Opinion: money-saving can also be unethical

From chasing cheap fashion to showrooming, our writer argues it’s all-too-easy to act unethically in our bid to save money.

Everyone loves a good bargain.

While that’s generally no bad thing – we’ve published quite a few frugal tips on this very site – sometimes our obsession with money-saving can go too far.

Whether its chasing cheap fashion or making a beeline for reduced yellow sticker food at supermarkets, there’s a risk that we lose a sense of what is right, and stray into the horrors of shopping unethically. 

In this article, I’ll examine three common bargain-hunting trends. As with most areas of ethics, there is no clear right or wrong answer.

Instead, I’ll try and make the case for and against each. Let me know where you stand in the comments section at the bottom of this page.

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1. Showrooming

This term was coined around five years ago, and refers to shoppers who visit a store to try out a product, then leave the shop and buy it for less online.

Bargain-hunters love it because it means you can take advantage of excellent advice and customer service, and still get the item for less.

On the flip side, however, stores invest in their infrastructure as well as employing and training their staff to be able to offer you this advice.

By taking up their time you are not only wasting this investment, you are also stopping them from helping other customers.

Smaller retailers can’t necessarily afford to waste their resources like this, so there’s a risk that showrooming could put high street stores out of business.

The verdict

By entering a shop, you are under no legal or moral obligation to buy anything: you have made and broken no promises, so you are on strong moral ground.

Showrooming exploits the goodwill of the stores, which may not feel like the most robust approach ethically, but then the shops have an opportunity to take advantage of you too.

They can wrap their service with an incentive to buy, highlight their after-sales service, or offer to discount their products to closer match their online competitors – and the right approach can convert showrooming into a sale.

2. Buying cheap clothes

Is it ethical to buy cheap clothing? (Image: Shutterstock)

Back in 2013, a factory used by a company supplying Primark collapsed in Bangladesh, and 1,100 people died, sparking a wave of concern about the conditions some clothes manufacturers operated in.

Since then, there have been a number of reports, looking not just at the factories of suppliers, but at the subcontractors they use, the low pay and the horrible working conditions and practices.

While retailers take steps to ensure minimum standards are adhered to, and they emphasise the fact they can keep costs low by buying in bulk, keeping the supply chain lean and not spending on marketing, the basic fact of the matter is that if we pay less for clothes, we can expect everyone in the supply chain to be paid less – including those who make them.

To add to the moral issues, many of these clothes are not made to last, and are intended as cheap, fast fashion to be replaced in a matter of weeks.

These clothes then get added to the tonnes of rubbish being sent to landfall.

The verdict

There is less of a grey area on this issue: if you want people to be paid a decent wage to make clothes, you have to pay a reasonable sum for the clothes themselves.

If that means you have to buy some second-hand or buy fewer, more expensive items, then that should be the kind of price most people can afford to pay.

Make no mistake, when we are seduced by cheap fashions and turn a blind eye to the lives of those who made them, we are making an unethical choice.

3. Buying yellow sticker food

Buying food in the reduced section of the supermarket has become mainstream practice, with bargain-hunters taking to online forums to boast about the huge sums they have saved, and share tips on the best times to find bargains at each store.

It’s not uncommon to see a lone supermarket employee with a yellow sticker gun being tailed by a handful of eager bargain hunters as they roam the fruit and veg section.

However, there are those who argue that when affluent middle class shoppers snap up everything they can get their hands on, buy in bulk, and freeze it to use later, they are depriving people who need these items in order to live.

The verdict

As ever in life, you can’t go too far wrong by being considerate, and not hogging the avocados.

However, that doesn’t mean anyone above the poverty line is being unethical by buying yellow sticker food.

When you are on a very low income, the yellow stickers definitely help.

However, they are not the only cheap options in the supermarket, so by picking up a discounted pork pie you’re only stopping someone else from having that particular pork pie: you’re not stopping them from eating.

It’s also worth bearing in mind what happens to any food that isn’t picked up by bargain-hunters.

In the minority of cases it will be donated to those who need it most, but most will go past its best before date and end up in the bin – which is hardy the most ethical answer either.

What do you think? Are any – or all – of these practices unethical in your view? Let me know in the comments section below.

More financial insights from loveMONEY:

How to make decent returns from ethical investments

Should we give everyone a basic income?

Couple's finance: how to avoid a massive row



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