Being an Educated Consumer

We live in a time of great social change — or at least potential change. People are becoming less afraid to call out celebrities, companies, and organizations that they find problematic. But again, while labeling is important, it’s not enough. It doesn’t make sense for you to say “that musician’s racist” and then go buy a ticket to their concert. It also doesn’t make sense for you to say “I care about the environment!” and then go buy from an organization that’s campaigning against renewable energy reforms.

Here’s something I think is important for people to realize: In our capitalistic society, consumers have real power. And this power is tied to where we put our money. The financial support we give people, companies, and organizations really matters. They can’t survive for long without us, and when we divert their flow of cash to their competitors, we’re sending a powerful message about the values that we stand for.

And besides, it’s not actually that hard. It doesn’t take long to open up the internet and type into a search engine “is this company sustainable? is this person homophobic?” It doesn’t take a lot to pay attention to consumer-based news, to do your own research, to nail down what values you support and make a list of companies that don’t comply. Sure, it’s difficult at first, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. And it’s worth it.

For me, this is what being an educated consumer is all about.

1. The Process

  • Do some self-reflection and make a list of what values you think are important to look for as a consumer.
  • Outline what those values can look like in practice.
  • Think about the people, companies, and organizations you currently support.
  • Look up their websites and see what they have to say about themselves. Do their values align with yours?
  • Look for some third-party research. What do other people have to say about them?
  • Make a list of the ones that seem problematic to you.
  • Research better alternatives.
  • Keep your list of values and problematic celebrities and companies in mind as you go about your day-to-day life.

2. What This Looks Like For Me

Here’s an example of some of the values I look for, and what they can look like in practice. Again, this is just my example; you might have things to add, and you might not agree with everything on this list, but that’s okay!

  • Support ethnic and cultural heritage (for me, that’s specifically Taiwanese and Japanese, but I’m also looking for support for all ethnicities and cultures)
    • If you’re from a minority group or groups, look for representation of your own heritage. It’s important.
    • Do legitimate research and be respectful when advocating for other ethnicities and cultures.
  • Support untold narratives of minorities (countering Eurocentric, patriarchal, heteronormative histories)
    • History books, children’s books, and games are especially important to look at.
    • Make sure picture books for children fairly represent minorities. This can be surprisingly hard.
  • Support human rights
    • They condemn human rights atrocities including unfair detainment, torture, “re-education camps” and genocide.
  • Support world peace
    • They aren’t contracting with the military.
    • They have a strong stance of advocating for peace, conversation, and compromise rather than war.
    • They build bridges, not walls.
    • They don’t believe that their country is the best country and should rule over all others. Patriotism is different from nationalism!
  • Support social justice and all kinds of diversity
    • They don’t discriminate based on race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, nationality, etc.
    • Diversity actually shows in their products, advertising, funding, staff, and management.
    • If you walk into a restaurant and notice that all of their servers are white while all of the workers in the back are people of color, that’s a red flag.
    • This can also mean actually supporting LGBTQ+ artists, artists of color, etc.
  • Care for and support the basic rights of their workers and staff
    • Fair wages. Workers are paid a living wage (which is different depending on where you live), and a worker’s race, ethnicity, gender identity, and sexual orientation don’t dictate their salary.
    • Fair working hours
    • Safe working conditions
    • No child labor
    • Workers have a voice. They won’t be fired for criticizing the company if they find something problematic about it. There’s an avenue for workers to give feedback.
    • Fair family policies. For instance, look for fair policies on parental leave. Make sure women won’t be fired just because they’re pregnant.
    • Low involuntary turnover rate. This means workers aren’t being fired all the time.
    • Opportunities for promotion and advancement within the company
    • Services available to care for their mental health and well-being. If reports come out about suicidal workers, that’s a problem.
    • Products are fair-trade certified
  • Support and show a commitment towards environmental sustainability
    • Limiting or eliminating paper, plastic, and water waste
    • Limiting or eliminating usage of harmful chemicals in the manufacturing process
    • Making products out of eco-friendly materials and ingredients. For instance, make sure bathroom, kitchen, laundry, and yard products are free of sulfates, phosphates, and nitrates. Look for products made from recycled materials, including pre- and post-consumer waste.
    • Using and producing electricity from renewable sources
    • Have a strong recycling system
    • Have a cradle-to-grave policy or something similar to it. This means when you’re done using their product, you give it back to the company and they’ll dispose of it in a sustainable fashion.
    • Cooperating with local conservation efforts
    • Transparent about their impact on the environment and their attempts to reduce it. Look for a sustainability page on their website. Sometimes it’s under their mission statement.
    • Products are certified organic, vegan, sustainably-grown, cruelty-free, etc.

3. Sometimes, You Just Can’t “Cancel”

Consumers like you and me don’t always have the agency to pick and choose. Sometimes, our social or financial situation requires us to go shopping at a problematic store or use a problematic service. In these cases, there are still ways you can use your voice as a consumer to make change! Many of these options can (and probably should) also be used in tandem with quitting concerning celebrities or companies.

  • Buy fewer products from them or support them less.
  • Buy less often.
  • Be selective about which products you do buy.
  • If you’re buying something online, try to choose the slowest shipping option, group your products into a single shipment, and choose frustration-free packaging when available.
  • Give customer feedback. Talk to a manager, email, or leave an online review. Be honest but respectful, and most of all, educate – what do you want them to change and why?
  • Utilize other customer service options. For instance, on Amazon, you can chat with a customer service representative and ask them to put a notation on your account to eliminate excess plastic packaging (including packing peanuts, bubble wrap, and air pillows) on your future orders.

4. Things to Remember

  • Sometimes, it’s a trade-off. Maybe an artist of color doesn’t support same-sex marriage. Maybe a pretty sustainable company pays their female or LGBTQ+ workers less than their male workers. Nobody is perfect – but give them feedback and (politely) demand improvement.
  • It’s not a race. We’re all in this together. Don’t police others – it’s divisive to go around labeling people hypocrites because they support companies with values counter to their own. Maybe they just didn’t know! Have an honest conversation with them, listen, be open-minded, and educate each other.
  • What values are important to you might not be important to someone else. Ask why. Again, have honest discussions and educate each other.
  • Quitting a problematic celebrity, company, or organization isn’t supposed to last forever. The point isn’t necessarily to lock them out of the conversation. If they acknowledge their problem and demonstrate that they’re honestly working hard to educate and improve themselves, go ahead and support them again when you feel ready.
  • Change always starts with one person deciding to stand up and walk the other way. You might be wondering how much your decisions as a consumer can honestly make an impact. But I’m here to tell you that your actions do matter. Your decisions influence the people you know, and they influence the people they know, and on and on and on until an entire city, state, or even country is mobilized on the issues you care about. The little ripples we create have the capacity to one day change the world.

That’s all for now. I hope this got you thinking about where you put your money and why! Let’s all work together to make change happen.


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