I’ve been there. Head held high, walking into the grocery store with a purpose. With a pep in your step and a champion’s smile, you head in to grab some ethical, fair trade, organic, do-good coffee. You’re stepping your game up these days, one item at a time. You’re a conscious consumer – a social citizen!
So you grab your fair trade coffee and brew the heck out of it. Or you’re probably so on it that you’re making a pour over (that’s what cool kids are doing these days). You sit down in front of your laptop to peruse the latest news, and read something about “free trade” and how it’s actually better than fair trade… wait, what?! You wonder, “What have I done? Am I perpetuating some terrible cycle and enabling illegal coffee rings in Ecuador?”
These days it’s hard to tell who is doing what kind of good. It’s a great problem to have… kind of.
There are a lot of qualifiers for how a company makes positive impact, but many of them are subjective claims they make about themselves.
Just yesterday I was shopping for some home items at Target and noticed a mention on a basket of the company’s work giving $4 million to charity a week! How fabulous, right? That depends. Do we know how ethical Target’s employment practices are around the globe? How sustainable their supply chains are? Do we care? Or is their charitable giving like carbon offsetting - canceling out the bad by doing good?
You’ll have to decide for yourself, friend. But the first step to making informed decisions as a consumer is to know the language. H ere’s a quick guide to understanding some of the social good terms that define the consumer good space, so you can start to do your own digging.
If a company is calling themselves ethical, it’s subjective. If a third party has evaluated them, it gives much more clout. Ethical denotes fair, transparent, and very legal work environments and practices. For example: they comply with minimum wage, respect employment laws, and work on the up and up with all aspects of the supply chain. It says they’re about moral good, which can also be subjective, but overall is a claim that states: we follow the most legal global practices.
This denotes making the most minimal negative impact on the world. It includes people, the environment, communities, etc. These companies make all their business decisions centered around sustainability, and make environmentally friendly choices at all possible times. This effort makes the least amount of damage to our planet.
C ommon for consumer product companies that are importing from companies, particularly in developing countries, with fair prices and practices. Fair Trade USA says, “Fair Trade Certified™ products were made with respect to people and planet. Our rigorous social, environmental and economic standards work to promote safe, healthy working conditions, protect the environment, enable transparency, and empower communities to build strong, thriving businesses. When you choose products with the Fair Trade label, your day-to-day purchases can improve an entire community’s day-to-day lives.”
This practice lifts all trade barriers, so that any country can do business with any country. Some claim that it’s the most fair and transparent, while others say it’s not helping to uphold the best, most ethical practices.
A method of farming that avoids the use of all synthetic compounds and pesticides. It is an attempt at the most sustainable way to harvest food and plants, and uses compost-based fertilizers.
This practice means leaving food as it is, and not modifying the genes of any plants or animals in the process of making the product. High risk genetically modified ingredients as identified by The Non GMO Project are: amino acids, alcohol, aspartame, ascorbic acid, sodium ascorbate, citric acid, sodium citrate, ethanol, flavorings (“natural” and “artificial”), high-fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, lactic acid, maltodextrins, molasses, monosodium glutamate (MSG), sucrose, textured vegetable protein (TVP), xanthan gum, vitamins, vinegar, and yeast products.
The gold standard of businesses that do good, as measured by a third party. “B Corps are for-profit companies certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.” – from bcorporation.net
Businesses that claim to be charitable or philanthropic are saying that they give money to, or volunteer with non-profits. These companies, however, are not making a statement about their own business practices.
A company that says they are socially responsible is claiming that they are delivering to all stakeholders in an approach that is socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable. This is usually measured by a mixture of sustainable, ethical, and charitable practices.
One for One
Made famous by TOMS shoes, one for one business are promising that with the purchase of every single product, they are doing an act of good. This one unit of charitable good or giving can be in the form of giving away a product, donation, or service to a cause or someone in need.
There are many ways to evaluate how “good” a company is, and therefore how good of a consumer you’re being. If you really want to dive into updating all of your products, I recommend researching each company and referencing websites with resources showing which products check all the ‘good’ boxes. The aforementioned B Labs is a great resource for finding companies doing great things, as measured by an objective source. Though it can be time consuming, once you get into your groove of using products that make you proud, you’ll be bouncing back into the store with a new sense of confidence.
Photos by: Eileen Roche