Reader Mailbag: Ethical Budgeting

Reader Mailbag

Guess what happens when we get questions from readers? We answer them and/or ask fellow readers to chime in and help! So if you have your own question, click here and shoot it off to us. We’ll do our best to get back to you and give you an answer that isn’t totally incorrect.

I read a lot about decreasing spending (duh!) and hunting for the best deals on items (food, clothing, etc). But I also read about how those super-low-cost items come at a price — usually to someone else. Clothing for example is known for being manufactured in less-than-safe buildings, paying the workers an unfair wage for their time. As the New York Times reported, a cheap manicure comes at the price of an exploited worker. Even cheap food is grown in second or third world countries, potentially harming the environment and exploiting workers who will work for less.

I cringe a little bit when I read or hear about someone who, while paying down debt, found a great deal on a pair of jeans, for example, and in the back of my mind while I am happy for them for getting their finances under control, I wonder why those jeans were so cheap — likely because the person making them was paid unfairly and/or the environment was harmed in the process.

Then I look at my own budget and am dismayed at how much we spend on food and clothing sometimes, even though I intentionally seek out products that are manufactured in an ethical manner. Those items cost more and I tell myself it’s OK for it to take longer for us pay down our (very low interest rate) loan if I know that our money is not funding things I am uncomfortable with.

How do I reconcile these two things? I want to find a great deal on a thing I want or need but there are consequences to others for my purchase of the least expensive option.

The obvious answer is that I should either 1) just not buy new things (e.g. shop at thrift stores, though less easy with food) or 2) budget for the more expensive but ethically sourced item(s). I just wonder if when we idolize the reduction of debt at all costs, does that not pressure ourselves (and others) into making compromises at the expense of others?

What do you think?

Interesting, right? When Joanna and I read this email, we looked at each other and did a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ expression — it had just never even crossed our minds. Now obviously our quest for getting the best deal has some limits. We’d probably avoid buying like-new electronics at too-good-to-be-true prices from a shady street vendor knowing that the items were probably stolen. Or if a company was caught in a PR disaster over abysmal factory conditions, we’d probably look elsewhere to do business. But to be honest, we’ve never really lost sleep over thinking about how that screaming deal we got on X product might have come at the expense of someone or something.

Thinking about this a little more, we realized our “ethical buying code” is pretty limited. Whenever possible, we try to be America- made products. And if a company includes a social good component to their business model, like Warby Parker or TOMS, we’re much more inclined to give them our business knowing we’re contributing to a cause. But that’s about it. After reading this reader’s email, it has us wondering if we shouldn’t be a bit more conscious personally as consumers.

What’s your take? Has this ever crossed your mind? If it has, what sort of suggestions do you have that allow your ethics and budget to live in harmony?

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  • Reply Kirsten June 24, 2015 at 8:18 am

    this is a good question! I generally avoid companies that I don’t agree with their practices like Walmart. Even though they have the best price on many items, I’d rather pay a little more than shop there.

  • Reply TT June 24, 2015 at 8:22 am

    My ethical buying code is similar to what J&J have expressed. **Overly broad generalization alert!!** While I commend the intent of the questioner, I think it is impossible to know the sourcing of EVERYTHING that you buy. Yeah, you might be able to determine what country it came from, but not a lot else. Relying on news stories that you hear about certain companies or certain countries doesn’t seem like the most reliable (read: unbiased) source to base decisions off of. As an individual consumer, I just don’t have the resources to get educated on the background of every single product I buy. That leaves me reliant on governments and the consequences of negative PR to police companies. Is it a perfect system? Far from it. Should I stop buying these things? I could, but if everyone refrained from purchasing items without a more thorough understanding of sourcing I genuinely believe the global economy would suffer greatly (more so than our most recent recession). There is a cost to such knowledge and oversight and I think it would be high.

    I have previously lived in a 3rd world country for multiple years. I can tell you that I knew people who worked jobs that would be deemed unethical or oppressive by American standards. Yet they were delighted to have work, to be able to put food on the table, and keep a roof over their families heads. Before you get out your pitchforks, I’m not saying it is right. I’m just saying our 1st world American perspective can be skewed at times, and that should be taken into consideration.

