6 questions for ethical shopping

Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash

Our lives are marked by the decisions we make. Where and how we fill our time, who we spend it with… the answers will sculpt new possibilities whilst excluding others. Our decisions can change the lives of other people too, perhaps never more so than in our increasingly interconnected world. By the time I’ve dressed and breakfasted, I’ve interacted with continents and communities – through the source of my coffee, the makers of my clothes, the components of my phone… This knowledge can sit heavily; we need to be enabled to make daily decisions aware of – but not paralysed by – the impact they will have.

Over the years, I’ve come up with a system; a series of questions I try to ask myself when making a new purchase. It is an evolving approach, informed by conversations, reading, mistakes. And it minimises the helplessness that can arise when becoming aware of how our globalised world means our pop into the local shop can have far-reaching ramifications.

My aim is to:

  • Minimise my consumption in the first place. As a global population, we are using up resources more quickly than the planet can replenish them. One of the best things I can do to live sustainably is to consume less stuff in the first place.
  • Make sure any items bought are not just good for me, they’re also good for other people and the planet.

When considering a purchase, I try to answer the following questions in order. If the answer is ‘no’, I move on to the next question:

  1. Can I manage with out it? e.g. most things if we’re honest.
  2. Can I borrow it? e.g. polyfiller for the walls when moving house, a dress to wear at a wedding, a book from the library.
  3. Can I pick it up second-hand? e.g. hanging baskets for the garden from freecycle, almost all of my clothes from charity shops/clothes swaps.
  4. Can I buy it with great ethical credentials? I find rankings websites invaluable because they’ve done a lot of the research already e.g.  Ethical Consumer allows you to adjust what you’re looking for depending on your main sustainability concerns.
  5. Can I buy it from the most ethical high street shop? Someday maybe I won’t need this buyers guide because there won’t be ‘ethical alternatives’, there’ll just be stuff. It will all be made to the top ethical credentials as standard. Until then, limitations on availability or access sometime mean I can’t avoid the high street. In those instances, I look at Ethical Consumer or the Good Company Guide e.g. I spent nine months looking for secondhand brogues. Failing that, and with the options under question 4 beyond my budget, I went for a good quality pair from FatFace which ranks highly on the Guide. They’re two years old and still going strong.

Throughout this guide, that is another factor I’m thinking about: is it built to last? So many products are cheaply made and designed to be replaced quickly; doing so means more resources needed for the new while the old one lingers in landfill.


A while ago I attended the launch of a new website for Buy Me Once, a company dedicated to helping people to buy items that will last decades, in some cases centuries. The launch was a chance to engage with a community of people dedicated to long-term buying; a community that Tara Button is dedicated to creating. She reminded us that the number of items that break within five years has doubled since 2011. Buy Me Once enables us to shop another way.

As well as profiling a range of products, I enjoyed chatting with and tasting crepes cooked by Mark J. Henry, from SolidTeknics. His company makes cooking equipment with multi-century warranties. The choices we make don’t just impact across the world; they reach into the future. The following generations could be deprived of the resources we used up, or, as I prefer to hope, using a 21st century pan on a 25th century hob, still going strong.

Thank you to Buy Me Once for inviting me along to the launch.

How do you decide what to buy? I’d love to learn what helps you to navigate sustainable consumption.

Today’s soundtrack: Regina Spector // Remember Us to Life

5 thoughts on “6 questions for ethical shopping

  1. Excellent – ‘Buy me once ‘ is so right: “buy cheap” is not only more resource wasteful in item production and distribution (and probably using exploited labour) but also in the use of other energy and resources trying to fix, and then find a replacement.


    1. Absolutely! It’s very counter to the tendency to fast and cheap consumption that is usually so prevalent and so damaging to the natural world, and often the people producing the products.


  2. I like the way you’ve laid out your questions in a hierarchy. I tend to think of my ethical shopping choices as trade offs between, say, buying second hand or fair trade or packaging free or made to last. Sometimes these criteria align but often they’re in conflict, so your idea of having a predetermined order in which to prioritise things sounds very helpful.
    I also love the ethos behind Buy Me One 🙂


    1. Thanks Rach – let me know how you find it. I’d love to learn from your experience of it. It’s not always really neat and tidy, but it at least helps to start to think through the choices we make.
      It’s great isn’t it!


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