Money or morals? Can you be an ethical consumer without buckets of cash? 

Written by
Jenni Hill
Finances expert
6 April 2021
5 min read
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Many of us are turning our attention to environmental issues and vowing to live more sustainably. Yet, while we are recycling more than ever and travelling far less, we can often struggle with shopping ethically. Here is how to be a responsible consumer, but without blowing your budget.

One of the few positives to come out of the coronavirus outbreak has been how it has highlighted our desire to help to create a better, healthier world. 

But while we are recycling more than ever and travelling less, we can often struggle with shopping ethically. 

Finding businesses with a commitment to sustainability can be a challenge in itself, but when you do track down these conscientious companies, their products and services can prove to be costly, and often exceed your budget. 

If you’re eager to be an ethical consumer but money is tight, don’t let pricey products discourage you. 

Here are just two ways to support the sustainability movement on a budget. 

Food that doesn't cost the earth 

The good news is there are loads of advantages to being savvy in the kitchen - for your pocket and the planet too. 

According to the campaign group WRAP, we throw away 6.6 million tonnes of household food every year in the UK – of this, the group estimates that almost three quarters could have been eaten. 

For the average person, that’s around a waste of £210 - and for the average UK household, a whopping £500 a year. If you’re part of a family with children, you could make a saving of up to £730 a year by reducing food waste – that’s around £60 a month. 

The Greenhouse Gas associated with total UK food waste is around 25 million tonnes CO2 – the same as produced by a third of all cars on UK roads in 2018. 

The land required to produce the food we waste would be equivalent to an area larger than Wales. 

Easy ways to reduce your food waste – and the impact on the environment – won’t cost you a penny. 

Start by making a weekly meal plan and shop accordingly, freeze food in individual portions and familiarise yourself with best before dates. 

The ‘Use By’ date, is about safety and the most important date to remember. 

Foods can be eaten (and most can be frozen) up until the use by date, but not after. 

According to the  Food Standards Agency, the best before date is about quality and not safety. 

The food will be safe to eat after this date but may not be at its best. 

Say goodbye to fast fashion 

If you must watch your pennies, the price of shopping sustainably can make it feel like having morals is only an option for the wealthy. 

With fast fashion retailers charging as little as 8p for their clothes during sale events, it’s no surprise we turn our nose up at hefty price tags. 

For so long, we’ve been tricked into thinking our clothes are worth so little that when an ethical brand passes the cost of fabric, patternmaking, overheads and human labour onto us, we feel like we’re being ripped off. But when we buy fast fashion, somebody else is paying the price. 

WRAP's consumer research has found that on average, clothing lasts for 3.3 years before it is discarded or passed on. 

What’s more, an estimated £140m worth of clothing goes into landfill each year, while £30bn worth of clothing sits unused in our wardrobes. 

It’s hard to visualise all of the inputs that go into producing garments, but let’s take denim as an example. 

The UN estimates that a single pair of jeans requires a kilogram of cotton - and because cotton tends to be grown in dry environments, producing this kilo requires about 7,500–10,000 litres of water – or about 10 years’ worth of drinking water for one person. Yikes. 

Fortunately, creating a sustainable wardrobe isn't difficult and doesn't have to be expensive – all it takes is a shift in your mindset and a willingness to change habits. 

Most of us only wear a fraction of our wardrobe on a regular basis, so instead of shopping for new clothes, look in your cupboards and repurpose what you already have. 

Shopping second hand is easier than ever with apps like Depop and Vinted which can help you introduce new pieces to your wardrobe while helping someone else declutter theirs. 

If you have items of clothing you really don’t wear anymore, consider a swapping arrangement with friends. 

Clothes swapping parties might not be practical during a pandemic, but you could leave a bag of jeans on your doorstep for a friend to replace with a bag of jumpers. 

Don’t be fooled into thinking that you are doing your bit by donating your unwanted items to charity shops: did you know that many of the clothes we donate to charity shops end up in landfill? 

The reasons for this are complex, but part of the problem is that while charity shops receive plenty of donations, they often struggle to sell them on. 

3 things to do right now...

When making online purchases, group your items for delivery together as much as possible, to reduce packing and the environmental impact of multiple transport deliveries. 

When you unpack your food shop, separate multi packs meat into individual portions and pop them into the freezer. Not only will it save you money, but will cut down your defrosting time considerably. 

Throw a clothes-swapping party when lockdown is lifted. Invite your friends around and tell them all to bring their unwanted clothing. Your trash can turn out to be someone else’s treasure. 

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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.