ethical shopping

How to Shop Ethically On a Budget (Yes, It’s Possible!)

Is it possible to actually shop ethically while staying on budget? Here’s how I’m balancing shopping ethically with shopping cheaply in my daily life.

When I think about my best life, I don’t eat meat or dairy. I keep chickens in my backyard, and I eat fresh eggs every morning. The house I own has hardwood floors and I can keep plants alive for more than a month.

My clothes come from sustainably made, locally owned companies. I never have a frizzy hair day, and my business is flourishing.

That’s a future I’m working towards, but it’s not my reality today. That’s because my best life involves a lot of ethical shopping that I’m not doing right now.

How I’m Balancing My Real Life & Budget with Ethical Shopping

I don’t have the space for chickens, so my eggs come from the grocery store. My catering side hustle affords me free food, and sometimes it’s made with dairy.

I’m not turning down free food in pursuit of being dairy-free. The majority of my current closet comes from clothing swaps and thrift stores. I don’t buy or eat red and haven’t for years, but sometimes chicken makes an appearance in my diet.

The life I truly want to live involves more ethical shopping across the board. It’s a life of more mindful consumerism, of making choices that benefit me, the companies I support, and my community.

It’s a life where I know what went into creating the items I use and eat, and what type of businesses my dollars go to support.

My life right now is not as quite as deliberate as I’d like it to be. I’m still in hustle and save mode, and that means that I sometimes make compromises to maximize my earnings and savings.

Ethical Shopping 101

The truth of it is, every time we spend money we’re voting for something. We are supporting the system that we send our money into.

In the case of food, for example, when I buy my eggs from the grocery store, I am supporting the industrial farming complex. I’m essentially saying ‘I support keeping chickens in cages for the entirety of their lives and injecting them with hormones. Use my money to keep doing that!’

It’s kind of bleak when you put it that way, so sorry if I bummed you out. But as you know if you read this blog regularly, I believe in radical transparency in my life. I talk about my financial life in concrete numbers, and I think it’s important to talk about the concrete effects of our purchases.

So ethical shopping for me means understanding the systems and impacts of my purchases beyond the monetary cost of the item. It means acknowledging that the cheapest item out there probably came from a system where someone suffered for the cost to be that low.

It means knowing the environmental impact is probably harmful. And it means asking myself if I’m ok propping that system up. 

Baby Steps to Ethical Shopping on a Budget

I used to see ethical shopping as a very black-and-white issue. Ethical choices, like clothes made in the USA by people earning a living wage, were good, but always unaffordable. Clothes within my budget were affordable but meant that a child on the other side of the world was being exploited.

The truth I’ve learned is that making the ethical choice isn’t done on a spectrum. There is a huge swatch of middle ground where you can make decisions to support ethical, local, or sustainable companies and still save money.

Before I’ll be able to have actual chickens (still a few years out on that one y’all), I can get to the point where I can buy my eggs from a local farmer and not the grocery store. It’s not a choice between doing everything myself or succumbing to the industrial machine. 

It comes down to understanding three things:

  • Your options and the impact that they have on the world at large
  • How you can fit financially and ethically smart decisions into your current lifestyle
  • Knowing you don’t have to do everything at the same time to have an impact

5 Affordable and Ethical Options For Real Life

I’m an all-or-nothing kind of person. I tend towards extremes like shopping bans, eliminating red meat completely, or refusing to fly certain airlines. (#united) This kind of mindset doesn’t work when it comes to ethical shopping. Neither you nor I have to live in the black-and-white world of our purchases.

Here are some ways you can begin to work more ethical purchases into your life in your food and clothes shopping and transportation options.

1. Host a clothing swap with friends

Everyone involved gets new-to-them clothes and it helps keep clothes out of landfills.

2. Shop at a farmer’s market once a month

I recently started doing this and it’s great! Once a month I do the majority of my food shopping at a local farmers market.

The food is amazing and I love the atmosphere of the market. It is more expensive, but since it’s only one week out of the month, my budget absorbs the extra cost easily.

3. Rent, don’t buy, new clothes

Instead of supporting harmful fast fashion brands with your dollars, try renting clothes instead. You get the benefit of rocking new outfits and looking fabulous without contributing to a pretty messed up industry.

Rent the Runway and Gwynnie Bee are two options for renting clothes.

4. Cut out one vice at a time

Like I said above, when it comes to ethical shopping, it’s nearly impossible to do everything at once. So try food shopping ethically one month, and next month switch that focus to your clothes.

Be flexible with yourself, and find the patterns that work with your lifestyle. Take your time!

5. Drive less

This is common personal finance advice and some I give myself over and over again. And it’s because it’s beneficial in so many ways!

Driving less has an immediate impact on your wallet, helps the earth, lengthens your car’s life, and takes money out of gas companies’ pockets. So get friendly with public transportation, learn to bike, or walk more.

13 thoughts on “How to Shop Ethically On a Budget (Yes, It’s Possible!)”

  1. Adventure Rich

    I like the idea to rent clothes or have a clothes swap! I did a lot of clothing swapping in college, but I haven’t found the group of friends to do it with in our new home area. Hopefully I will find someone soon 🙂

    1. I love me a good clothing swap! It’s tough without a group of friends, but could be a way to make friends!

    1. It can be tricky to size when you are a particular one. I’d say invite people with similar body types and whose style you admire. You can have an all petite swap!

  2. Sharon @ A Journey of Steps

    We can only do our best with our situation and whats infront of us right now. The little changes all add up in time 🙂 Did a clothes swap with one of my old housemates – perfect way to add new looks to the wardrobe. One of the dresses I got off her I brought to a dressmaker and got it altered into a skirt for a wedding. So got to support the local dressmaker as well. 🙂

  3. I too struggle with this – and I must say I give in far too easy to a cheaper price. I am a fairly light consumer, but that shouldn’t matter since as you say, “the little changes all add up in time.”

    This recent article on Popular Science has a nice infographic you might enjoy: (apparently data speaks to me!)

  4. I struggle with this too! I do believe generally, that ethical options are more expensive. Most ethical options aren’t as scalable and smaller operations just cost more since they don’t have volume on their side 🙁 The other issue is that we can pay for a more ethical end product, but it’s not the most environmentally friendly/ethical when it comes to the rest of the supply chain (one example that comes to mind is shipping across the country, etc, I guess maybe that’s less ethical than environmental)

    We shop at our local farmers market every Saturday and get the bulk of our veggies + meat there. The veggies do tend to be cheaper, but the meat is generally more expensive since it’s grass fed, grass finished, and pasture raised. I do cheap out on major grocery stores every once in a while, but I like to focus on how much more ethical my shopping is now than just a few years ago! Not many of us can quit cold turkey, so this the next best!

    1. Sounds like you’re doing a great job! There’s really no way to do it all unless you make everything yourself. Your point about ability to scale is such a good one. That really does matter a lot!

  5. I saw this website name and it seem that they sell everything that are ethical and natural for just $3. I don’t live in the states so I can’t try it but maybe you can.

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