More and more we are hearing terms like ‘Fairtrade’, ‘Sustainable’, ‘Ethical’ when we are out shopping for products – either in the shops or on-line. But what do these terms really mean? What does it mean to be an ‘Ethical’ Consumer? This quick guide will give you some tips and advice.

1. What does ‘Ethical’ mean?

Merriam-Webster dictionary gives a simple definition of ‘Ethics’: rules of behaviour based on ideas about what is morally good and bad. So being ‘ethical’ is about firstly, having your own ideas about what is good and bad or what is right or wrong… and then… sticking to your beliefs.

ETHICAL – Source: the Blue Diamond Gallery

Now, an important question is: “Where do those beliefs come from?”. For many people, they might come religion or culture, or the way they were taught by their parents or teachers, or from beliefs that have built up (and possibly changed) through their life experiences.

So for instance, some people may hold the belief that all people should be treated fairly. Or others may believe it is wrong to kill and eat animals. Or others may believe we have a responsibility to protect the planet and our natural environment. If you consider yourself ‘ethical’ then you are a person that knows what you believe and sticks to your beliefs.

2. What does ‘FairTrade” mean?

‘FairTrade’ (usually pronounced as one word) is a term that gets used a lot… but what does it really mean? In principle, ‘FairTrade’ is an institutional arrangement that promotes trade (mostly of consumer goods sold in ‘wealthy’ countries) that produce ‘better’ or ‘fairer’ outcomes for the people ( mostly who live in ‘poor’ countries) that produce the trade products. This can mean that small producers are paid more, or that more women, disadvantaged groups, and poor & vulnerable people are assisted to establish small businesses that help improve their lives.

The FAIRTRADE LOGO Source: Wikimedia Commons

FairTrade also promotes products that are grown in an ‘ecologically sustainable manner’, that do little (or no) damage to the environment, and which helps improve social circumstances so that poor and disadvantaged people get a better deal. Although FairTrade is a concept adopted by private sector companies, fair trade projects often have aspects of international development aid or corporate social responsibility.

There are a variety of FairTrade networks and organisations all over the world and four that have come together as a global group called F.I.N.E. You can learn more about them and more about Fair Trade programs and labeling, from their websites:

  • Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International e.V. (FLO) 
  • The World FairTrade Organization (WFTO)
  • Network of EuropeanWorldshops (NEWS!)  
  • European FairTrade Association
  • Ethical consumers often look for the FairTrade the symbol on the products they choose to buy.

3. What does ‘Sustainable’ mean?

‘Sustainable’ is a term that grew out of the idea of ‘Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD)’… which grew out of the ‘Environmental’ movements of the 70s. But these days ‘Sustainable’ includes people as well as nature. Some products are made out of non-sustainable resources – for instance, such as oil, gas, coal, old-growth timbers, etc. This means that they are made from things that cannot go on forever…they are a ‘finite resource’ cannot be ‘sustained’ indefinitely. Once they are used up, they are gone forever.


Other products are made in a way that endangers natural and human resources, and therefore they also cannot keep going on without causing damage to people and the planet. These products are also deemed to be ‘unsustainable’. For example, products that are grown on farms where they need to clear massive amounts of natural forest or use large amounts of polluting chemical fertiliser are ‘unsustainable’. But also, products that are made in a way that causes ongoing damage to people, such as pollution, dangerous chemicals, or work practices that endanger people’s health.

Ethical Consumers try to avoid these products and instead buy products that are ‘sustainable’.  Sometimes products that are ‘Fair Trade are also ‘sustainable’.

4. So what is an ‘Ethical Consumer’?

Put simply, an ‘Ethical Consumer’ is someone who purchases goods and services that align with their principles and beliefs. They may do this because they just don’t want to buy the ‘wrong’ things that contribute towards outcomes that they believe are ‘bad’. On the other hand, they may choose to buy certain things in order to create a demand for those products and services, and hence, create a ‘market’ that will encourage producers to do things in ‘a different way’. This is sometimes called ‘dollar voting’ and is seen as a form of consumer activism whereby consumers force producers to create different products and services (or produce them in a different way) by choosing where and how they spend their money.

So to be an ‘Ethical consumer’ you need to decide what is important to you – is it: helping poor people, helping the environment, supporting small businesses, supporting businesses run by women, supporting new businesses run by young people, supporting local businesses, supporting businesses with religious connections…. the list of choices can be a huge variety. Once you have decided what are your fundamental principles – what you ‘do’ and ‘don’t’ want to support as a consumer – then you have to work out what it is you can actually do.

Articles that you might be interest:

Important Questions for Ethical Consumers

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P/s: This article I wrote in one project at Uni I posted this article on my other website: Now, it is time for me to bring every article back to one place.