Responsible Shopping During Covid-19?
April 13, 2020 12:51 PM   Subscribe

What is the most responsible / ethical way to purchase things during the pandemic?

For the past four weeks, I haven't been buying anything besides the bare minimum to feed myself. As the reality of a long term shelter-in-place/quarantine sets in, how do I make purchases most ethically and responsibly?

I am located in San Francisco, CA. I am not concerned as much about my own health or those in my immediate household (healthy, young adults) as much as acting in a way that would be best for everyone. I have been mildly sick in the past few weeks with what could be a cold and/or allergies. I'm aware that I'm in a very privileged position.

I would like to buy clothing (e.g. tights), household supplies (e.g. lightbulbs, eventually paper towels/toilet paper), produce, non-produce grocery (e.g. soy sauce, meat, flour), and miscellaneous non-essential hobby items (e.g. fabric). Previously, I would have bought these things between Amazon, our local grocery stores (2Xcorner stores, Safeway), Target, and boutique specialty stores (e.g. fabric store), driven mostly by convenience.

How should my behavior change, now? For example, is it better to order stuff via Amazon, and group items as much as possible so there are as few deliveries as possible? Is it better to go into a physical store (i.e. Target), so that I'm supporting a physical store and not increasing the demand for delivery workers? I signed up for Imperfect Produce. Is it better to sign up for a CSA, instead? Is it better to support my local grocery, instead (though their stock is... not great)?
posted by wym to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Since you're a little sick (and since COVID symptoms vary), if you think there's any chance you could have it, I think it would be best to shop online. If you do go in person, definitely wear a mask! For delivery, yes, try to get as much as possible in one order, though everywhere I've looked has been out of paper towels, etc, and it may end up coming in multiple shipments anyway. Re your local grocery versus Imperfect vs a CSA, I think it's sort of tossup...any of those options have some benefits.
posted by pinochiette at 1:07 PM on April 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't think there's a perfect solution here, but these are some factors you might want to consider in your personal calculus.

If you are presently sick, don't go out at all if you can help it. Get delivery or ask a friend or roommate to shop for you if at all possible. When you are able to go out, take all appropriate precautions -- wear a mask, wash hands, keep distance, etc.

Where possible, keep your money local. Spend at the places you hope will be around in three, or six, or eighteen months when this is all over -- your support may be part of what makes their continued existence possible. In my area (and perhaps in yours) almost all the local businesses that are still open are offering contactless pickup. So, for instance, you may still be able to shop at your regular fabric store and corner stores with little risk to you or those who work there.

For food, a CSA is great if that's a workable option for you. In general, a much larger proportion of what you spend on a CSA will go into the farmer's pocket. Be aware that demand for CSAs is through the roof right now (as people rediscover the importance of a resilient regional food system), so you may may have to act fast.

There's some stuff that's almost impossible to get outside of Amazon or a big box. I'm not really sure what's the most ethical choice there, but I'd say -- pay attention to what these companies are doing to protect their workers. Are they providing PPE (and/or allowing folks to wear their own PPE)? Some places aren't. Are there currently any labor disputes happening? Are they giving hazard pay?
posted by ourobouros at 1:10 PM on April 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

FYI the "imperfect produce movement" potentially cuts into the foodbanks' supply of produce.
posted by oceano at 1:15 PM on April 13, 2020 [5 favorites]

P.S. If there's a local fabric shop that will ship to you, that would be a good option- maybe Britex?
posted by pinochiette at 1:20 PM on April 13, 2020

For nonperishable grocery items and all other non-food items I like to shop eBay. I can often get used or open box items for cheaper than new and items are often shipped in reused packaging. For clothing items you can also try an online thrift store like thredup.
posted by mezzanayne at 1:21 PM on April 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Honestly, I really don't know what the right answer is. For me, I ended up coming down on the side of grocery delivery for a few reasons. First, the fewer random people there are in the store seems likely to be safer for everyone, including delivery people. Second, if someone is doing shopping for others during this time, it's likely they really need the money so it's better for me to support them with a much larger tip than to leave them without work. Third, anything I can do to limit the spread, especially if I might be at risk (asthma) is better for the healthcare system as a whole, including people who again might be stuck working at this time. Yes, I know this is a statement of privilege, but also I want to use that as best I can.

For other things, I'm trying to avoid buying things I don't absolutely need and plan to do pickup from places like Target if possible when we get to the bottom of TP and cat food.
posted by past unusual at 1:24 PM on April 13, 2020 [4 favorites]

For non-essential items: I’ve been trying to do curbside shopping from local stores as much as I can, because I want to support them and I feel that it helps to cut down in non-essential work for mail carriers. Obviously I’m as safe as I can be and maintain distance, wear mask and gloves, etc when I walk or drive to pick up the items. Getting alcohol delivered straight to my car trunk and buying a painting from a local art boutique (the store owner delivered it to my porch) have been two highlights of the pandemic for me personally. Oh and since you mention Target, FYI Target does have drive up service available through the Target app.
posted by areaperson at 1:30 PM on April 13, 2020

Best answer: This recent question on delivery versus going to a store may be of interest to you. (I just spent hours trying to get a grocery delivery set up. I'm immunocompromised, and I appreciate it when the healthier people go into stores. Delivery demand seems to be much greater than supply, so people who are elderly, sick, or disabled have a tough time getting someone to deliver.)
posted by FencingGal at 1:30 PM on April 13, 2020 [10 favorites]

Honestly with the difficulty of getting grocery and regular goods right now, any way you can shop that limits your contact with others especially when sick or potentially sick is the right answer. For example I have a local version of Imperfect (Misfits Market), and while I'd love to do the local CSA, Misfits delivers and I'd have to go out to pick up the CSA box.
posted by DoubleLune at 1:32 PM on April 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think this is not the time to buy non-essentials. I've bought only groceries and medication since going into hiding. I don't think ordering online or curbside pick-up somehow make it ok to order non-essentials since those things also require people to go to work. I want as many people as possible sitting at home instead of going to work. Essential meaning things like food, drink, medication and things like urgent home-repair (but not home improvement).

