How to teach your kids to be ethical consumers

Written by
Kate Hughes
Insurance expert
6 January 2022
5 min read
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The children of today are the consumers of tomorrow – and there’s never been a better time to start teaching them about ethical consumption. 

As a mother of two, I know that the small day-to-day choices that we make regarding the environment can have a substantial impact on our children’s behaviour and future decisions. 

If we actively take better care of world around us, chances are our kids will too. 

Four years ago, after a ripped beanbag sent thousands of tiny polystyrene balls flying through my garden, my husband and I agreed to change our lives to be as sustainable as we could in everything we did. 

We ditched plastic and shunned supermarkets. We bought second-hand clothes and washed them naturally. 

Reaching deeper, we switched to renewable power, pulled our savings out of dirty banks, and ran an electric car. 

In my new book Going Zero: One family’s journey to zero waste and a greener lifestyle I explain how we have a 'zero waste' goal of avoiding sending anything to landfill. 

But how can we teach our kids to not only be ethical consumers? And can we do that without too much doom and gloom? 

Research shows that kids are worried about the state of the planet - really worried. Data from Imperial College suggests that more than half of British child psychiatrists are now seeing children with eco-anxiety. 

Repeatedly we’re told that we can alleviate that anxiety by taking positive action in our own lives. But going green is expensive – or is it? 

If we can do this right, the opposite is true. 
Here are five ways we can help our kids and the environment, without crippling the family finances. 

When you do need to buy items, normalise second-hand purchases as default 

1. Get into nature 

Anyone - of any age - is more likely to protect the things they are familiar with and appreciate. Plus, the natural world is free to enjoy. 

And you don’t have to come over all 1950s Boy Scout to make the most of the experience. Small kids could do nature bingo, while older kids could make the most of free geocaching apps. 

Players use GPS to navigate to various locations where ‘caches’ are hidden; they log in at the site and move on. It’s like a global high-tech treasure hunt. 

Whatever you go for, talk to the children, in age-appropriate language, about the best aspects of their day and the natural world in general. 

Ask them for their ideas on how to protect it - from taking their litter home with them, to reducing the family’s carbon impact to help stop global warming. 

2. Do nothing 

Overall, the change that would have the biggest impact is the simplest one and the greatest cost saver of the lot. 

The amount we consume - from food to clothes and everything in between - is way more than we need. No wonder the market for storage facilities has exploded in recent years. So adopt the ultimate lazy way to save the planet i.e. do nothing. 

Next time the kids are clamouring for the latest toy, gadget or gear, and you’re wavering, employ that classic shopper’s tactic and give them (and you) a 30-day fire break. 

If they still want that must-have item after a month, it’s more likely to be something they either really need or will really value and care for. Everything else will gradually fall by the wayside. 

Again, talk to them about why reducing the number of things we buy is a good way to save the planet. They might surprise you. 

3. Love thy pre-loved 

When you do need to buy items, normalise second-hand purchases as default - not least because it will save you a fortune compared with buying new. 

After all, most of the world shops this way anyway; we certainly used to in the UK, so we’re now missing a massive trick. 

Ask smaller children to imagine where the items have come from: Who owned them, what adventures they went on with them, and even who will have them when you pass them on and what they may do with them. 

Try to positively highlight the fact that these items are second-hand. 

Get older children involved in, or even owning, the cost-saving process to highlight the empowering possibilities of more environmentally aware ways to consume. 

How much is the family saving and what ideas do they have for what could be done with the money? 

4. Think value 

Everything has a value; we just sometimes don’t recognise it. 

From water and electricity to scrap paper and old towels. 

Talk the children through the ways the things we buy and the services we use are produced and transported, to help show how much effort and how many people and resources are involved - and are dependent on the process. 

Show them how to care for their possessions so they last longer, (including ‘naughty’ things like washing clothing less often) and how to make the most of utilities by putting lids on pans, turning electrical appliances off at the wall, or pouring undrunk water and cooled pasta water into flower pots or a water butt rather than down the drain. 

Sticker reward charts might help reinforce the positive message among younger children - or assign an electricity or water monitor (if you can cope with the pint-sized power trip). 

When you need to buy items, normalise second-hand purchases as default 

5. Get creative 

Few things say value more than the three Rs - reduce, reuse, recycle. 

And you don’t get much more creative or thrifty than reusing something that seemed to be destined only for the bin. 

Before chucking something out, ask yourself - and the kids - one question: what else could we use this for? 

Those old towels could be cut up for cleaning cloths, holey socks become puppets, juice cartons make the perfect toy trucks. 

The person who comes up with the best idea could even get to pick what you have for tea. 

In fact, what brilliant recipes could the kids come up with for yesterday’s leftovers? 

The possibilities, and the savings, could be endless. 

3 things to do right now...

Empower your kids to be eco consumers by highlighting the positive impact of their decisions. 

Do it with them. Make saving the planet (and some money) a family affair. 

Take every opportunity to get out into the natural world - remind everyone what an incredible place we’re fighting for. The fact that it’s free is a definite bonus. 

Please share this with someone who'd benefit from it.

Don’t forget that while you may think that this article is brilliant, it is intended for information purposes only and should not be mistaken for financial advice or recommendations.