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Have Your Say: How can we be socially conscious consumers without breaking the bank? Add to ...

Craig and Marc Kielburger founded Free The Children and Me to We. Their biweekly Brain Storm column taps experts and readers for solutions to social issues.

From our clothes and our food, to our toiletries and our kids’ toys, almost every shopping decision poses ethical issues related to working conditions, environmental impact and more. The deadly collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh last year highlighted the links between our shopping choices in Canada and the lives of our fellow global citizens overseas.

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But a loonie’s a loonie, and we Canadians love our coupons and swarm sales with the same enthusiasm as we flock to our TV screens for an Olympic hockey final. As household debt climbs above $40,000 per Canadian, it’s harder to find space in the family budget for the premium we pay – large or small – for a cleaner conscience.

It’s estimated that upgrading all Bangladeshi factories to safely avoid future disasters would add only 10 cents to the cost of every T-shirt, and raising workers’ wages 80 per cent (to $67 a month) an extra quarter. “You can afford it and they need it,” said the Time magazine headline, and it would seem Canadians agree. A recent CTV News poll found 70 per cent of Canadians willing to pay more for clothing made in fair working conditions.

But even if ethical clothing eventually hits the mainstream, that’s one purchase among many priorities for the average household. Conscious consumption in our closets, our kitchens, our bathrooms, our living rooms, our yards and our transportation all adds up.

Is there a limit to how much we can afford to care, or are there creative ways to keep both our conscience and our budget happy?

This week’s question: how can we be an ethical consumer without breaking the bank?

The experts:

“You don’t have to make big changes right away to start being an ethical consumer. Begin by learning more about where your products come from and how they’re made, and then decide if that’s still a product you want to buy or start looking for alternatives.”

– Jonathan Fishbein, general manager of Ethical Ocean

“Being an ethical consumer on a tight budget is almost an oxymoron – usually increased costs are passed along to the consumer. Buying products at resale shops certainly lessens the impact on landfill sites and provides gently used clothing, furniture or household items at greatly reduced prices.”

– Cathie Mostowyk, president of Shoestring Shopping Guide Inc.

“The most effective (and cheapest) thing people can do is to be citizens, as well as consumers, and press their governments into effectively monitoring and regulating the environmental and social practices of industry.”

– Mark and Ian Hudson, professors at the University of Manitoba

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