What Is Ethical Sourcing and Why Is It Important?

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What Is Ethical Sourcing and Why Is It Important
Photo by Johen Redman on Unsplash.com

In recent years, conscious consumerism — the practice of making purchases that have a positive impact socially, environmentally or economically — has sky-rocketed in popularity, so much so that it’s no longer optional for brands if they want to maintain high profits. In fact, in a recent survey, 73 percent of Gen Z shoppers said they’d be willing to pay more for sustainable products (way to go, Gen Z!). Another study showed that the majority of consumers will quickly write off companies they don’t view as ethical.

If you’re one of the millions of shoppers out there who wants to ensure that your dollars don’t have a negative social impact, you’ll want to learn a bit about how to spot whether a company is legitimately trying to be more ethical or whether it’s all just baseless marketing tactics. In this guide, we’ll go over one of the most fundamental elements of conscious consumerism — ethical sourcing — as well as why it’s important and how to determine whether a company follows it or not.

What Is Ethical Sourcing?

When you’re shopping for items like coffee, gourmet chocolate, or apparel, you’ll often see the words “ethically sourced” on the website or packaging. But what does this mean, exactly? In the most basic terms, ethical sourcing means that a product uses materials made in processes that do not harm people, animals, or the environment. That means that questionable or exploitative practices were not used in any part of the sourcing process, from the raw ingredients grown on farms to the factories where materials are made. 

Ethical Sourcing
From the raw ingredients grown in farms to the factories where materials are made. Photo by Stijn te Strake on Unsplash.com

Why Ethical Sourcing Matters

Historically, supply chains relied in large part on unethical and unfair labor practices as well as unsustainable sourcing practices that contribute to global warming. We all know the tale of how wealthy white business owners built their cotton and sugarcane empires on the backs of slaves. But exploitative working practices persisted long after the abolishment of slavery. In fact, they continue today.

For example, a 2020 report showed that 83 companies in China benefited from the use of forced labor of ethnic minorities in its factories. Human trafficking, child labor and forced labor are used in the production of many consumer goods as well as agriculture, domestic work, sex work, and more all over the world.

Forced labor isn’t the only concern for those looking to produce goods made ethically. Exploitative, unsafe, or unfair labor practices — which may be legal in some parts of the world — are also commonly used by companies to reduce costs. What’s more, many foreign companies pay low wages and refuse to provide workers with clean or safe working conditions in order to make their dollars go further.

Ethical sourcing also has a huge impact on the environment. For example, many industries have backed away from sourcing raw materials from suppliers that contribute to deforestation or high levels of pollution in developing countries. This is especially problematic in the production of palm oil, paper goods, soy, oil and gas, and rubber.

So, with all of this in mind, when you opt to support only companies that use ethical sourcing practices, you’re helping reduce the prevalence of unfair and abusive labor as well as environmentally problematic practices. When you support companies committed to ethical sourcing, on the other hand, you’re contributing to the livelihoods of individuals and the healthy development of communities around the world. 

What Is Ethical Sourcing
Ethical sourcing means that a product uses materials made in processes that do not harm people, animals or the environment. Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.com

How to Spot Ethical (and Not So Ethical) Companies

So how do you know if the products you’re buying don’t have a negative environmental or social impact? One of the simplest ways to know if a company you’re supporting is committed to fair-labor practices and ethical sourcing is to look for third-party certifications. Some certifications to look for include Fair Trade, Cruelty-Free, USDA Organic, B Corp, and others.

For example, the makers of that delicious baking chocolate you use to make your favorite chocolate chip cookies may label their products Fair Trade Certified. This means that the company has been vetted by a trusted third-party organization (Fair Trade USA), which ensures that the chocolate is made using safe working conditions with a model that helps support a sustainable livelihood for its workers.

So how do you know if a company is not especially ethical? Start by doing your research! Look into every certification, as some are not as trustworthy as others and some even allow companies to buy certifications without actually proving worthiness. You should also value a brand’s transparency. Conscious companies are often transparent about their impact on the environment and outline how they’re helping to reduce impact.

Last, make sure to look into a company’s human rights record. Human Rights Watch is an organization that does extensive research into global human rights violations. They publish annual reports to help you determine which companies are not prioritizing human rights as part of their sourcing and production processes. There are also several independent organizations that help evaluate and uncover animal cruelty during the sourcing process.

Shop with a Conscience

No matter if you’re shopping for chocolate bars or new clothes, you need to know that you may be unknowingly committing to everything from deforestation to forced labor. But remember, it is not on you as a consumer to solve the world’s problems.

You’re already taking a step in the right direction by educating yourself on problematic sourcing and how to identify it. As long as you remain a conscious consumer and support brands doing good, you’re helping to create a much better world.

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