Alternatively titled, Hierarchy of ethical decisions as an environmentalist; or, stop judging other people.

I’m sure we’ve all been there. You need to purchase something, but you’re paralyzed by indecision. Maybe you need a new pair of rain boots, but do you choose the ones you can afford, the vegan ones, or the ones from the super-sustainable brand?

Making ethical decisions is never easy.

Making ethical decisions is even harder when we know others will judge us for our decisions. Value judgements are distinctly personal, yet most people feel they have the right to weigh in on them.

We mistake other people making perfectly valid choices for not caring. Luckily, this isn’t necessarily true; we just have different priorities. On the whole, I think we need to realize that ethical decisions are intensely personal and are made after someone (consciously or unconsciously) has weighed a number of ever-changing factors.

So if you feel paralyzed by making these big (or small!) ethical decisions, or have trouble understanding why others make the choices they do, read on. Let’s clarify our intentions together.

What is an ethical decision?

Very broadly,

Ethical decision-making refers to the process of evaluating and choosing among alternatives in a manner consistent with ethical principles. In making ethical decisions, it is necessary to perceive and eliminate unethical options and select the best ethical alternative.

Within the context of making ethical decisions as an environmentalist, our ethical principles relate to things like material, packaging, method of creation, etc. We take our most cherished values and apply them to the imperfect products we have access to, crossing our fingers we’ve made the best choice.

What factors play into ethical decisions?

There are many factors that can play into an ethical decision and they’re driven by your culture, lived experience, and many other very individual ways.

Here are just some of the factors you may consider while making a decision. Does/is the product…

  • fit within your budget?
  • have the least environmental impact?
  • locally sourced/made?
  • new or second-hand?
  • 100% vegan?
  • 100% zero waste?
  • made with ethical labor?

Your job, as someone buying stuff and making ethical decisions, is to weigh all of these factors and see what you value most.

Even if you had all the money and time to research in the world, you probably couldn’t make a perfect ethical decision. So for most of us who have neither all the time nor money, it behooves us to set up a chain of values to make the decision easier.

When you do this, though, understand that choice means you’re sacrificing something else of value. Understand this not to feel bad, but to come to grips with our imperfect economy and the reason why other ‘good’ environmentalists make ‘bad’ choices (according to you).

For example, I place sustainable life for our massive human population above a strict diet, therefore I don’t advocate explicitly for veganism. (More information about the statistics behind that here.) Other people value veganism more than all other factors. Neither perspective is necessarily right – both are making good environmental decisions from different sides of the same coin.

What’s my hierarchy of ethical factors?

To put a huge caveat on the whole thing, I don’t think it’s possible to put an exact order into place. It varies based on what stuff you’re purchasing, what’s happening in your life, and any other number of things. Plus, all of these decisions are linked together so it’s impossible to extricate them totally from each other.

If you say your hierarchy of decision-making factors never change, I urge you to think again. Inflexible thinking doesn’t help anyone.

But in general my hierarchy goes:

  • budget. At this time the practicalities of money ranks above everything else. When we have more disposable income, this will definitely change. But for now, we can’t make the ethical choices we want because of budget constraints. This also ties into zero waste, but for items I already have that I would not typically purchase. This would include my leather jacket from high school and the fur coats I received/bought second-hand while living in Russia.
  • second-hand. Whenever possible, I choose second hand items. Clothing, home goods, really anything I prefer second-hand. That way I’m opting out of the traditional economy and removing myself from the factors I’d need to consider if I were buying new. Plus, buying second-hand exclusively allows me to shop from companies that treat their employees well and I don’t participate in an economy that values product over humanity.
  • (local.) In parenthesis because it comes with a lot of restrictions. This is really about food, as I don’t live somewhere large enough that I could realistically source most things locally. I do value local, but it’s easier to focus on it in warmer months. Purchasing local in off-season is either cost prohibitive or impossible.
  • zero waste. This is the funny thing about this hierarchy of factors – I would definitely consider zero waste to be my #1 option, but when I really stop to think, it actually falls below other considerations. Still, low-waste consumption is easily bundled into budget (refuse/reduce), second-hand (reuse), and local (low travel miles, often unpackaged).
  • vegan. I have a lot of thoughts on veganism as a literal life-long vegetarian, but that’s for another post (or, realistically, not). I do value the reduction of animal products in people’s diets, but think veganism can lack nuance. We almost never purchase eggs, milk, or cheese from the store but I do consume it when my husband rescues it from the dumpster at his work. I’ve gotten hate for talking about it, but I’ve prioritized my values: waste reduction is above veganism.

How to create your own hierarchy

If you struggle to make decisions when consuming, I’d encourage you to sit down and create your own hierarchy of ethical factors. This exercise will take about 10 minutes. All you need is a pen and paper or a note-taking app.

  1. List all the factors you can think of when making an ethical decision. You can use my list above as a starting-off point, but there could definitely be many more.
  2. Circle the three factors you feel are most important. Look at your list and go by instinct to choose what three things are valuable to you when making an ethical decision.
  3. Consider your last 3-4 purchases. Did they align with the factors you just chose? If yes, great! If not, consider whether you made an incorrect purchase or if you actually have a hidden value that you hadn’t considered.
  4. As an additional step, consider writing down a list of clarifying questions you might ask companies while making a decision. For example, if you ranked zero waste as very important, you might list “what kind of packaging is this sent in?”. That way, you can shoot off a quick form e-mail to any company you want to purchase from whenever you’re making a decision.

Did this post spark any greater understanding of how to make ethical decisions for yourself – or make you more confused about your personal priorities? Let me know in the comments below your hierarchy of factors!

On buying stuff, prioritizing, and making ethical decisions - Green Indy Blog
Categories: Uncategorized


Green Indy is a blog about zero waste, minimalism, and generally being less of an a**hole to our Earth (Indianapolis, specifically) by me, Polly Barks. I’m a writer, teacher, and a natural-born researcher/experimenter.

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