How to Shop More Ethically This Holiday Season

Major online retailers are alluring, with perks like two-day shipping, the option to try on at home before paying, and the convenience of shopping in your pajamas. The problem is, these conveniences come at a cost to individuals, communities, and the environment. But there’s good news: There is something you can do about it, and you have more control than you think.

Traditional voting—with your ballot—is as important as ever, but there’s tremendous power in deciding where and how you spend your money. Shopping with a conscience is one way to make small choices that add up to big changes.

Stay Close to Home

Shopping locally is the best way to support your community. The US Small Business Administration started National Small Business Week in 1963 and has cosponsored Small Business Saturday with American Express since 2011. AmEx launched Shop Small, which includes Small Business Saturday, in 2010 to help retailers during the recession and spent $200 million bolstering small businesses during the pandemic.

Bill Brunelle is cofounder of Independent We Stand, developed to celebrate local brands and provide small businesses with marketing tool kits that offer infrastructure and support. Members receive everything from graphics with slogans such as “Buy Good Things From Real People” and social media guidance to advice on point-of-sale systems. IWS is now a network of more than 10,000 mom-and-pop shops, and it has a mobile app to help consumers locate stores.

Brunelle says there’s an emotional component to shopping close to home, and since the pandemic, people are more motivated than ever. “Keeping more money in the community means better roads, better schools, better parks, higher-paid teachers,” he says, “Your hard-earned dollar goes even further when it’s kept local.” For additional motivation, IWS provides a list of 10 things that happen when you shop locally.

The Andersonville Study of Retail Economics, published in 2004, determined that for every $100 spent locally, $68 stays in the community. When that same $100 is spent at a national chain, only $43 stays in the community. Brunelle warns consumers about “local-washing,” when big box stores use “local” in their marketing but are vague about how they define it.

“You know the power of local is real when national and international chains like Walmart and Target use the word local in their marketing because they realize people want to shop local,” Brunelle says. He encourages shoppers to think critically to avoid falling victim to local-washing. “A supermarket may advertise produce with ‘we buy local,'” Brunelle says, “but their definition of local might be 500 miles away. You simply can’t buy a locally grown pineapple in Minnesota in January.”

Buy Secondhand

Shopping at locally owned stores is a start, though there’s a caveat, and this is a hard pill for many Americans to swallow: While you might want new stuff, you don’t necessarily need new stuff. Shopping at garage sales, thrift stores, estate sales, secondhand shops, and antique stores uses goods already in circulation and is also a terrific way to get to know your neighbors.

In Missoula, Montana, where I’ve lived most of my adult life, we have shops such as The Cellar Door, which uses the hashtag #nothingnewforyou and whose mission is “curating ѕpaceѕ and placeѕ with what’s already here,” and @piece, which refinishes wood, leather, and rope pieces and modernizes upholstered furniture with fun, funky fabric. Odds are there are charity-operated secondhand stores or similar shops in your area, and you don’t always have to run right to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, although those are also options.

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