It can be said that every dollar you spend is a vote. A vote for the product, for the company that created it and for the organization selling it. If you want your vote to count for something, you should ensure that you're buying products that support your values. Though we're often taught to save money whenever possible, there are times when it might be a better choice to spend your money in a socially responsible manner, making every dollar count towards making the community - either local or global - into a better place. (For related reading, see Extreme Socially Responsible Investing.)
SEE: Ethical Investing
Boycott Offending Companies
There are many organizations that make it their goal to expose companies that are guilty of the worst violations - whether these offenses come from the use of child labor, exploitation of workers, human trafficking, health or environmental violations. It may seem like some of these problems are more prevalent in international markets, but this is anything but true. Many companies that are based in first-world nations have their products made in second- and third-world nations where labor expenses are cheaper. This doesn't necessarily mean that every company that ventures into international manufacturing is exploiting their workers, but it does mean that you should do some investigating into the labor practices that are being followed before you decide to buy. You may also choose to avoid purchasing products that were produced in countries that are governed by corrupt political regimes in order to avoid inadvertently supporting these groups.
Don't forget that human rights violations can also occur right here, at home. There are many examples of human trafficking into first-world countries, and there are also cases of workers being exploited. The leaders of some companies are guilty of white-collar crimes, corruption or price gouging.
Focus on Socially Responsible Companies
Companies that have made great efforts to be socially responsible are often all too happy to point that out to consumers. Companies like The Body Shop are eager to advertise their fair trade practices or advocacy for better treatment of workers. You can seek out companies that are socially active in the regions where their goods are produced. Some companies sponsor charities or make great efforts to engage the public in healthier lifestyles. It's important to note that no one should ever give in to the hype these socially aware companies create. Sometimes these claims of social responsibility may be greatly exaggerated, so you should always do a bit of research to ensure they're legit. You may also find that some action might be required on the part of the consumer in order for charitable donations to be made, so always be sure to read the fine print.
Show your love for the environment by buying products that are green - but what does "green" really mean? Making the move to environmentally responsible products definitely takes a lot of homework, but it's well worth it. Examine any products that are being sold as "green" alternatives to ensure that they're really what they claim to be. You can always make choices to purchase products that come with less packaging or are made with recycled materials. You can also choose to purchase organic foods, which is not only a good choice for the environment since pesticides and inorganic fertilizers won't be used, but it can also be a great choice for your own health! (To learn more, read What Does It Mean To Be Green?)
Ignore the Big Box Stores
Everyone's heard stories of big box stores moving into town and slowly the competing retailers aren't able to keep up, perhaps even going out of business entirely. Sure, some healthy competition can actually lead to increased savings for consumers, but some of the big corporate stores do have a way of making small business owners suffer. Big box stores are often able to offer extremely low prices by sourcing products from overseas. It's often felt that the reason these products are so inexpensive is because they're produced cheaply in factories that don't pay adequate wages to their workers. Even though it may be difficult to avoid big box stores entirely, try to support those entrepreneurs in your local community and spend some of your shopping dollars in the smaller, locally owned shops. Plus there's the benefit of knowing that the dollars you spend at smaller shops go directly towards paying the wages of local people. Think of it as an investment in your own community!
Support Your Local Economy
You can support your local economy in more ways than just shopping in locally owned stores. You can purchase produce from farmers' markets, eat at family owned restaurants or even purchase gifts made by local designers or craftspeople. Handmade gifts have become hugely popular in recent years, with groups like Etsy enjoying great success. Etsy is a group devoted to the sale of handmade items - anything from knitted sweaters, arts and crafts, to jewelry. One of the great perks of shopping locally is that not only are you supporting your local economy, but items that were produced locally don't require shipping, reducing costs for transportation. These savings are often passed on to the consumer, and this also has a reduced environmental impact as well. When people buy local, their dollars tend to stay within the local economy. This means that what you spend at these local stores goes into buying more products or services within the community, towards wages of local workers or towards local taxes. This can have the effect of actually strengthening your local economy.
The Bottom Line
Buying cheap doesn't always mean buying smart. Don't forget that within all of our wallets lies the ability to influence even the largest of organizations. Make your dollars count by supporting organizations with ethical values. The more business owners and corporations realize that there is a demand for socially responsible products, the more organizations will try to provide them. If you're a firm believer in social responsibility, follow up on the issues and spend your money accordingly. Find out where your food, clothes, cars and cosmetics come from. Saving a buck and buying goods that are produced or sold using unethical means may cost more than you know - and remember that not all costs are strictly monetary. Each social injustice has an impact on our community, whether that be local or global. It may take a bit of research on the part of consumers to make more ethical buying decisions, but in the end, it's worth it. (For more information, check out Five Companies Leading The Green Charge.)