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Becoming a socially responsible shopper

Women holding purple shirt in store.
Highlights
  • Customers will reward companies that demonstrate a social agenda.
  • Sometimes, it becomes the company's word against that of its detractors.
  • Socially responsible products often are located next to their counterparts on store shelves.

Social consciousness and corporate profitability haven't always been a matched pair, historically speaking. But a growing chorus of socially responsible consumers has had an impact in recent years.

When allegations surfaced this year that workers at Apple's plants in China were laboring under harsh and sometimes dangerous conditions, the company scrambled to address a public outcry from U.S. consumers who questioned the human costs associated with their iPads, iPhones and Mac computers. But while Apple's experience may be an interesting case study in crisis management, it's a noteworthy example of a new dialogue between consumers and corporations, according to Shel Horowitz, co-author of "Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green: Winning Strategies to Improve Your Profits and Your Planet."

"All things being equal, customers will reward companies that demonstrate a social agenda," Horowitz says. "People want to do the right thing, especially if it costs pretty much the same as not doing the right thing."

Horowitz says companies that ignore the socially responsible consumer may be out of business in a few years. But is it really that easy for today's consumers to align their pocketbook with their values?

You'll pay more, right?

There's mixed opinion on whether socially responsible consumers pay more for products that reflect their values. In the past, it was certainly true that socially conscious consumers paid a premium, Horowitz says. But these days, the overall trend seems to be one of price parity.

"In many cases, it doesn't cost anything extra to do the right thing," Horowitz says, pointing out that Ben & Jerry's ice cream, a brand that markets itself as socially responsible, costs about as much as other premium brands. In other cases, products that meet a social standard may even cost less. Horowitz says companies that use recycled materials often pass their savings along to customers.

Still, there are exceptions to the rule. Organic foods often cost more. Depending on how you value the experience, it may be worth the price.

"While sometimes you do pay more, you often get more, too," says Horowitz. "Foods that taste better and contain more nutrients because they're organic, fairly traded and fresher may command a premium price, but they provide so much joy in the experience."

Must you give up something?

The idea of scrutinizing the origins of every product you buy to make sure it conforms to your ethical standards might suggest a world of limited options at the supermarket or mall. But it turns out that's an increasingly outdated notion.

"Depending on their geographic location, almost every product category has a brand or offering that is positioned to fulfill the needs of the socially conscious consumer," says Jose Alejandro Flores, the founder of VOS Flips, a San Antonio company that makes recyclable flip-flops.

That's not to say there's always a socially responsible substitute. Depending on the consumer's values, there may be certain products that are simply off-limits. For instance, vegetarians and vegans who choose those diets for ethical reasons won't find any meat products that meet their standards. However, ethical consumption is all about making decisions that are personal and oftentimes quite nuanced, says Lori Del Genis, director and dressmaker at Conscious Elegance, a store in State College, Pa., that designs handmade eco-friendly wedding dresses.

"I want to have access to leather shoes and boots since they wear so much better and longer than synthetics, so I buy them secondhand," Del Genis says. But when it comes to fur, Del Genis draws a hard line, saying her decision to forgo fur products altogether is a final one.

"There's absolutely no reason to wear fur in a temperate U.S. climate ... and I've yet to find fur that wasn't cruelly produced," she says.

When does a product meet your standards?

While there are products out there that boast of socially responsible credentials, being a socially responsible consumer does require research. Thankfully, Horowitz says, "it has never been easier to get information," with many resources available online.

Even so, no matter how many Google searches you do, you may need to make a judgment call.

"At a certain point, it becomes the company's word against that of its detractors," Horowitz says. "Still, a couple of minutes on Google can often dig up the obvious dirt, and then it's a simple matter of asking for and evaluating the company's side of the story. Sometimes, we find there are trade-offs. For example, no-till farming prevents soil erosion but often requires nonorganic inputs. Which is better may vary, depending on the individual consumer's lifestyle, concerns and needs."

As for finding trusted online sources, Del Genis advises consumers to look for green directories online and for organizations that do third-party verification. But consumers need to exercise good judgment there, too.

"Directories that actually screen companies and don't accept advertising are very helpful in weeding out the wheat from the chaff," Del Genis says.

They also save time, allowing consumers who don't want to get bogged down in endless research to make an informed choice. But while some consumers may choose to dig deep and uncover as much as they can about the products they buy, buying products that meet your social standards is often easier than you think. Del Genis says oftentimes, socially responsible products are located right next to their counterparts on a store's shelf.

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