Yes, You Can Afford Shop Frugally and Ethically


To be green or to have green—that is the question.  Although organic food is better for our bodies and the environment, it usually comes with a premium price tag.  And while most of us deplore the paltry wages and poor working conditions of sweatshops, it can be difficult to resist the allure of a $10 t-shirt.

How does one strike a balance between fair trade and getting a good deal?  Is it possible to be a frugal AND ethical consumer?

In a word: yes.

Embrace the Green Mantra

The basic tenets of the green movement are “reduce, reuse and recycle” and when you think about it, what could be more frugal than that?  Reducing your consumption of goods also reduces waste, which is good for the planet.  It also saves money, which is good for your wallet.  Although we’ve become accustomed to planned obsolescence and disposable goods, investing in reusable products—whether it be cloth diapers or reupholstering rather than buying a new sofa—is the frugal option.

Looking to buy a bicycle or bed frame?  Instead of “new,” make it “new to you” by searching local classifieds or scouring thrift stores and flea markets.  We produce over 243 million tons of solid waste each year, so any time we can take someone’s trash and make it our treasure we reduce the burden of overflowing landfills.  And not only do you save money by buying that used IKEA entertainment center found on Craigslist, you save time as well since the former owner already did the hard work of deciphering the instructions and assembling it for you.

Food for Thought

Reduce, reuse and recycle works well for most items, but obviously it’s not an option for food.  Whether you’re interested in avoiding chemicals, hormones and other food additives for health reasons or wanting to buy locally sourced and/or sustainably produced groceries for environmental reasons, chances are your food costs are going to be higher.

Here are some ways you can go organic without taking a big hit to the bottom line:

  • -80/20 Rule:  Invest in organic for foods you and your family eat most often.  Staples like eggs, milk, peanut butter will have a bigger impact from switching to the organic version while organic ketchup isn’t as much of a necessity.
  • -The Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen:  As a general rule, produce where the skin is consumed is better if organic whereas you can get away with non-organic for food where the skin (and most of the pesticide residue) is removed.  The Environmental Working Group put together a list of fruits and vegetables highest in pesticide residues (aka “The Dirty Dozen) as well as list of those lowest in pesticide residue (“The Clean Fifteen”). Items on the Dirty Dozen list include celery, potatoes, apples and strawberries, so look for the organic variety of these foods.  The Clean Fifteen includes onions, avocados, grapefruit and watermelon—which means you can save money by purchasing the conventional variety and still be relatively safe.
  • -Farmer’s Markets:  Check out LocalHarvest to find a local Farmer’s Market where you can purchase organic and locally grown produce and other food items.  Since there’s no distribution “middle man,” farmer’s market produce tends to be less expensive than the organic produce section of your local grocery store.   For best selection, get there early; best prices, end of the day.
  • -Join a CSA:  A local Community Supported Agriculture membership gives you access to fresh, locally grown, organic produce weekly.  Not sure you can stomach that much okra and radishes?  Split your bounty with a friend.
  • -Grow your own:  Even those without a green thumb can manage a windowsill herb garden.  With just a few plants, you’ll produce enough so that you don’t have to go buy an expensive plastic clamshell of rosemary or thyme when your recipe just calls for a tablespoon.

Do Sweat the Small Stuff

It could be argued that the meager wages earned by an Indonesian worker in a garment sweatshop is more money than he or she would have made if western companies hadn’t outsourced labor to developing countries, but is that enough to keep your conscience clear?  Sweatshops have provided us with an abundance of cheap products—so much so that we have lost touch with the actual cost and value of consumer goods.

It’s pretty much a given that items purchased from manufacturers who use sweatshop-free labor and/or are dedicated to fair trade practices will cost more than those produced by workers making less than a dollar an hour.  But keep this in mind:  sweatshop economics values quantity over quality so your $10 t-shirt isn’t likely to last more than a handful of washings and wearings.  Your initial outlay for fair trade products might be more costly, but if you invest in quality you end up saving money in the long run.

Don’t Be Cruel

Animal testing is a hot button issue for many consumers and PETA provides lists of companies that do and don’t test on animals so you can look up your favorite brands and see if they’re cruelty-free or not.  Unable to commit thirty or so pages of companies to memory in time for your next shopping trip?  Try the Cruelty-Free iPhone app, which is a free download on iTunes.  Although keeping tabs on the testing practices of companies whose products you buy can be an inconvenience, products from companies that don’t test on animals usually don’t cost any more than products from companies that do animal testing.

Speaking of cruelty, conflict diamonds aka “blood diamonds” pose another ethical issue for consumers.  If you truly want a symbol of love and fidelity that doesn’t come as a result of civil war, human rights abuses and environmental havoc, then research conflict-free diamonds before making a purchase.  But if you want to combine frugality with ethical purchasing, skip the brand new shiny diamond ring and opt for an heirloom or vintage piece—or be even more unique by choosing a gemstone other than the ethically compromised compressed carbon.

Invest in Peace of Mind

If you really want to put your money where your mouth is, consider investing in companies whose policies and mission statements align with your philosophical belief system.  According to a recent Huffington Post article, socially responsible investing has increased five-fold over the last fifteen years.   Ethical investing combines income growth with an emphasis on best practices in environmental, social, and governance issues.  If you’re pro-gun control and anti-tobacco, ethical investing ensures your investment dollars don’t fund businesses that are at odds with your beliefs.  Socially screened funds also cater to various political and religious standards and allow investors to engage in shareholder activism.

Frugality is more than merely saving money—it’s a belief system that requires those who practice it to be mindful of their consumption, to seek out value, to be resourceful and to avoid wastefulness.  As such, true frugality is completely compatible with being an ethical and principled consumer.

How do your spending practices align with your philosophies and priorities?

Yes, You Can Afford Shop Frugally and Ethically was written by Stella Louise, Editor of Blog & Save at

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