For those things that are essential, what you want is as few unique-contacts happening as possible (i.e. think of every unique-pair of person coming into contact). It seems to me that that's accomplished by coming as close to a warehouse-based system (as opposed to retail) as possible. So how to accomplish that gets tricky, but I think going into a retail store and shopping is generally the worst option. Online ordering with delivery via courier/delivery service is probably best, but then I'm not sure if you're better off going with one-all-service site or with a specialized online store, which would have far fewer employees in its warehouse. And of course, Amazon is likely an unethical employer valuing its profits over employee health, so if you decide big-one-stop-shop is better, it would likely be better find a non-amazon one-stop-shop.

Given that I think there would be far less spread if everyone were ordering groceries online, I think instacart use is A-ok. If everyone were using instacart (and instacart had such capacity), it would basically turn supermarkets into warehouses, which I think is ideal. Obviously recognize the inequality inherent in who is using istacart and who is shopping for instacart and tip very generously.

Given that you can't get ALL your food from a CSA but could get it all from a supermarket, I would go supermarket for CSA.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 2:01 PM on April 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

"I think this is not the time to buy non-essentials. I've bought only groceries and medication since going into hiding."

I am actually making a specific effort to buy non-essentials right now from my local shops, because I want them to survive. Everybody has to buy groceries, everybody doesn't have to buy music and art and books and clothes and all the other things I can get from my Main Street mom&pops. I want to shop with them as much as I can right now (curbside pickup or porch delivery) to help them stay afloat while their foot traffic is eliminated.
posted by mccxxiii at 2:18 PM on April 13, 2020 [38 favorites]

I am actually making a specific effort to buy non-essentials right now from my local shops, because I want them to survive.

I am aware of this view. And I am sad that so many businesses will not survive. But I'm more concerned with people surviving than businesses, even mom and pop businesses. All those people going to work instead of staying home increase the amount of contagion. I don't mean to minimize the suffering that economic hardship brings. I know it is deep and real, but I feel like the suffering brought by death is deeper.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 2:26 PM on April 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I’d like to encourage you to get whatever you can from independent online stores, whether that’s Etsy or freestanding. A lot of people depend on their shops to survive.
posted by MexicanYenta at 2:26 PM on April 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Mod note: Folks, please answer the OPs question and don't get in the weeds arguing with one another, ethics is tricky.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:32 PM on April 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I asked a question about grocery shopping that you might be interested in, though I know your question is much broader than food: What’s the most ethical way to get groceries delivered right now?

For me, for non-food purchases, I’ve been buying from smaller companies who have specifically emailed me asking customers to keep buying their products (e.g. I bought a backpack from Peak Design recently, I don’t need it at the moment but I’ve been saving up for it so when they emailed about a sale it made sense to me to get it now). It’s imperfect, but I’ve decided to shop places that will ship through UPS, FedEx, or USPS because I feel like those employees are better able to be protected from the general public than delivery services through Amazon, Shipt, or Instacart. If I can, I will do curbside pickup. We are ordering from local restaurants once a week because they all seem to want that to happen and we are tipping as much as we can.

I’ve also keep an eye out in our local papers for profiles of small businesses who are struggling right now and I have been checking the Instagram pages of places I normally frequent to see if they’re offering alternatives. For example, it turns out a lot of local farms are going to offer online ordering instead of going to the farmer’s market, so I got on the waiting list for one that will offer a contactless pickup. I’ve found these stories usually talk about what business owners want to happen or the Instagram pages might offer something I can do to support them. Like, I found out that my hair stylist is doing video consultations to walk people through cutting their own hair right now.

I am also giving myself room for non-essential items too on a limited basis. I want to practice social distancing for as long as I can and I think that denying myself any novelty is going to make it harder to do that and preserve my mental health. I try to not let perfect be the enemy of good when it comes to shopping as ethically as I can — like the backpack I bought was definitely not a necessity but it brought some joy into our house when it arrived.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 3:39 PM on April 13, 2020 [7 favorites]

Sidenote: Amazon is so “bought out “right now, that it’s also pretty much impossible to “bundle “your deliveries in the few boxes. The exception might be Amazon pantry. I’ve been lurking on Amazon trying to fill in some gaps, and everything is all over the place. My usual techniques for putting something in my cart and shipping them by group in minimal boxes is shot to hell.
posted by tilde at 6:56 PM on April 13, 2020

Best answer: I would avoid Amazon because they are actively endangering their workers. Safeway is local, unionized and delivers. We are buying a lot of groceries (cooking way more) but limiting trips to the store.

I am also buying non essentials from the small neighborhood businesses that have figured out a curbside system.

I have also made a trip to the hardware store.

Don't go out until you're free of symptoms though.
posted by latkes at 8:54 PM on April 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

We gave up on being able to find an open grocery delivery slot and joined some meal kit subscription services instead.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:22 AM on April 15, 2020

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses, all. I've been going in circles in my head and your answers have helped me articulate a few different threads and get a better sense of where my priorities are. I've marked a few best answers for what was most helpful for me to consider, personally, but obviously the situation is different for everyone, and we're all just doing the best we can.

Thanks again, and stay safe.
posted by wym at 1:15 PM on April 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

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