my month, I had to make a few clothing purchases. While I do aim to shop for quality products, it isn’t financially feasible for me to go on a shopping spree at a store that, for instance, only uses organic cotton. When I needed new running shorts, for example, I headed to Endeavor Athletic. Endeavor is not only locally based, but they are very active in charity. They also host free community classes, making quality fitness classes accessible to more people. So I felt comfortable buying high-quality running shorts and a sports bra. When my fiancé needed clothing, I shopped for him at Target, which responsibly sources from facilities that follow ethical standards for their employees and the environment. I purchased three pairs of shorts and three shirts for $75.

Russell bought this running skort from Endeavor Athletics, a local athletic wear company that gives back to the community. / Photograph by Tonya Russell.

By the end of the month, I spent about $250 more than I did the month before when I did not intentionally shop ethically ($100 of that total was from food purchases). It’s obvious that my wallet took a hit, and that being an ethical consumer isn’t financially practical or feasible for many people. I recognize my privilege in this endeavor. What I will say is that the price outweighed the cost of not buying ethically. I felt good about my buying habits, as if I was helping and taking care of the environment in small, but impactful ways.

Shopping ethically may seem daunting, but it is doable. If you are interested in ethical shopping, here are my top takeaways that might help you navigate getting started.

Lesson 1: Pick your battles

We consume so much on a daily basis: food, water, gas, cleaning products, electronics, and the list goes on. It may be a lot less of a headache to pick a couple areas to focus on and navigate first before expanding into more realms. You can start small. Swap your plastic straw for a reusable one, switch to biodegradable bamboo toothbrushes, and have one meatless meal per week. Aim to not use cleaning products that contain environmentally-harmful chemicals and don’t shop places that make use of child labor. Just these changes alone are enough to positively impact Mother Earth.

Lesson 2: Healthy doesn’t always mean ethical

Some of the best brands are smaller, but not all are ethical. Many companies that boast about being low sugar, gluten-free, or whole grain don’t always have the best rating. I was shocked by this when shopping for nutrition bars and shakes. Gatorade had a B rating, but many of my other running staples received C’s and F’s (again, I’m not going to publicly out them). Even some of the ones recommended by my nutritionist were prohibited! To avoid consuming too much sugar, I’d dilute my Gatorade, or per my running coach’s recommendation, I’d mix a tablespoon of maple syrup, Himalayan pink sea salt, and MCT oil in my water. None of those are cheap, which leads to my next lesson…

Lesson 3: Choice is a privilege

I acknowledge my privilege. I have a schedule and a car that allow me to peruse different grocery stores, and I have a bank account and enough money for grocery delivery. Other people, including many in the Philadelphia area, aren’t necessarily guaranteed access to fresh, affordable produce. If they can, it’s not clear, or even known, if the produce is locally sourced. Moral of the story: Do what you can.

Lesson 4: Upcycle

Sell your gently used clothing on a site like Poshmark and use your credit to buy something else gently used (or even brand new). You can also donate and buy clothing from local places from second-hand stores or sites like your town’s Buy Nothing page on Facebook.