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Shoppers Buying Peace of Mind

No longer does Jennifer Stelly push a metal shopping cart down supermarket aisles. Instead, she carries a reusable bag to pick out produce - all grown organically by local farmers - in the three rows at the Central City Co-Op in Montrose.

"Generally speaking, I absolutely refuse to shop at Wal-Mart and I always try to go just as local as possible. ... I try to stay away from corporate America as much as possible," said Stelly, who quit her engineering job four years ago to open an energy-medicine business.

Stelly said she prefers family-owned businesses to chain stores. She and friends purchase wholesale natural and organic products from a buying club that provides free shipping if they purchase more than $250 worth.

She is one of a growing number of consumers who have altered their shopping habits on the basis of their politics, moral and ethical beliefs, as well as concerns about human-rights or free-trade grounds.

Known commonly as moral purchasing or ethical consumerism, the practice involves buying things that are made without harm or exploitation of animals, laborers or the environment.

Voting with their feet

Some, like Stelly, prefer to shop at area businesses not only to support the local economy, but also to avoid the costs and effects of the fuel used to transport products to Houston.

It is not a new idea. Consumers always have voted with their feet, shopping at retailers that offered the best price or the best service.

So-called "socially responsible" mutual funds that allow people to make investments that exclude certain kinds of companies, such as cigarette manufacturers, or firms that do not follow one's religious beliefs, have been popular for years.

And national exhortations to avoid certain products, from table grapes to products tested on animals, come and go.

Over the years, people have expanded their concerns by refusing to shop at companies and their suppliers that have poor records of protecting the environment, that purchase goods from foreign countries or that do not use Fair Trade-certified products.

Even illegal immigration has been raised as a reason to avoid a particular retailer. Last month's raid and roundup of illegal immigrants at a Shipley Do-Nuts office warehouse in near-north Houston prompted several commenters on the Houston Chronicle's Web site to say they would stop visiting the popular bakery.

Similarly, negative news about products made in China - including lead-tainted toys, melamine-tainted pet food, and toothpaste laced with antifreeze - have some shoppers leery of that country's merchandise.

Liana Winkler, visiting the Taft Street location of the Central City Co-Op for the first time last week, said she does not buy food grown in China and other countries.

"When I look at all the frozen food, it says 'Made in China,' " she said. "And I don't want to eat food where I don't know what they are fertilized with. I don't know where they are grown. I don't know whether they are made with slave labor."

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