Be a Smarter Consumer in 2014

December 23, 2013

Denver Post and 55 other newspapers across the country

Being a better consumer is a little like ordering a better cup of coffee — the more you know, the more complicated it is. That doesn’t mean it has to be difficult, and it shouldn’t deter you, either.

Knowing what you’re looking for means having priorities, and we don’t always take the time to sit down as consumers and think about what our priorities are. With that in mind, we’ll take a quick look at some things you as a consumer can use as your rubric for a new plan in 2014.

Price is one thing, of course, but there are those who say you get what you pay for. Do you consider sourcing or buying local to be important? If so, you may find yourself sacrificing some convenience. Or perhaps style is your guiding principle — outta the way, cost and conscience!

In truth, you can care about it all, but there will always be trade-offs. Which values will drive your purchases in the new year?

Whatever it is, there are strategies and tools you’ll want to employ, and we’ll provide examples the way all personal-finance people do. 

Sourcing and materials

The skinny:

Was your car made in America? If it was, how much of it was? Did the components of your smartphone come from mines or factories with bad human-rights records?

High-profile sweat-shop disasters in recent years — nearly 300 dead at a garment factory fire in Karachi, Pakistan, and more than 1,000 dead in a factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to name just two — have caused more concern for just where our stuff comes from and why it’s so cheap sometimes.

“I don’t think anybody is intentionally looking to consume pesticides, but people are doing it without regard for the fact that they are, simply because of price,” says David Corsun, director of the Knoebel School of Hospitality Management at the University of Denver.

“There’s also sociocultural sustainability,” he says. “There are places in the world where things are produced at the expense of those who live there. That’s not such a good thing.”

Labels — indicating that a product is organic or brought to market via fair trade — can be great, or they can be deceiving. If you’re making sourcing and materials major pillars of your consumer lifestyle, you should understand what the labels mean, specifically. Sometimes there’s a dispute over what they should mean, and sometimes there’s a change.

On food products, a USDA “organic” seal means it “has 95 percent or more organic content.”

The website lists other ways — “free-range,” “natural,” “humane” — that foods can be labeled and what they mean. From the “natural” section: “There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.” Hm, did you pay extra for the “natural” juice this morning?

The tools:

Labels and tags are a nice starting point, but this is one area in which you’ll have to do a lot of your own homework.

“The choices one makes are really dependent on how educated the consumer is,” Corsun says.

For example, it’s great to know which foods are in season when.

“When raspberries go on sale at the height of the season, if organics are important to you, you may stock up and freeze your own,” he says.

Research online is important, too, Corsun says.

“Online is a great resource, but even there you have to be judicious,” he says. Corsun says that people are prone to finding information that confirms their suspicions and biases, and that a more rounded search, including seeking out information that specifically disagrees with what you suspect, can be beneficial.