Should You Feel Bad Shopping for Non-Essential Items Right Now?

If you've never thought about the ethics of your purchases as a consumer, now is the time to start.

Now that we’re several weeks into the novel coronavirus pandemic and spending all of our time at home, we’re settling into our new quarantine routines. At this point, we know what we need to run our households: food, toilet paper (or a bidet), the Internet, cleaning, and personal hygiene products—you know, the essentials. But what about other things that aren’t crucial right now? For example, that new pair of sneakers you’ve had your eye on, or framed art for your living room wall, or a few small succulents to spruce up your place. Are you supporting the economy with your purchases, taking delivery services away from those who need lifesaving essentials, or unnecessarily putting workers at risk? This is where things get complicated. Being an ethical consumer during the coronavirus outbreak isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem. Here’s what you should consider when it comes to purchasing non-essential items right now.

What items are considered essential?

Before we go any further, it’s a good idea to take a look at what, exactly, we consider essential items. Most people can probably agree that things like food, medicine, basic household items, and cleaning products that kill coronavirus are essential, but what about something you need for a hobby—like yarn for knitting, paints for crafts, or jigsaw puzzles? “A hobby might be considered incredibly helpful to someone suffering stress and anxiety, so for that person, are hobby supplies essential? They could convincingly say yes,” Don Heider, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, tells Reader’s Digest.

That said, some items are truly non-essential, no matter how you look at it. And if you’re tempted to panic-buy shaving cream or you’re just bored and want to buy new throw pillows, you might want to think twice about your purchases. “People should not order things they don’t truly need,” Dania Rajendra, director of ATHENA, a coalition of 52 organizations that closely scrutinizes Amazon’s business practices, told CNN. “It’s true that people are risking their health and their family’s health to make sure consumers have what they need, so shoppers should remember this and only buy something if it’s important.”

Are you putting someone at risk by purchasing these items?

For those who want to order non-essential items and have them delivered to their doorsteps, it’s important to think about who made the goods they are purchasing. “Many goods were manufactured before the pandemic hit, so purchasing now may offer no additional risk to workers,” Heider explains. The delivery process, however, is a different story. Amazon employees in Staten Island, New York, recently went on strike to protest the “current lack of protective measures” for workers. And given that the demand for delivery is higher now than usual and facilities are busier, more shipping employees are interacting with one another—something that isn’t ideal during a pandemic.

Ronnie Stutts, president of the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association, told the Huffington Post that customers should demonstrate “common sense” about what comprises an essential package right now. “The key [question] here is: Do I really need it, or do I just want something that I want right now?” Stutts says. If it’s the latter, he suggests holding off for now.

But according to Heider, since states and many municipalities have determined that delivery services like the USPS, UPS, and FedEx are essential services, they have, in a way, helped us make our decision. “A judgment has already been made by officials—with the help of health care providers—as to the safety of having folks make deliveries, and if you think about how deliveries are made, it now involves little human contact,” he says. “So with little or no human contact, is ordering something putting anyone at risk?”

Here’s what you need to know about disinfecting your packages and mail.

Is your purchase helping the economy?

In addition, Heider urges consumers to think about whether any non-essential items they want to purchase could have an impact on the economy. “If we all stop purchasing things, we may be participating in cutting people off from employment, putting employers at risk, and jeopardizing the future of businesses,” he says. “Purchasing things, essential or non-essential, will help keep people employed, help keep the economy strong, and allow people to pay rent and buy groceries themselves.”

Meanwhile, Nicole Hassoun, PhD, a professor of philosophy at Binghamton University, says that the real problem is that we really don’t know which products to purchase. “Many people who can do so are making an effort to keep local businesses alive in ways that minimize the transmission of disease (e.g., by purchasing gift certificates from businesses that will reopen eventually), but it is hard to support farmers who are producing many of our products abroad without purchasing the things they make now,” she tells Reader’s Digest. “I would just encourage people to take seriously the need to support those in need, understanding as much as they can about the likely economic consequences, as well as direct health effects, of their decisions.”

How soon do you need these items?

One way people can minimize potential harm from non-essential purchases right now is by choosing no-rush delivery from Amazon or wherever you’re making your purchases. This allows companies to prioritize essential items, getting them out to the people who need them most. That, in itself, can be a helpful test to determine what is truly essential: If you’re able to live without this purchase for a while, you may be able to hold off for even longer, until the pandemic eases up a bit.

So you don’t need to order quite as frequently, learn these 14 ways to make your coronavirus stockpile last longer.

There is rarely an easy answer

As great as it would be to definitively say that making non-essential purchases during the coronavirus pandemic is either ethical or unethical, it’s not that simple. Instead, Heider says that consumers need to think through the potential consequences of each purchase, asking themselves questions, including: Could this decision or situation be damaging to someone or to some group? Does this decision involve a choice between a good and bad alternative, or perhaps between two “goods” or between two “bads”? What are the relevant facts I need to know? Can I learn more about the situation? Do I know enough to make a decision?

Ultimately, making an ethical decision as a consumer is all about weighing potential benefits and harms. “We all want people to avoid COVID-19 and stay healthy for their sake as well as ours,” explains Thomas G. Plante, PhD, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and Stanford University. “But we also need to survive and consider our physical and mental health, as well as keeping people employed. And so we have to balance these challenges to secure the best outcomes of health and safety, but keep sane and financially secure, too.”

For more on this developing situation, including how people are staying safe and sane, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

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Elizabeth Yuko
Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer specializing in health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University and has written for print and online publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Salon and Playboy, and has given a TEDX talk on The Golden Girls and bioethics.