While standing in Forever21 have you ever wondered how a store could possibly sell clothing so cheap?
How in the world do they make a profit on a $10 blouse after getting the materials, shipping the materials to a factory, having the item made then shipped to the US not to mention paying all the store associates who sold it to you?
I wish the answer wasn’t bad business practices and overlooked human rights violations, but it is.
With every dollar we spend we are actively casting votes about what we are willing and not willing to accept from companies and our markets.
I didn’t really begin thinking about what I was buying and the implications of my purchases until high school. Once I became involved in the pursuit of human rights and promoting ethical living, I went to a week long conference in NYC called the Global Citizen Corps Leadership Summit. While at this summit I was fortunate enough to meet the founders of organizations like FEED and learned about the hidden horrors of these industries.
These human rights violations are not just hidden in fashion but also in food, your morning coffee, your phone, Christmas decorations… basically anything and everything.
When I realized this, I felt so incredibly guilty, sad and hopeless. I’m not writing this to make you feel those things, I promise!
I want to help you learn how to become an ethical and conscious consumer. It won’t happen over night, it’s something that you work towards and I’m not going to lie, I still struggle with being a conscious consumer at different points in the day. Little steps are still steps and every little bit helps.
Every day I try to make choices that will do good for others,not just myself, and not just for big corporations that don’t care for our sisters and brothers across the world.
I’ve tried to include the most basic steps to help you become an ethical & conscious consumer, and hopefully start you on a journey to living a more ethical and justice driven life.
Research will always be your friend and it’s so great that we’ve been blessed with Google. You can easily learn the ins and outs of just about any industry. Start looking into where your food and coffee may come from, and then dig deeper into what that industry may be doing behind the scenes. You’ll soon learn that your sweet cup o’ joe isn’t too sweet for the farm workers who may be working in very inhuman conditions in order to cut costs.
When you start uncovering things like sweatshops, underpaid workers, child labor among so many other things, also research the solutions. The biggest way we can help is by educating ourselves on not only the problems, but the solutions.
Microeconomic loan programs, fair trade sourced food, organic farming (keeps farm workers safe from dangerous chemicals), and products that give back are just some of the solutions. If you’re feeling like a real detective, try to track down some of your favorite stores’ stance on important issues.
I worked at Victoria’s Secret for awhile and still love their products but I know that they are not ethically sourced and I also know that in the past their organic cotton came from farms that use forced child labor, so now I’m actively trying to look for a brand to replace VS. I went so far as to look into their parent agency Limited Brands to find their statements on the issues that matter most to me. Take a look.
One big issue I see is that there is no way to really know where their products are being created other than the countries they come from, and in these guidelines the products outlined aren’t very specific. This leaves so much room for inhumane working environments especially if it concerns factories outside of this country.
2. Look for the Labels.
If something is fair trade, organic, locally sourced, etc, it will almost always indicate this on some kind of label or sticker. This is not always the case, because it does cost money for certain certifications however it is slowly becoming more profitable to be ethical.
One of my favorite snacks, This Bar Saves Lives is clearly marked with labels stating that it is Non-GMO, the Vanilla Extract is fair trade and it’s gluten free. You will normally find these labels on the bottom corners of boxes and packaging or next the the nutrition facts. For clothing items check the paper tags and the tags on the inside of the clothing item.
3. Wants vs Needs.
Part of being an ethical consumer is recognizing what our needs are and what our wants are. I’m not going to lie, I am someone who loves to buy things and loves to spend money! I often have to stop myself and reevaluate whether or not I actually need that odd thing from Target or if I could do without it.
About 90% of the time I just want things for the sake of having them. After some consideration I often go home empty handed, and not missing whatever it was. On occasion if I go home and still really want whatever it was I’ll try to find an ethical alternative. Say it’s a pair of shoes, am I able to find a similar pair that does more good? Most likely thanks to Toms, so then I’ll go ahead and purchase from that source instead.
4. Buy for quality.
Following my last point—If I need to buy something new and something that is not ethically sourced, then I will splurge and buy it to last. I don’t want to have to keep going back to a store to continue to buy the same item that keeps breaking. This equates to putting money into sweatshops. Think of things like your laptop or maybe even furniture (there’s always West Elm!!)
5. Shop Local.
When purchasing food, try to look into local farms and always try to purchase seasonal food. Local farms and businesses struggle and need your support.
Some farms are offer great programs that you pay into. So you pay maybe $300 and you get a share of all the crops during the summer. You’ll be amazed with the amount of food you will get, the quality of it, not to mention the amount of money you save. And the added bonus is that you’ll be developing relationships with the people who supply your food.
This also ends up being a great learning experience for children! Also, don’t overlook shopping at local bakery’s, cafes, tailors and other shops.
6. Recycle and Pay Attention to Packaging.
It wasn’t until I was living on my own that I realized how much waste I actually created.
Just think about if you didn’t take out your trash, how quickly everything would pile up and now think about how much trash your neighbors may be creating. It’s horrible and we are running out of solutions for trash build up.
An easy solution is to recycle whatever you can, compost what you can and avoid buying things with a ton of packaging. Remember those Lunchables that you would beg your parents to buy as a kid? All the food was individually wrapped up, inside the plastic tray and then packaged inside a cardboard box.
How unnecessary all that packaging was, and so much trash was made from it! Now I think they’ve decreased the amount they package up the Lunchables, but try to avoid things that come in wayyy too much packaging.
7. What is it Made of?
Say you cannot find something that is fairly traded, try to look for materials that are organically made. If cotton is organically grown then the farm hands will not be exposed to all the dangerous chemicals.
Maybe the farm still doesn’t treat their workers the best but at least you know that they aren’t being exposed to unnecessary contaminants.
Also look for materials that aren’t made of animal products, especially things like ivory. I’m a huge animal advocate and I hate the idea of wearing another creature’s fur or harming them to make jewelry.
8. Does it give back.
A lot of products are now One-for-One. Many people have different views on the sustainability of these programs and organizations but I love them, especially when they begin to move towards full sustainability.
Some of my favorite brands that give back are Toms, Warby Parker, FEED, FashionABLE, and Sseko. A lot of these organizations and brands donate money towards something, offer microeconomic loan programs and skill building programs for survivors.
Many of these organizations have become extremely creative in problem solving and so successful! If you check out my Global Citizen List, you’ll see a compiled list of organizations that give back.
9. Hold companies accountable.
This is so important. Every time you purchase something, you are casting your vote for what you want to see in the market. Hold your favorite companies accountable for where they get their raw materials.
When doing your research and if you don’t like what you see or discover, let them know. Write to them, call them and get together a petition. It may seem daunting but I promise it isn’t. There are also many organizations that lobby our government to encourage change through laws, so attend a lobby meeting or contact your local reps.
10. Take it Day by Day.
Part of being an ethical and conscious consumer is about taking it day by day. It’s daunting and it’s a big burden to carry (especially when you so want to buy that designer purse) but don’t let it break you down. Every effort counts, big or small. Just take each day and try to strive for your best.
So tell me, what key things do you do to strive to be an ethical or conscious consumer? Let me know what your favorite ethical brands and organizations are in the Comment section below!!!
Author: Rachel Marie Asaro
Editor: Renee Jahnke
Image: Hernán Piñera-Flickr