Skip to content

How to teach kids to be ethical consumers as adults

Kate Hughes
Written by  Kate Hughes
Vanessa Tsai
Reviewed by  Vanessa Tsai
10 min read
Updated: 06 Dec 2023

This Christmas will be an ethical Christmas.

Or so says the determined and growing army of charities, campaigners and even personal finance experts urging us to be more careful with our cash, other people and the world’s finite resources.  

As the planet heats up, weather becomes more extreme, biodiversity plummets and the hyperconnected world we live in offers up a bird’s eye view of real life around the world, the business of buying as before – the way most of us interact with and influence the world around us – is clearly no longer an option. 

In fact, despite Covid restrictions and a cost of living crisis, research by campaign group and publisher Ethical Consumer found that spending on ethical products rose by almost 35% in 2021 (the latest figures available). 

“Awareness of climate and environmental issues amongst consumers is greater than it has ever been,” said Cathryn Higgs, Head of Environment, Sustainability and Policy at Co-op, in response to the findings.  

“How and where shoppers spend their money really does make a difference, and it is imperative that consumers are left in no doubt that their actions have a part to play in creating a natural environment we are proud to pass on to future generations.”

Win-win

The ethical, environmental movement is already being championed by thousands of kids across the world. But there’s also plenty of evidence that when children learn other life skills like basic personal finance, the knowledge, tips and insights they take home can bolster entire families with real, tangible and long-term results.  

Here then, is a chance to fight back: to empower and support children and young adults to create global change through their approach to everyday activities, from cooking to clothes shopping. Not to mention, it can maybe even save us a few pounds in the process.

Dad gardening with daughter

Start at the beginning 

Ethical consumption is all about engaging with – such as buying, consuming, endorsing or signing up for – products and businesses that fit with what we think is right. And only with them.  

Many of us think that ethical is only really focused on environmental fears, but the ethical label also covers social issues and corporate governance or behaviour. 

Whether your focus is human or animal rights, companies paying the right taxes or averting climate and human catastrophe, your spending power – essentially, an investment in a product, service, individual or business – can help support those whose approach you agree with. What’s more, it helps to send a clear message to those you don’t.  

For example, you might choose one brand of teabags over another because they treat their staff well, pay them a living wage, their products don’t contain plastic, and they’re organic.  

Or you could buy vintage or second hand clothes, furniture, toys or books because of your concerns around resources and the polluting and exploitative impact of a whole raft of new products. 

Meanwhile, you might switch your bank account or pension to a provider that doesn’t invest in fossil fuels (note: there aren’t many). 

Clearly, ethical consuming covers everything we buy and every service we sign up for all the time – which can be overwhelming for adults, let alone kids.  

Tash Bell, a fashion upcycling expert and author of the Swish, currently works with groups including the Guides and Rangers.  

She says we need to ease children and teens into the subject gently, and not to scare them – not least because many are already fearful. A new study from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health shows that widespread concerns over climate change mean 75% of young people around the world describe the future as ‘frightening’, and more than half feel humanity is doomed.

“Introducing the idea of consuming ethically has to be empowering above all,” she says. “Most of us feel like we can’t do anything about the injustices we see in the world, and children, especially teenagers, often feel like they have very little control over their own lives and decision-making anyway.

“I’d start by talking through how our money and how we decide to spend it can and does make a difference when it is all added up. Find out what values and causes are most important to them and how they can act to support those causes. Finally, make them part of your household’s decision-making.”

Look for the labels

An easy place to start could be the local supermarket. Ask children to look out for labels such as Fairtrade, organic and free range. Be ready with your phone to explore what they mean, then help the child or teen weigh up the pros and cons of one product over another based on what matters most to them. 

Encouraging the child to find recipes and help prepare meals that reduce waste and save you money will help on the cash front, too. 

Once you’ve delved into one aspect of consumption, like food, you can think about moving onto the next using the same approach.  

Buying ethically goes hand in hand with not buying ethically, too. Overconsumption is a vast problem: for example, Brits bin the largest number of electrical items in the world while buying 28 new items of clothing every year, according to sustainability charity WRAP. 

When it comes to goods, ask the child or children if your household can borrow or rent what you need before defaulting to a buy. And if an item must be bought, can it be second-hand – saving everyone money? Finally, if a new purchase is unavoidable, can you pay out once for a good quality item produced by an organisation with real ethical credentials rather than forking out several times for a cheap version that fails?  

Involve your child in the hunt for items you need locally, seek out second-hand online or in charity shops, and discuss what the potentially cost savings from buying nearly new, renting, borrowing and not buying at all could mean for your household in age-relevant terms – especially if the money saved can be put towards an exciting experience or time together, rather than yet another purchase.

Small change, big impact

“Teens in particular are keen to be part of a tribe,” Bell adds. “So making changes needs to be done gradually and positively – with a good crowd around them.  

“Introduce new habits bit by bit, pitching one change at a time while continuing to explore how doing a little can make a big difference. If we’re trying to help children because ethical consumers as adults, we need to lead by example. Make changes into habits you can all sustain long-term and don’t worry about being perfect – all any of us can do is try hard and consistently.  

“An ethical family life won’t work if you just preach at them, she adds. “You have to inspire them.”   

Luckily, social media is awash with young and not-so-young people documenting their own ethical journeys as well as guides on everything from upcycling to food waste tips.  

And with ethics now part of the school curriculum, there’s a growing bank of useful material you can use to help your child if you need something a bit more structured.  

For example, global charity Save the Children recently teamed up with learning resource provider Twinkl to offer free downloads for parents, carers and kids about the ethics of buying and selling. BBC bitesize has produced a series of digestible articles, vlogs and videos, as well as full length programmes on the subject, such as this one aimed at GCSE students. Education specialist, Tes, has similar subject material aimed at schools and teachers.   

Meanwhile, Ethical Consumer has an easy to digest YouTube channel that can help guide viewers through the potential maze of issues, challenges and opportunities to make a difference as consumers of any age.