Do You Pity Shop?

Originally published by Alden Wicker on EcoCult


It’s a thin, blurry line between shopping consciously, and pity shopping.

I bet if you’re reading this blog, you’ve pity shopped before. That Fair Trade bracelet that you never wear. The ill-fitting charity t-shirt. The expensive vegan handbag that fell apart after four months.

Actually, I think everyone has pity shopped, starting with the first time you bought a sorry looking cupcake at a bake sale that was raising money for a good cause. You ruined your diet, and it didn’t even taste that good, but you wanted to help out. Not a huge deal, really, that one cupcake.

But when you get into the world of sustainable and ethical consumption, pity shopping becomes a big, expensive problem. I’m an enthusiastic proponent of buying as sustainably and ethically as possible. My every purchase is carefully considered, and I spend an inordinate amount of time fretting over how to avoid buying something that is manufactured in China, or made from toxic ingredients. I also get very excited when I see a sustainable fashion item.


It’s true that you can get a lot of things in the sustainable version, whether it’s made with natural materials, benefits artisans in a developing country, or is just pre-worn. But you can’t get everything that way.

And that is where I trip up. Over the past five years, I have found myself in possession of a whole suitcase worth of pity purchases, including unflattering clothing, poorly constructed accessories, and ineffective beauty products, just because they were sustainable in some way! I would never have paid money for it, had I not been blinded by its ethical qualities. I would have looked at it and thought, “Meh, not for me.” Instead, I plunked down my credit card and brought it home.

Then it sat in my closet, barely used, until I finally faced the truth that I’m just never going to wear it. So I regretfully take it to the consignment store or Goodwill. Even worse is when I get the eco-friendly version, decide I hate it, get rid of it, and wind up getting the conventional version after all!

Don’t be fooled: Pity purchasing is not sustainable. If you purchase a sustainable item, and then never use it, you are being wasteful. That sustainable item is not zero impact, it’s just less impact than the conventional item. It had to be transported to you somehow. Electricity was involved in its manufacture. The fabric is organic, but the zipper is not.

Feeling altruistic about buying an eco-friendly item that you don’t need or want is like smearing peanut butter on a celery stick and thinking the calories balance each other out. Yes, it’s healthier than a peanut butter fudge brownie. But it still possesses calories.


The first guideline for living sustainably is simply consuming less. Buying the sustainable version is way down on the list, after borrowing it, making it, and buying it used.

Don’t get me wrong. I wholeheartedly support labels and brands and companies who are breaking the mold and doing things differently. Especially ones that are making products that are just as beautiful, just as durable, just as effective as their conventional counterparts. That’s what EcoCult is all about! And on a scale of 1 to wasteful, pity shopping is way better than impulse shopping and buying a bunch of conventional clothing that you don’t want or need.

But an important part of being sustainable is knowing yourself, your wants, your needs, and your style. It’s saying, “I love what you’re doing, but it’s not right for me.” (Which I do all the time.) It’s looking past the eco-friendly label and thinking about whether you actually will use it.


One great trick I use is to ask myself the question: “Would I buy this ‘eco-friendly’ item if I didn’t care about sustainability?” If the answer is yes, then ding! ding! ding! You have found a winner. Oftentimes, though, you’ll realize that it’s not very attractive, or well-made, or tasty. In that case, I give you permission to not buy it.

I even give you permission to buy the conventional version if:

a. You’ve done your research

b. You haven’t found a viable alternative, and

c. You’re going to love it and use it for years to come.

That still counts as conscious consumerism, so don’t feel guilty about it! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some eco-friendly clothing to take to the consignment store.

Have you ever pity shopped? Tell me about it in the comments! 

EcoCult's Editor-in-Chief, Alden Wicker, has become the voice of New Yorkers eager to break the stereotypes about eco-friendly living and prove that living consciously can be beautiful, fun, and desirable. Her work has been published in Well + Good, Refinery 29, xoJane, Huffington Post, EcoSalon, LearnVest, Forbes, Smart Planet,Yahoo!, Narratively, and Elephant Journal.


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