  • Reply Annelies June 24, 2015 at 8:34 am

    very important question… I try to shop second hand or ethically sound, but the latter isn’t easy financially. Also, it’s not like ethical info is just written on the labels, you really have to look for clues. And, ethical products can be very contradictive : maybe they paid a lot of attention to eco-packaging but not so much to labor rights, etc. Like the reader I do sometimes buy cheap stuff because I ‘need’ it (like shoes for an upcoming wedding or something) and then I feel guilty afterwards. thank you for bringing this up !

  • Reply Jessica @ Our Young Adventures June 24, 2015 at 8:35 am

    Hmm…This has never crossed my mind!! There are some companies or products I intentionally don’t buy, and I may have an “ignorance is bliss” idea about the rest of them because my budget is so tight. I think the only things I specifically check where it is coming from is produce. I am curious to see other thoughts/ opinions on this one!

  • Reply Wade June 24, 2015 at 8:39 am

    Ah guilt. It is everywhere. Heaped on daily. Social guilt, racial guilt, money guilt, historical guilt. Just another method to make you feel bad and part you and your money. I would tell this person to live your life and be happy. If toilet paper is $2 cheaper at Walmart, and Walmart is a reasonable drive, bike or walk away then go for it. Social media is taking over and targeted guilt along with abject political correctness has run amuck. Recongnize it and run away! 🙂

  • Reply Laura June 24, 2015 at 8:51 am

    This is something I try to be conscious about, but sometimes the issues are deeply hidden. I don’t shop at Walmart like Kristen because I don’t agree with their practices. I also buy fair trade coffee. I’m finding the more I’m aware of the world, the more I “vote” with my money. However, I do bring in a decent amount of money and can afford it now. It’s definitely a balance between being an ethical consumer and sticking to a budget.

  • Reply Alicia June 24, 2015 at 8:57 am

    I try to shop at stores that treat their employees well, ie. Costco, Target instead of Walmart, etc. Clothing is very difficult, though. Most clothing items are made overseas, and it’s hard to know who practices safe standards, and who doesn’t. I’ve been trying to limit the amount of clothes I have, and buy more quality, well-made classic pieces. If I have to buy clothes less often, than I feel that is more sustainable. I’ve considered purchasing only American-made clothing, but they’re not the most fashionable, and are very difficult to find.

    My husband and I are also on a minimalism kick, so overall we try to limit what we buy, and are more careful with what we do bring home.

  • Reply MomofTwoPreciousGirls June 24, 2015 at 8:57 am

    Truly, I feel like a lot of ideas about “fair” wages and work conditions are the opinions of Americans. Many countries have different thoughts on this topic. Many countries have MUCH lower costs of living. If it only costs someone $25 American dollars to rent a home they don’t need to make $10/hr to survive. Many of these people live in small homes with minimal belonging the and grow/raise their own food. Not because of poor work conditions and pay, but because that’s is THEIR CULTURE. We project OUR CULTURE onto others, when maybe they are just fine.

    That’s not to say there aren’t unfair practices and slave labor happening, but really how are you able to verify that costly “ethically made” label is what they say either? I could have my children sewing tshirts for 20 hours a day but slap that label on there and charge $75. (My children don’t sew and I bet the only thing they would ever do for 20 hours is binge watch Pokemon!)

    It is a fine line but the only way you can truly ensure you are getting things ethically and budget friendly is doing it yourself! Grow your own food and make your own clothes. Sadly I know I don’t have time for that.

  • Reply Rachel June 24, 2015 at 9:00 am

    This issue is important to me. I love bargain hunting but I am concerned about how my first world life impacts others. It’s all about where you find that balance. My cousin loves bargain hunting and saving the world much more than me and is prepared to sacrifice and work to that end, so she only buys second hand, reuses/recycles/makes everyyhing (beetroot lipstick, reusable toilet paper!) is a veggie etc. My limits are softer so an example is the black trousers I am wearing are 8 (!) years old, I bought them in the sale from a ‘good’ shop where workers are treated fairly – I wouldn’t buy black trousers annually from a cheap fashion store that has a reputation for exploitation of third world workers. My clothes might cost a bit more (bit as I never buy full price) but last longer and I feel comfortable with the ethics. Similarly, our solar panals cut down on fossil fuel, give us a small income and reduce our bills. When food shopping I only buy ‘quality’ meat from UK, locally sourced not battery farmed, may be more expensive so we’ll have less of it. A final example, I use “ecoegg” laundry balls; cheaper, enviromentally friendly, allergy free and almost no packaging.

