How to battle ethical-shopping fatigue

You’ll never be a perfectly virtuous consumer. But that doesn’t mean you should stop trying
By Corey Mintz - Published on July 3, 2019
The production of palm oil is eradicating Indonesia’s rainforests — and its orangutans. (iStock.com/SuriyaDesatit)

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Because I was watching the blood drain from my arm, I wasn’t 100 per cent paying attention when my wife texted to ask for cookies.

Canadian Blood Services is facing a shortage at the moment. About 4 per cent of Canadians donate blood. Between vacations and long weekends, that dips during the summer. So I was at the clinic in Toronto, serving up a pint of my finest. The phlebotomist clocked me at just over five minutes. It’s pretty good, but not a record. Most people average between five and 10 minutes.

When donors are done, the staff always suggest they take 10 minutes to rest and have a drink and a snack from a selection that includes crackers, Bits & Bites, cookies (oatmeal, chocolate chip, or Peek Freans “fruit crème,” the ones with the sticky lozenge of red-flavoured something in the centre).

My wife had enjoyed the dry oatmeal cookies during the first trimester of her pregnancy, when anything with more flavour than an apple was repugnant to her. Wanting to take it up a notch, I went off in search of third-trimester-treat-worthy cookies.

I ended up at a fancy bakery that makes amazing breads and treats. But just before I walked in the door, I felt a vague unease: Wasn’t there some ethical reason, currently buried deep in the lower filing cabinet of my mind, that I should be boycotting or avoiding this business?

For a full five minutes, I stood on the sidewalk trying to remember what it was. Had the owner been accused of sexual misconduct? Had they announced that they were funnelling profits to some anti-abortion organization, gay-conversion therapy program, or men’s-rights group? Were they horribly exploiting their staff, stealing tips, paying below minimum wage? Had I read it somewhere, heard it, reported on it myself?  Maybe one of the owners had been donating to a developer-led, dark-money political-action committee, publicly advocating for anti-immigration policies, or spreading propagandistic phony news on their social-media accounts?

Whether it was one, all, or none of those things, I couldn’t remember. And, with a pregnant wife in need of cookies, I went in and spent far too much on a selection of sweets.

On my way home, still trying to remember what sin, if any, this bakery was guilty of, I felt what I can only describe as ethical-purchasing fatigue.

Have you experienced this? Holding up a package of frozen calamari at the supermarket and trying to remember which countries you shouldn’t be buying from? Trying to decide whether to attend a friend’s wedding in a southern state that just passed a law restricting women’s rights? Steering your friends away from a restaurant because you’d heard the chef was a real creep, but maybe you’re mixing it up with a different place?

Are you shopping for a pivoting bathtub shield with one fixed panel, and the best deal is from Wayfair, but you just read that their employees are staging a walkout to protest the company’s sale of furniture to detention centres for children?

I once spent an hour going to every grocery store in Chinatown and reading the ingredients on every jar of crispy garlic until I found one made without palm oil, the production of which is eradicating Indonesia’s rainforests — and its orangutans along with them. But what about the palm-sugar-sweetened Nutella that people still give me as a gift? Is it grandfathered in?

The Sweat & Toil phone app, developed by the United States Department of Labor, is a useful tool for supermarket shopping. It enables consumers to search by product or region and see whether child or forced labour are part of a food’s supply chain.

But its data is incomplete. No one source has all the answers. In the end, we are just decent people trying to live by whatever values we believe in. No one can stay on top of every bit of news, science, or gossip, much less remember it all.

There’s no such thing as the perfectly virtuous consumer. We have to forgive ourselves a bit.

That doesn’t mean we have licence to abdicate our moral codes because they’re a hassle. Caring about other people is the foundation of decency. It’s our responsibility to consider the people who make our products — and how they are treated. And it’s not too much to bear.

Farm labourers can be forced to work in fields just sprayed with pesticides, so it’s not the hugest imposition to spend 20 minutes searching websites for a different tub door.

When my wife gets home, she’s excited about the fancy cookies, but she explains that she had meant for me to bring home the dry oatmeal cookies from the blood-donation snack room. Lucky for her, I’d snagged a bag on my way out.

Also, she informs me that we have to find new wallpaper for the baby’s room because the pattern she’d picked out is from Wayfair.

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