03/08/2017 08:39 BST | Updated 03/08/2017 08:39 BST

How Easy Is It To Be An Ethical Consumer?

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As consumers, our purchases have a significant impact on the world around us - but it's not always positive.

One of the biggest ways we can influence change is by "voting with our wallets" and making more ethical decisions about what we buy. Being an ethical consumer means choosing products and services that don't harm people, animals or the environment, but how easy is it to do?

The internet has made it easier than ever for us to stay up to speed with ethical issues and access practically endless amounts of information about the ethical credentials of our favourite brands, but that still doesn't mean it's easy to be an ethical consumer.

The demand for ethical products is rising, with Ethical Consumer finding that the value of all ethical spending in the UK grew by 8.5% to £38 billion in 2015.

According to their report, "53% of the UK population are choosing to avoid buying products and/or services over concerns about ethical reputation".

Consumers are clearly becoming more ethically focused and brands are responding to this - but unfortunately their claims don't always match up to their behaviour.

"Greenwashing" is a form of spin where companies claim to be more environmentally friendly than they really are by using 'green' marketing messages without the practices to back them up. As the demand for ethical practices has increased, greenwashing has also spread to labour practices and other ethical issues.

Greenwashing isn't new - the US Federal Trade Commission issued their first "Green Guide" in 1992 to provide general principles and guidance on green marketing claims and how brands can back these up.

Even when you do find an ethical brand to buy from, it's not always a straightforward decision because there's so many different issues to consider.

Martin Luther King famously said "Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you've depended on more than half the world", which also means that before you've finished eating breakfast, you've probably faced a host of ethical dilemmas.

For example, if you want to support Fair Trade your produce might clock up more air miles to get to you than something grown locally - making it less environmentally friendly.

Doing your research is key to being an ethical consumer and starting with small steps is important to avoid getting overwhelmed.

Becoming a more "conscious consumer" won't happen overnight, but by starting with products you use every day, researching the impact of your shopping habits and making small changes, we all have the power to make a big impact.

Start looking into where your food and drink comes from and dig deeper into what the industry may be doing behind the scenes. You might be shocked to find that your morning cup of coffee comes from farm workers working in inhumane conditions in order to cut costs.

As you start to uncover sweatshops, underpaid workers, child labour or pollution, among many other issues, also research the solutions.

Fair Trade, organic production (to keep workers safe from harmful chemicals) and social enterprise models where profits are invested in social impact projects are just some of the solutions that can allow you to switch to more ethical products.

Unfortunately, prioritizing one ethical concern may mean you have to compromise on another, so you'll need to decide which issues are most important to you. Then start investigating your favourite brands' stance on the important issues.

If you're lucky, they'll hold the same values as you and will have already adopted ethical practices. If not, it might be time to swap. Don't be afraid to question them either. How brands respond can tell you a lot - a truly ethical brand won't be scared to be transparent.

Learn about the 7 sins of greenwashing so you know what to look out for and if you do have to turn your back on a favourite brand, politely tell them why you're leaving. With enough customer feedback and demand they might just be persuaded to change their ways.

Being an ethical consumer isn't always easy. It takes time to research the different issues and find ethical brands to buy from and it can be more expensive (although an ethically-made t-shirt will definitely last longer than one that cost the same as a cup of coffee!), but the more consumer demand for ethical products there is, the more companies will respond to it.

Take small steps every day and they'll soon add up to a big impact. If we all do the same, companies will be forced to adopt more ethical practices. As consumers we need to hold brands accountable by voting with our wallets.