WalmartWhen businesses do things that harm workers, the environment, or the health and safety of their consumers, we are justifiably outraged. But do the companies deserve all the blame?

Not necessarily.

In fact, our buying habits can actually drive companies to focus more on maximizing profits and less on making conscientious business decisions in order to remain competitive in the marketplace. When our shopping behavior rewards unethical business practices, the blame game becomes a lot less clear-cut.

Here are three ways customers may unwittingly foster unethical business practices.

1. Putting Price First

Low costs to consumers sometimes come at a cost. Walmart's (WMT) deep discounting strategy partially relies on its ability to minimize the cost of employee compensation. In fact, Walmart founder Sam Walton has been quoted as saying, "I pay low wages. I can take advantage of that. We're going to be successful, but the basis is a very low-wage, low-benefit model of employment."

How low are we talking? The average pay for "associates" is less than $12 per hour, which adds up to annual pay that is below the poverty line for a family of four. The company also does not provide health insurance plans to all of its employees -- and those who are covered have to pay a large percentage of their yearly pay in premiums and deductibles.

Consumers who put price first risk increasing the competitive advantage of businesses that fail to reinvest in the well-being of their employees, at the expense of supporting businesses that will not make such compromises.

2. Focusing on Looks

As consumers, we are drawn to food that looks fresh and healthy. The problem is that our beliefs about how food should look are sometimes misguided.

We want our poultry colored a light shade of pink, believing that the hue signifies freshness. However, one of the ways poultry businesses achieve that color is by routinely feeding arsenic to their animals. While it's not clear that the levels of arsenic remaining in our food harm us, this example illuminates how our expectations can lead us to make purchasing decisions that do not reflect our underlying desires.

Consider also our attraction to unblemished fruits and vegetables. In order to achieve that look without dramatically increasing labor costs (that are passed on to the consumer), farmers use pesticides to reduce pests' attacks on their crops. Some of these chemicals remain in our fruits and vegetables even after thorough washing. Peaches are especially vulnerable to pesticide retention, and some scientists worry that even low-level pesticide exposure can be dangerous to humans.

Aside from inspiring us to make purchasing decisions dangerous to our own health, our expectations about how food should look also contribute to massive waste, as food sellers throw away perfectly healthy food that consumers will not buy.

3. Making Uninformed Upgrades

It's easy to overlook the larger implications of each item in your shopping cart when you're standing in the checkout line. But failing to consider broader consequences of big purchases can lead to choices that have a significant, long-term negative impact on the world.

For example, in our haste to replace appliances, complete home improvement projects, or purchase new vehicles, we sometimes forget to consider how energy-efficient products can protect the environment while offering long-term cost savings. This lowers the incentive for businesses to develop and sell more environmentally sustainable alternatives.

Be a More Thoughtful Shopper

Consumers can encourage and support businesses to clean up their acts.

First, and most importantly, you can reward ethical companies with your business. Pay attention to whether the companies you shop at engage in activities you endorse.

Gallery: Consumer Confidence - Sites To Help You Vet The Stores You Shop
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For example, if you think employees should have health insurance, for example, that should make you feel a little better about paying a premium for your Starbucks (SBUX) beverage. If you want to minimize the amount of pesticide residue you ingest, consider turning to Whole Foods (WFM) or other stores offering organic produce.

Second, make concrete demands. If you are concerned that a company's practices violate the rights of consumers or other stakeholders, voice your concerns. If they fail to act on your concerns, you can put pressure on them by publicly exposing their harmful business practices to other consumers.

Are you a conscientious consumer?
How do your beliefs affect your consuming habits? Chime in below
.

Motley Fool contributor M. Joy Hayes, Ph.D. is the Principal at ethics consulting firm Courageous Ethics. She doesn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned. Follow @JoyofEthics on Twitter. The Motley Fool owns shares of Starbucks and Whole Foods. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Whole Foods and Starbucks, as well as creating a diagonal call position in Wal-Mart and writing covered calls on Starbucks.


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30 Comments

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Dee

like Ray replied I am amazed that a mother able to profit $4635 in 1 month on the computer. did you read this page NuttyRich.com

May 23 2012 at 12:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
democracks0

Evans a simpleton

May 22 2012 at 9:36 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Carol

I really don't know anyone who shops Walmart because they don't want better. The only people I know who shop at Walmart shop there because they can't afford to shop anywhere else. Whole Foods is a Great Store! However, those who shop there call it Whole Paycheck. As long as business concentrates all of its profits at the top, and earns those profits on the backs of those whose work actually earns the bucks, there will be a need for Walmart and others of that ilk. When your choice is between a potato from Walmart or no potato at all, guess which one most people will choose. This article smacks of Marie Antoinette reasoning, "The people have no bread? Well then, let them eat cake!" In a country where people are dying for lack of decent medical care, and starving for lack of the money for food, and homeless because of the refusal of business to create jobs, and poorly educated because of the refusal to support and pay for the best and brightest to enter the teaching profession, it is insulting to read an article telling people that it is their fault that their food is inferior because they don't pay a premium price.