    Basically, I’m saying think about what your priorities and ethics are, and make it work for you, just took a long time to do it!

    • Reply Jenny July 2, 2015 at 12:55 pm

      I totally agree with you. I think about where my food/clothes/goods come from all the time. We vote with our dollars more than anything else (event election voting!) so it’s SO important to take our selection seriously! If you’re in a developed country and have an income, you have choices.

      I’m not 100% compliant, but I try my best to make good choices. I don’t buy much meat (it’s cost prohibitive for me to buy ethically). I do buy organic veggies (even if the pesticides get washed off, the runoff from the fields gets into the water supply and poisons drinking water), buy used clothing, fair trade coffee and chocolate and try to investigate the corporate “food chain” of where each of these products come from. Pepsi owns an organic juice brand, for instance. So even though I’d buy their juice but not their soda, I’d need to look at Pepsi’s corporate profile to know if I want my money going to them.

      And for folks who say this takes too much time or money, I’d offer that when we all hit the polls to vote (not just with our dollars!) that we chose candidates that support honest food labeling, worker’s rights and transparent international fair trade. If it’s easy to spot in the grocery aisle and all the food is priced fairly, the choice is easy.

  • Reply Halsy June 24, 2015 at 9:06 am

    In theory this is great but in reality most do not have the time or $ to consider the ethical cost behind every single purchase. If I know I don’t like a company’s policies or that they have unfair labor standards I avoid if I can. I pretty much never shop at walmart (haven’t in the 10 years I’ve done my own shopping). Also if I know a company does a lot to help and I can Afford their product over another company then I buy. However , what’s most important to me is my family and time work my family. I stay at home with my children and my husband already works far too many hours so to be honest we can’t afford to ethically consider every purchase and it just doesn’t fit in with my priorities. This being said I wish I could more and if resources and time was unlimited then yes I would ethically consider each purchase.

  • Reply Heather June 24, 2015 at 9:35 am

    I think about this a lot, and it’s tough. I relate it mostly to food. I read a lot of food blogs, most of which give all sorts of tips on getting deals and stretching a budget – like buying factory farmed meat in bulk at Costco. Sure, you are getting a deal and saving money. But at what cost to the food system and your health? I spend much more on food per month than most people. I am not buying processed food; it’s all fresh produce (sometimes organic, sometimes not – I don’t have much faith in the regulation of the organic industry and thus it is sometimes tough to stomach the substantially higher prices, especially when the greens look so wilty!) and while I have reduced the amount of meat and fish that I eat, when I do buy it, I try to get from more local and sustainable sources. But, it’s more expensive.

    I don’t want to disparage people who don’t share my view. I realize there are many people who simply can’t afford to. But those are some of the thoughts that run through my head! I wish we had a system where everyone had access to high quality fresh foods without harmful chemicals or animals that had been treated inhumanely. Unfortunately, we aren’t there.

  • Reply Jordan June 24, 2015 at 10:14 am

    I think my main tip to this reader would be to shop local or used whenever possible. Getting things from farmers markets allows you to haggle a little and know where your food is coming from, and getting clothes used means your money isn’t going to somewhere not treating their workers fairly.

    • Reply Heather June 24, 2015 at 10:45 am

      I always find it interesting when shopping at farmer’s markets is given as a suggestion for saving money. In my experience, it’s not. Yes, you know where it comes from. Yes, it hasn’t been trucked in from California, so it takes better and is actually fresh. But, in my experience, it’s expensive. I love shopping at them, but it’s definitely not to save money. Perhaps that is just characteristic of the fact that I live in a large urban centre (I think the hipster culture tends to drive up prices compared to non-urban areas). Luckily I can drive up to a farm and get my produce there, but not everyone is so lucky.

