The Ethics of our Shopping Decisions

The Ethics of our Shopping Decisions

For quite a long time, my impression is that buying the items we need is influenced by what is available and convenient. In a small village or town, this is relatively easy: go to the market to buy food, to the one-and-only dry goods store for various items, and borrowing larger tools and equipment from neighbours and family members is more common.

Now, the world has become more interconnected and a wider range of products and services are readily available. There is more information about who, where, and how these products are made. This simultaneously gives a sense of empowerment, being overwhelmed, as well as entitlement for us, the consumers.

The first time I heard a piece of advice that dictated shopping decisions, I was in elementary school in the Philippines. “Tangkilikin natin ang sariling atin” (let’s patronize our own products). It was an attempt to not be too enamoured by so-called “Stateside” products and to instead take pride in what is locally made.

As a migrant though, this complicates things a little bit.

I was Grade 12 in Ontario, where in our Religion Class, we watched a few documentaries about abusive practices of large companies and manufacturers. We learned how cosmetics and fashion products, made in sweatshops and inhumane environments cause employees to fall ill, or kill themselves because the mental toll is too much. My young mind grappled with the horror I felt at realizing that many farmers who produce the ingredients of the food we eat get paid very little, and I tried to understand the definition of ‘ethical purchases’ in my first-ever research report.

As an adult with my own income, and a better sense of my wants, needs, and preferences, I am faced with being empowered, and I am also a bit overwhelmed, on where and how to allocate my spending dollars.

Is it better to buy a product imported from the Philippines, or buy a product made by a local business owner in the city who may not necessarily be Filipino, in order to help the local economy? Or should I buy a local product from a fellow Filipino, even if it costs a bit more and the location is not convenient from where I live?

Is it better to save money by going to wholesale stores like Costco, or add a fitness routine in our lives by taking a 15 minute walk every week to go to the farmers’ market? There is the appeal of buying things in bulk to save trips, and at the same time, using up all of these items before its expiration date is also important.

Is buying or re-using the better way to go? For a while, I got really into buying multiple sets of beddings, such as pillowcases, duvet covers, and bedskirts, simply because I knew someone who worked in a bedding store. A few years ago, ever since I moved in with my partner, we have two bedsheets that we alternate every time we wash the other one. But every single pillowcase, throw blanket and the master bedroom blanket are all made from old pieces of clothing patched together. These do-it-yourself quilts and pillows are all over our house. It saved us hundreds of dollars. I felt good about saving the environment by not buying anything new, and we have items with a design that can’t be bought from a store.

Back in university, I learned about social enterprises. These are businesses that aim to hit two birds with one stone, to both make a profit, and to incorporate a social cause to make a difference in the community. A simple example would be a shoe company that said ‘for every pair of shoes you buy, another goes to a child in need.’ These extended my range of companies to buy from. Is supporting them better compared to just straight up making a charitable donation?

How, where and what we buy impacts so many people, places and communities in ways that we can’t even completely comprehend. I hope that we all take the time to understand this, so that we can make a positive difference, or at least cause less harm.

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