By Cullen Schwarz
Ethical shopping is a somewhat new phenomenon. We're far more familiar with the "tried and tested" methods of doing good, like donating our money or time.
But while Americans generously donated $390 billion to charities in 2017, that number pales in comparison to the $130 trillion we spent on buying stuff in the same year.
How much of that went to huge companies that don't support your values-or worse, use their revenue to actively work against them?
Conscious consumers prefer to spend money with transparent 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 consumerism.
Who is the conscious consumer?
Conscious consumers come from all walks of life and are represented across most age groups and economic brackets.
The simplest definition of a conscious consumer is someone who buys from brands that align with their personal values whenever possible or 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 and more people are joining the ranks of conscious consumers.
These shoppers spend a combined $300 billion per year on ethical products, a figure which is growing by 10% year-over-year. That seems on track to keep increasing since 73% of millennials surveyed said that they're willing to pay more for sustainably-made goods.
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 an ethical consumer buys vary greatly depending on the individual. They may be interested in environmentally sustainable products, cruelty-free ones, fair trade, organic, items made in the USA, or any combination of those and other factors!
Just as important as what a sustainable shopper does buy 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 unsavory practices.
There is also substantial overlap between conscious consumers and minimalists. Many sustainable shoppers choose to lessen their impact- environmental or otherwise- by buying only what they truly need when they need it.
These are all valid ways to practice ethical consumerism and are most powerful when combined.
Because ethical consumerism is heavily contingent on the shopper's own personal values, there's no "right" way to do it!
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's not always the case. Sometimes an ethical alternative can't be obtained on time, or at the right price, 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 consumerism is that the more demand we create for ethically made products from great 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 similar options 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."
Where does the conscious consumer shop?
Well, we've built an entire website dedicated to answering this question!
But, in a nutshell, experienced ethical buyers shop with companies that share their values and put their money with their mouth is.
Ethical brands operate with sufficient transparency that their customers can clearly see how their purchases aid the causes that they care about.
As ethical consumerism catches on as a trend, 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.
However, there are also bound to be some brands who want the glory without putting in the work. They make superficial changes to their marketing and engage in greenwashing to fool customers into thinking they're making ethical purchasing decisions when they're really not.
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.
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 these bad brands 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!
The Impact of Sustainable Shopping
Here it is, the big moment.
We've put in our dues sourcing the best products from brands who care about making the world a better place.
We've gone without that cute new dress from an unknown company and 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 dollar works.
Child labor rates dropped by one third between 2000 and 2012, 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.
Executives are frantically piling into conference rooms to discuss their "corporate social responsibility."
Because that's what attracts conscious consumers, who are a large and growing portion of the general public.
The economic landscape is changing before our very eyes.
Companies are changing and even our culture is changing, all because of conscious consumers who have banded together in their commitment to shop according to their values.
The market will always be beholden to the demands of the consumers. If we, as ethical consumers, consistently demand ethical, sustainably made goods and refuse to settle for less, then that's exactly what we'll get. We've seen the proof already. Companies are bending over backwards to appeal to the conscious consumer, and they know there's only one way to earn their business.
The impact of ethical consumerism is huge, and it's only going to get bigger.
Won't you join us?
Cullen Schwarz is head of Good Thoughts, DoneGood.
- 5 Tips for a More Earth-Conscious Wardrobe - EcoWatch ›
- How Can Consumers Help Solve the Climate Crisis? ›
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.