May 22 2012 at 1:10 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Fran

Look at the Executive Salaries for these companies. No customers demanding reasonable(ish) prices and the things you are spending your hard earned money on to look good does not mean we are in any way responsible for their bad behavior. The whole "energy efficient" thing also goes back to price. With gigantic profits these companies report I can't buy it that they can't be "good" for both their employees and the environment without raising prices for customers. There is a lot of money spent in unnecessary place that could be redirected without raising the price that would be better for the employees and the environment. They just refuse to do that.

May 22 2012 at 1:09 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
elefa

Why would anyone think that they could or should be able to support a family of four working at Walmart? Or any other mass merchandice outlet, fast food restraunt, these are unskilled entry level jobs. Was the statement about the wage is below the poverty level for a family of four supposed to shock the reader? After learning a skill you move on to better paying jobs.

May 22 2012 at 12:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Susan

Hmm...I guess all these pesky facts get in the way of American's ability to make a good decision and to consume healthy foods. Who'd have ever thought that facts would be so abhorant to Americans? These uneducated, unhealthy people are disturbing because they are embracing ignorance and seem to be rejecting intelligence and education.

See in this article there are some facts put forward in an easy-to-read format that might give those on the Right a clue about how to be healthy and how help the environment. But oh, no! They're much happier living in their bitter little world, hating the man in the White House, and hating those who are smarter than they are.

Unbelievable.

May 22 2012 at 10:27 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Susan's comment
DANNY

Maybe you ought to start a business and employ several people and deal with the BS that is delivered by the Federal Government- Maybe you should fight with the "entitled" group that rip off the workers comp and cause a hassle to business owners- Maybe you are the ignorant and uneducated person who supports Obama and bash others who do not believe like you- Maybe you are not too damn smart yourself- Maybe you are some liberal, bleeding heart ass who should try to create jobs- Unbelievable

May 22 2012 at 3:10 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Susan

A totally intelligent article!!! Americans in general, are unwilling to accept personal resonsibility for their own behavior. For instance, fat, unhealthy Americans buy the worst food on the planet. They REFUSE to buy anything healthy because they resist 'anyone telling them what they can and cannot eat'. Fact is, they are responsible for their own health, and they are harming others. When they are willing to eat crap because it's cheap or because it's easy to prepare, they are dooming those of us who WANT to eat healthy. When these obese unhealthy people are driving the market, it makes it difficult for those of us who WANT healthy food, to convince grocers to stock it.

Now, I'm sure all the obese shoppers out there who resent anyone telling them that they're sick and that they're making bad choices are going to jump all over this. The truth is tough for those people to look at and obviously, a concept that they are unable to understand. To them, I say "go out there and git yerself a pile of colored, poison-filled meat, gmo veggies, and pesticide fruits". BUT be sure to pay your health insurance premiums. We are sick of paying for YOUR bad choices.

May 22 2012 at 10:16 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
crazy ray

Yes, and we're also responsible for robberies and burglaries and, oh yes, women are responsible for rape. And murders? We were asking for it, weren't we? Kidnappings? Sure, we worked for money and had kids so, sure, take them for ransom and kill them when they're done. It's not your fault. We're to blame. What a travesty of an article. An apologist for the author's own greed to get published and paid.

May 22 2012 at 9:53 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
cpo1514

Its PRICE PRICE PRICE Only Obama has the stupidity to keep financing failures with taxpayers money.

May 22 2012 at 8:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to cpo1514's comment
ohmyboehnertwo

CPO:.........WHO FUNDED BUSH'S TRILLION DOLLAR TAX CUTS?.........CHINA.

May 22 2012 at 9:59 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ohmyboehnertwo's comment
Jetncat

Obama because he extended them

May 22 2012 at 1:02 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down
ha6ai

Ms. Hayes is the new Bruce Watson.

America haters ("progressives") populate Obama-media.

Demonizing the "rich" (ya' know, they earn over $200,000/year) is a communist/fascist strategy. Their's is a "justifiable outrage"? The real outrage is the lies and evil propaganda by the Obama-media.

(Don't forget to feel guilty for searching for a good deal on your purchases! Communist price controls, limits on purchases, confiscatory taxes, and rationing income and health care is the socialist "fairness" nirvana.)

May 22 2012 at 3:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to ha6ai's comment
ohmyboehnertwo

MITT ROMNEY PAYED ONLY 13% IN TAXES, OBAMA PAYED 28% IN TAXES.

MITT ROMNEY=THE 1%
OBAMA=THE 99%

I WONDER IF OBAMA HAS A MILLION DOLLAR TRUST FUND FOR EACH OF HIS KIDS LIKE MITT ROMNEY DOES?

May 22 2012 at 9:39 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
4 replies to ohmyboehnertwo's comment
Susan

America haters? Really? The fact that the intelligent people want YOU to make better choices for YOUR own good makes those people 'America Haters'?

If you have so many facts, why don't you use them instead of spewing whatever Faux News told you to say today?

May 22 2012 at 10:18 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply