Many times we look for indicators on a product that will tell us more about its actual value. Beyond the price tag, there are several layers of value. The economic value doesn’t reflect the true cost of a product—if it did, the item would probably be a lot more expensive!
Stuff is made cheap at the expense of natural resources or other people, and it’s difficult to see these externalities in a label. But there are a few things you can look for to give you a better idea of what kind of company you are supporting with your wallet.
Here are a few…
This will give you a quick but broad insight into the potential environmental and social impact of a product. The farther away it was made from where you are buying it, the bigger its footprint is due to the shipping (but there are a lot of other factors involved). As a rule of thumb, shopping local when you have the choice is the way to go.
Local products are also much less likely to have been produced under unfair labor practices, which are generally worse in developing countries. In 2015, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) released a report on "the world's worst countries for workers."
Here are the top 10 worst (alphabetically):
Access the full ITUC study here and the Global Rights Index Map here.
On most products, whether it’s food, clothes, or tech gadgets, you should be able to find a “made in x,” “product of x,” or “manufactured in x” label somewhere. This labeling is required by law for almost all products. If you want to dive deeper, check out the Tariff Act of 1930 (amended 19 USC 1304) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's country of origin labeling (COOL) standards for food products in the United States.
Some brands have better reputations than others. One of the safer ways to shop is to purchase from brands you know are responsible. Most companies claim through their marketing that they are saving the world in one way or another, so you can’t always take their product labels or their website's "about" page at face value.
A good way to get an objective rating on a company is from an independent third party. CSRHub is one of the most extensive rating services available, providing corporate social responsibility data on the majority of big corporations. The site looks at factors such as the company’s environmental impact, how it treats its employees, and what it does for the community—providing a pretty quick overview of how a company stands. Here are some sustainability ratings for the textiles & apparel industry:
|High(er) Rating||Low Rating|
|REI||Polo Ralph Lauren|
|Levi Strauss & Co.||Guess|
Basically, you want to assess how long the lifespan of a product is—i.e., whether it looks and feels like a quality-made item that will last you a long time. Unfortunately, most products are made to be disposable. They break easily and then you’re forced to buy another, as the garbage dump continues to fill up.
Give yourself a few extra seconds to assess your product before you buy it. If you’re buying clothes, look at the stitching, feel the material, etc. If you’re buying a tech gadget, really look at it. Is it made of cheap plastic? How does it feel? Trust your gut on this one and don’t feel rushed. If you’re buying online, it’s worth reading a few reviews (especially the negative ones) to see what others have experienced.
The impulse buy . . . nothing invokes buyer’s remorse quicker.
Catch yourself when you’re in the zone. Watch out for fire sales! Red tags can be attractive, but who cares if you saved 50% on something you don’t need.
If you feel even the slightest indecision about whether you truly need a product, just take another lap around the store (or your house if you’re shopping online). This will help pull you out of the marketing vortex that you may have been sucked into so you can look at the product through a clearer lens.
Sometimes when we're in a rush or get caught up in a fire sale, our best intentions get thrown out the window. The biggest help is to know when you’re doing it and to catch yourself. As you get into the habit of looking for a few key signs at the point of purchase, they will lead you to being a smarter shopper and a more sustainable citizen.
David Evans is the founder of prch, a resource for conscious consumers. He is a UCLA graduate with a degree in Environmental Studies and Geographic Information Systems, working in the crossover between tech and conservation. David's an environmentalist, minimalist, and teacher who helps others improve their environmental and social impact. Learn more via Twitter @theprch, Facebook https://www.facebook.com/theprch/, and Instagram: ontheprch.