Seven Tips for Ethical Shopping This Christmas


By Simon Oldham and Laura Spence

As you walk into a shop or go online to hunt for Christmas gifts, it can feel pretty daunting. Who needs what, how much will it cost, will they like it? But also very important: am I making a good choice in where I am shopping?

To tick that last (ethical) box, many of you will rightly be wanting to buy from local retailers this festive season. Small businesses are the cornerstones of local economies, providing essential goods and services and vital community engagement. They contribute £2.4 trillion a year to the UK economy and provide 16.7 million jobs, yet many are struggling with the cost of living crisis and particularly in need of support at the moment.

When it comes to ethical purchasing from shops – or other businesses such as local manufacturers – our study of the research literature suggests it’s wise not to make assumptions. There can be considerable variations in how shops approach issues like environmental sustainability and fair treatment of employees.

It’s not always obvious what the policies are, since these businesses can shy away from talking directly to customers about this subject. This can mean they are not rewarded for doing the right thing, so taking some time to find out their policies may have a disproportionately positive impact.

To help you buy as ethically as possible this Christmas, here are seven tips.

1. Look for clues

If you are shopping in-store, look out for posters, ethical pledges or awards which show some commitment to, for example, reducing the business’s carbon footprint or paying employees a decent wage. You can also check in-store or online whether the business has an in-built social or environmental purpose, for instance whether it is a social enterprise, B-corp or cooperative.

2. Listen to staff

Workers in small retailers often describe a relaxed and family-like experience, but there are exceptions. Take a moment to consider whether the staff seem happy in their work, and are confident and supported in what they are doing.

Also be aware that there are occasional examples of retailers using illegally employed labour, paying below the minimum wage, or exploiting workers in other ways. Tread carefully if you have suspicions – you could unintentionally make things worse for the workers by asking too many questions. The charity Unseen is a great source of advice in such situations.

3. Go eco

Look out for businesses that offer environmentally friendly options like organic, recycled and upcycled products, or that specialise in only selling eco-products. Check out a website like Ethical Revolution for recommendations.

4. Ask questions

Buzzwords like “ethical”, “sustainable”, “natural” and “locally sourced” have become commonplace, but how a retailer defines and commits to them can be very different. Take the word sustainable. For some businesses this may mean they comprehensively try and reduce their footprint across the board, while for others it may mean something much more simple like trying to recycle or reduce their energy consumption.

If you aren’t sure what a business means by a word or phrase, don’t be afraid to have a chat and clarify with them. Equally, take a moment to ask about the provenance of a particular product, item or ingredient. Even if the answer isn’t ideal, you will learn a lot if the staff are aware and interested themselves.

5. Get familiar

Many third-party labels indicate a product’s social and environmental impact. Fairtrade, Organic, Rainforest Alliance, Carbon Neutral and Forest Stewardship Council are all examples from a long list, some of which provide more assurance than others. Not all require a business to be checked or verified by an independent body before they can use the label, for instance. This list is a good guide to what these labels really mean.

6. Ask around

Small retailers often don’t shout about the excellent work they do, such as helping the local community, going above and beyond for staff, or significantly reducing their environmental footprint. It can be just something they do as part of their identity and purpose.

So keep your eyes open locally and ask friends and colleagues if they hear good things about particular retailers. When you come across one that stands out, shout about it on social media. Also keep an eye on the local media, including social, since they have a role to play in identifying and promoting businesses which positively contribute to their community.

7. Take the long view

Just like people, no organisation is perfect. Try to be supportive and help your local businesses to improve. There may be a few unscrupulous ones making exaggerated claims, but most are just doing their best, so it’s good to encourage those taking steps in an ethical direction. Give them your repeat business where you see engagement and improvements and let them know you care.

Christmas, it must be said, can be a somewhat uncomfortable mix of goodwill and raging consumerism. Of course, there is lots we can do to avoid unnecessary purchases – such as buying second-hand or vintage, re-gifting, or donating to charity instead.

But when we do buy something new, it feels great to do so in a way which helps others. So support local, ethical stores as much as you can to help them go from strength to strength and continue contributing positively to the community.

This article was originally published in The Conversation on 8 December 2023. It can be accessed here:

About the Author

simonSimon Oldham – has a BA (Hons) in Business Studies from the University of the West of England, an MSc in Sustainability and Management from Bath University and PhD in Management from Royal Holloway University. He is currently a lecturer at a Royal Holloway University in the Human Resource Management and Organisation Studies department. His research interests are focused on understanding how organisations, particularly small businesses, engage with ethics and sustainability, and how individuals seek to maintain their moral identity particularly though ethical decision making.

LauraLaura Spence – is a Professor of Business Ethics in the Department of Human Resource Management and Organisational Studies, Royal Holloway, University of London. She has previously held the posts of Associate Dean (Research) supporting the School of Business and Management and the School of Law and Social Sciences, Director for the Centre for Research into Sustainability and School Director of Impact.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.