Calculating The Ethical Cost Of Your Weekly Shop

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There’s no doubt about it. Maintaining a home in the 21st century costs money. Whether we’re keeping the home clean, tidy and hygienic, making sure that our bodies are clean and fragrant or simply ensuring that we have enough food in the pantry, most of us find ourselves visiting the supermarket fairly regularly throughout the year. In fact, it’s estimated that we spend around 53 hours a year shopping for life’s little essentials. But while we may agonize over constructing a shopping list that ensures we don’t waste a penny and scour the aisles for the very best deals, there’s a cost that we may not always consider… The ethical cost. Everything we buy, whether it’s at the supermarket or elsewhere, has more than one kind of cost. Sure there’s the monetary cost to you and this certainly needs to be considered, but there are other costs that we’re less quick to consider. One example is the cost of the labor; who made it, how long did it take and were they adequately remunerated for their efforts? Then of course, there’s the component ingredients; how and where were they sourced? There’s the method of production; was anyone or anything exploited by the method of manufacture? These things all add up to create the ethical cost of the products that we buy.

Very often, we buy from brands with either appalling worker’s rights records or a history of environmental and / or social damage and we’re none the wiser. Then again there are some products that, by nature of the ingredients used in them or the production methods employed are fundamentally unethical. Some products may damage the planet, some exploit the animals, birds and marine life with which we share our world and some employ labor practices that are borderline slavery. And then, of course, there are some products which are potentially harmful both to you and your family. Here we’ll look at some popular items which can contribute to the ethical cost of your weekly shop and suggest some alternatives which you can buy or even make to bring that cost down without spending more money… In fact, most alternatives will even save you money!

Why ethical shopping matters

We, as a planet have enormous natural resources at our disposal, but those resources are finite. We only have a matter of time before we use them all up, and if it doesn’t happen within our lifetimes, it is increasingly likely that it will happen in our kids’ or grandkids’ lifetimes. In fact, the late great Stephen Hawking has said that unless we mend our ways there’s a good chance that we could render our fragile little planet uninhabitable within 100 years. Sure, we might not be able to hold much influence over, say, Chinese industry, in a consumer capitalist society the only way in which we can make a difference is through the products we buy. So, think twice before you put the following items into your shopping basket...

Fast fashion items

So many supermarkets these days have their own lines of clothing. They tend to be inexpensive, convenient and fairly decent in terms of quality but while they may offer reasonable prices, but these are just another example of fast fashion at work. Fast fashion encourages us to buy often and replace just as often. We don’t think to repair, replace or repurpose any more, we just buy more clothes and all too often throw out our old stuff rather than, say, donating it to a charitable cause. The net result of this is a whole lot of textile waste which can be hugely detrimental to the environment. While efforts are being made to clamp down on third world sweatshops it’s important to remember that by it’s very nature, fast fashion cannot exist without exploitation. Shopping at boutique stores is a great way to shop more ethically but it can be expensive. On the other hand buying second hand, reused, repurposed or recycled clothing is a great way to look good without a hefty ethical or monetary price tag.   

Beauty products

Again, looking good can come at an ethical cost of zero if you’re prepared to do your homework on the brand before you put that makeup palette in your shopping cart. Believe it or not, while there’s no logical reason for it these days, there are still cosmetics brands that test on animals. Even if a brand does not test on animals in your territory, it’s best to eschew a brand that trades with China where (for some unfathomable reason) animal testing is mandatory for overseas cosmetics companies.

Check that your brand is cruelty free and vegan. Even if you eat meat and dairy, the thought of putting products made from dead animals on your face is probably less than appealing. Some pigments are made from ingredients made from questionable ingredients including, but not limited to, insect carapaces, fish scales, whale poop and bull’s semen.

Better yet, make your own! With only a handful of natural ingredients you can make a comprehensive supply of makeup and beauty products from eyeshadow to moisturizing creams. Zero Waste Home author’s Bea Johnson can work magic with cocoa powder, burnt almonds and kohl. If you want to look good while doing good, this blog heartily recommends Causeboxes.

Cleaning products

Everyone likes to keep a tidy, well maintained and sparkling clean home. Yet, many of us are unaware of the environmental damage that our cleaning products do after use. Most cleaning products on the shelves contain harmful and volatile chemical compounds such as sulphites, nitrogen, sodium and ammonia which, when flushed into the wastewater system cannot be removed with the usual filtration systems. Thus, when they get into the water supply they can have an extremely disruptive effect on underwater plants, fish and mammals.

Fortunately, your need to keep a sparkling clean and tidy home needn’t come at the cost of your conscience. There are a wide range of cleaning products available from ethically driven manufacturers. Just check out the range at the shop You’ll find a range of products for all purposes that are completely free of harmful chemicals and made exclusively from natural, biodegradable ingredients from dishwasher gel to fabric cleaners and softeners and a great multipurpose cleaner.

Of course, once again, if you’re looking for opportunities to cut down on costs, you can always make your own cleaning products. You’d be absolutely astonished at what you can accomplish with a few simple ingredients like bicarbonate of soda, white vinegar, lemon juice and essential oils for a beautiful scent. Whether you’re trying to remove a stubborn stain or simply maintaining a glistening clean home, you can do so ethically with a minimum of harm to the planet.  

Meat, eggs, fish and dairy

Even if you have no problem with the inherent ethics of eating meat, it’s worth considering that animal agriculture is the biggest contributor to environmental pollution and habitat destruction on the planet. In terms of pollution, it outstrips the entire transportation industry (18% of all the world’s greenhouse gas emissions), it’s responsible for way more deforestation and animal habitat loss than paper or wood production and even palm oil production.  

The methane from cattle farming is actually 25-100 times more destructive than carbon dioxide and the water consumption of animal agriculture ranges from 34-76 trillion gallons a year in the US alone. In fact, animal agriculture consumes 80-90% of all water in the continental United States. It behoves us all to at least think twice about our meat consumption and consider incorporating more plant proteins into our diet. Even there, however, we must be careful. Many meat substitutes on the market are soy based and soy production has quite a lot to answer for itself.

Dairy is also problematic. In order to keep cows producing meat regularly throughout their lives, cows are artificially inseminated and their baby calves are separated from them at birth (a process which is extremely traumatic to both mother and baby. Moreover, dairy products may not be as good for you as most of us were raised to believe. Eggs may seem like a fairly ethical foodstuff, especially free range eggs. However, eggs also come at an ethical cost. While no harm befalls free range laying hens, their male counterparts do not fare well. Male chicks are gassed en masse in giant ovens by farmers. If you want ethical eggs, buy them locally from people who keep hens as pets or have adopted rescue hens.

In any case, it does both us and the planet good to get as many veggies into our diets as possible.


A lot of us simply can’t face the prospect of an early morning without a cup of Joe. And while nobody’s suggesting you deprive yourself of this quotidian pleasure, it’s worth taking a little time out to research who and where you get your coffee from. Even most Fair Trade coffee beans aren’t necessarily all that ethically sourced. Moreover, while Fair Trade means that farmers get a decent deal, it does not mean that the coffee was produced using environmentally sound methods. For a truly ethical and eco-friendly cup, choose one of these brands.

It doesn’t take much to live the lifestyle you want, while doing a fraction of the damage to the planet and the people and creatures that inhabit it!

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Saphia Louise