    • Reply Lindy June 24, 2015 at 10:55 am

      I’m with Jordan. I try to shop local whenever possible. My ethical budgeting is to keep as many of my dollars in my community as possible. While it isn’t perfect, the sales tax I spend in the local store help keep my roads driveable, my schools funded, my emergency services in place, and my neighbors employeed. Sure I might be able to buy it cheaper online…but at what cost to the community I live in?

  • Reply Taylor June 24, 2015 at 11:22 am

    This is pretty important to me, though we are a one-income family living in the rural South, which makes it a little difficult. My advice would be that in order to reconcile the two desires, think kind of generally. Buy clothes and household goods mostly at thrift stores. Buy groceries mostly at Trader Joe’s. Make as much homemade as you can (laundry detergent, dish soap, etc…even can produce if that’s your thing). These are the ways we keep our costs down but still feel good about what our money is supporting. No, we don’t do this all the time, but probably 80% of the time. Yes, it’s more work – time to make products, Trader Joe’s is nearly an hour away in “the city”, etc. For us, as Christians, we feel called to be good stewards of not only our money, but also our planet, and to care about our worldwide neighbors. Also, someone mentioned that other countries’ cultures and lifestyles are different and we don’t take that into consideration. True..but there is such a thing as a “livable wage” vs minimum wage. For example, minimum wage in NC is $7.25 as far as I know. Living in the boonies, with our mortgage being $475/month, that’s doable. Living in Raleigh with rent being $1500/month (I’m guessing), it’s not. Minimum wage is not always livable wage. The minimum wages in third world countries are usually not livable wages. So no, they can’t afford to be paid $7.25/hr, but the equivalent there would be like our minimum wage being $3/hr. I don’t know the exact numbers, but I just wanted to point out that the idea of exploiting workers is not a myth produced by the media or social media and therefore safe for us to ignore. And there is a way to buy ethically on a budget. Thanks for featuring this question!

  • Reply Lauren June 24, 2015 at 11:52 am

    Thanks for bringing up this topic; it is an undeniably crucial one to consider. This is where I have found minimalism, eco-friendliness, and sound budgeting to intersect. I only buy what I need…not whatever I want…so I have the time to know where the product comes from, the extra money to buy from a company that does it right, and the peace of mind to know that I’m doing right by everyone involved. I also have learned to repair almost anything, so I can use it for years and years. If eco-budget-minimalism interests you (my strange penny-pinching, tree-hugging, global-thinking way of life) start by replacing one disposable item you use–say paper towels with old cut up t-shirts as rags and see how it feels to you. Simplifying the things I own and buy has allowed me to be more conscious of the implications when I do buy.

  • Reply Kristin S. June 24, 2015 at 1:12 pm

    A “great deal” isn’t what costs the least, it’s what loses the least value after use. High-end brand items bought used in excellent condition, and resold for almost the same amount (and sometimes more) when we’re done with them. I am not in debt, but feel that budgeting as made me more acutely aware value and the importance of buying quality items.

  • Reply Jaclyn June 24, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    Very interesting piece!

  • Reply Tarynkay June 24, 2015 at 5:16 pm

    With the disclaimer that I do none of these things perfectly:

    1) I stick to thrift stores/secondhand for clothes and other goods. I do buy new underwear. I taught myself to alter clothing (not at a professional tailor level, but enough to take things in, hem, and do basic mending) and this really increases my secondhand options. Buying secondhand is so much less expensive than new and I can afford much higher quality clothing this way. I see no point in buying stuff at Forever 21 that will fall apart in 3 wash cycles and I don’t need to justify supporting their frankly awful labor practices, either.

    2) Food is a lot harder. I do buy fair trade for coffee and chocolate and stuff. We buy sardines instead of tuna (tastes the same in a sandwich, in my opinion.) We don’t buy a lot of meat and we do try and make sure its local. We buy local eggs from a farm we trust, that kind of thing. But vegetables- sheesh. My husband once bought carrots at the farmers market and we figured out he spent literally $1/carrot. We can’t afford that. We do try and buy American grown produce, but I know our farmworkers aren’t always fairly treated, either.

    I don’t think that the fact that we can’t do everything perfectly ethically means that we just shouldn’t bother trying to make wise purchasing decisions. Don’t make the perfect the enemy of not supporting slave labor.

