Is it OK to buy things you want but don't need during coronavirus? Harvard and MIT ethics profs weigh in


As Americans become accustomed to shelter-in-place guidelines, many people who still have disposable income are tempted to shop online not only for groceries but also for less essential goods. 

For example, hair coloring sales are up 20.2% from what they were at this time last year, according to Nielsen data. Wayfair saw an uptick in office furniture sales, CNBC reports. And jigsaw puzzle sales have increased 370% year over year for the past two weeks, game maker Ravensburger told CNBC

But the decision to order goods you don't absolutely need can feel plagued with ethical quandaries. Experts have said consumers need to shop in order to stimulate the economy, aid struggling businesses, and keep workers from even more layoffs. However, news that warehouse, retail, and delivery workers are not being provided with the right personal protective equipment (PPE) raises questions of whether ordering inessentials like books, toys, or clothing is worth it if it could mean putting someone in danger.

The dilemma becomes, "Do I try to protect the health of delivery people or do I protect their livelihood?" says Tamar Schapiro, an ethics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And, she says, there may not be enough public information available about how workers are being treated for you to make an informed decision. 

Plus, in general, "individuals can only do so much," says Thomas Scanlon, a philosophy and ethics professor at Harvard University and the author of the book "What We Owe to Each Other." "A justifiable policy requires some form of government-provided income support for those who lose out in this way," he says. 

Still, following certain guidelines can help you be a more considerate consumer during these complicated times, these experts say.

Check whether a company is providing PPE

Some shoppers worry about supporting a company that's not treating its workers well, which these days can mean providing them with the equipment and breaks they need to take care of their health. "We should think about why consumers are finding this question plopped on their plate," Schapiro says. "It shouldn't be the responsibility of consumers to try to protect the health and livelihood of workers."

Instead of grappling with the question of whether your individual order could put someone else in danger, check news reports and press releases for the company you are ordering from. That can help you see if it is providing its employees with the proper safety equipment or taking other precautions to reduce the risks to workers.

How to help local businesses during coronavirus

Video by Courtney Stith

For example, workers at FedEx and UPS have said they are starting to receive masks and gloves, according to an NBC News article from last week. And some businesses that mainly deal in nonessential goods, including Gap, Carter's, and Sephora, have alerts on their site notifying shoppers of shipping delays due to precautions meant to keep workers safe.

This concern could also prompt or remind you to spend money buying from local businesses instead. "In the case of a local business that one is familiar with, one may have good reason to believe that the risk to their employees is small, in which case ordering nonessentials would seem fine, even a good thing to do," Scanlon says.  

See if the shipper is prioritizing orders

Try to order from companies which are prioritizing essential goods over nonessential goods, Schapiro says. For example, Amazon said it will deliver health care and household cleaning items before nonessential purchases.

"If a company is not prioritizing essentials, that might give me a good reason to not order," Schapiro says. "I want to make sure my neighbor is getting diapers for her baby before I get my nice serving bowl." 

More ways to be considerate and ethical while spending 

Although it's hard to keep normal shopping habits when your day-to-day life has changed drastically, Schapiro says it's helpful to maintain the same budget as best you can. Try not to stray too far from your usual expenses. For example, if this is the time you usually buy your summer clothes, don't hesitate to do that. Or if you allow yourself to go to a restaurant once a week, continue to order takeout once a week. 

"It might be paternalistic to decide on [a delivery worker's] behalf to not order the things we would otherwise order," Schapiro says. 

Another spending habit that can benefit others is continuing to pay those who are usually on your payroll, Scanlon suggests. "If one can afford it, one can pay those who would have provided services even if they are not doing so, or pay now for services to be provided in future."

For example, if you usually employ a housecleaner but want to halt the service while shelter-in-place guidelines persist, continue to pay them as long as that remains feasible. Or if you get your hair colored once every two months, pay your colorist now and schedule an appointment for when restrictions lift. That way you can safely and ethically supply income, he says, without requiring someone to travel to your home and risk their health.

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