  • Reply Petrish June 24, 2015 at 5:25 pm

    For me when it comes to my purchase I have to admit that I don’t think about things such as this. I do name brand for a lot less, and will take a deal from anywhere if there is a need. Maybe it’s time for me to pay more attention…

  • Reply Kara June 25, 2015 at 9:51 pm

    I love this question!

    I think the first step to reconciling your budget and ethical goals is to prioritize. There are things that I absolutely won’t compromise on regardless of price, things that I’ll accept a small price increase for a more ethical product but not a huge price increase, and things that I feel comfortable going with the cheapest product.

    Then, I think you need to adjust your idea of what a “great deal” is. If you won’t compromise on organic, local food and bell peppers are usually $2 each, but then you find them for $1, that’s your new great deal.

    I absolutely think you can beat down your debt monster while buying ethically, but like any savings plan and budget, it’ll take some creative planning.

  • Reply Courtney June 26, 2015 at 12:59 am

    This is a really interesting read for me. I live in a community/culture that puts a big emphasis on “provident living” and budgeting and all that, which is obviously a good thing. However, I’ve heard of many people who take it too far in my opinion- to the point they are cheating others or putting extra burden on others (like never offering to chip in to help with costs of things, tipping waiters poorly, being stingy with gifts for family and friends) and sometimes to the point of dishonesty/cheating in my opinion, all in the name of budgeting. I know this is a little different point than the article is making, but as I’m trying to budget and figure out where our money goes, I’m trying to be conscientious about who else may be hurt by my need to keep costs low. My husband used to work in car sales, people would haggle so much to get the “best price” to the point where he hardly made any money on a sale. It’s changed the way we view things for sure. Our perspective and philosophy now is mostly this- save for the things we want and be willing to pay for them. Be willing to pay the people who offer you a service.

  • Reply Emily N. June 27, 2015 at 9:04 am

    I struggle with this one, too. I try to buy a lot of my clothes used. It saves me a lot of money and usually supports a charitable organization.

    I would love to buy all of my food local/organic/ethical, but that’s just not in my budget, so I’ve selected just a couple items to buy in these categories–organic half & half (it takes us about two weeks to go through a container, so I’m only adding a dollar or two a week), organic canned tomatoes (mostly for the BPA-free cans, since acidic tomatoes + BPA=loads of toxicity), and local honey (the stuff from the grocery store isn’t even worth eating). During the summer I try to buy most of my produce at the farmer’s market, as it’s fresher and not much more expensive. I figure this way I’m at least doing a little bit to support food businesses and practices that are in line with my values, and as my income increases and debt decreases, I can slowly shift more of my purchases in this direction.

  • Reply Anna Kristina July 6, 2015 at 6:00 pm

    I’ve tried to slowly educate myself on these sorts of issues. It’s a slow process of understanding and then trying to make better choices, and even in areas where I know I’m doing better, I am constantly learning more and adjusting. But doing that slow research has helped me find good resources, which in turn leads me to more good resources. (The Reading My Tea Leaves blog and the Good Guide are two that I appreciate, and the books Overdressed and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle had a big impact on me.)

    I think overall, my goal is to spend the same or less as before (we’ve been down payment saving for a long time, because Boston home prices, so we’ve been working with ambitious saving-oriented budget numbers for a while), by buying higher quality/responsible items but less often. Setting my own ethical buying standards means I’m automatically ruling out a lot of possible purchases, and I have to think and plan so I’m less likely to impulse buy. This means I have fewer but nicer things, so I also have the time/motivation to take good care of those things. I’m not always able to purchase 100% the way I want, but I figure if, for example, 50% of my food is organic, that is better for me, people, and the planet than if 0% is.

    Making socially and environmentally conscious choices can be complicated and hard. It’s easy to look at the big things and think “I can’t do that” and give up entirely. But I especially love and embrace the Barbara Kingsolver quote from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: “It’s the worst of bad manners — and self-protection, I think, in a nervously cynical society — to ridicule the small gesture. … Small, stepwise changes in personal habits aren’t trivial. Ultimately they will, or won’t, add up to having been the thing that mattered.”

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