food, health, labor, society

In defense of ethical consumerism

This post might be a bit redundant for those who regularly follow my blog (I’ve written about going sweatshop-free and conscious consumption in the past), but ethical consumerism is something that’s been on my mind in recent months. Like “conscious consumption,” “ethical consumerism” doesn’t have a hard definition, but, as the phrase implies, it essentially refers to shopping that is done with ethical considerations in mind. For me, it means first consuming consciously, becoming more aware of what I want to buy and why instead of purchasing mindlessly, then, when I do decide to continue with a purchase (many times I don’t because I realize I’m wanting to spend unnecessarily for dumb reasons), committing to seeking out brands that are not treating their employees like slaves and devastating the environment.

I’ve seen a lot of writers (you can google–I’m not linking any of them) brush off ethical consumerism as silly and ineffective, a luxury generally taken up by wealthy white women who want to feel good about themselves as they shop at Whole Foods for cage-free eggs and paraben-free lotion. I get it. To an extent, it is a luxury. Target sells yoga pants for $15 while prAna, a Fair Trade brand, sells them for $65+. At this point in time, sweatshop-free, cage-free, paraben-free, organic, ethical, eco-friendly, natural, Fair Trade–you name it, anything with a label indicating that the product was made in more ethical working conditions or has a lesser negative impact on the environment–is more expensive. That sucks for sure, but just because some people cannot buy ethically-made products right now doesn’t mean those who can shouldn’t.

At times, I have agreed with those who criticize ethical consumerism. My view of capitalism has vacillated over the years, and at more than one point in time I’ve considered myself Marxist (I do not currently). I subscribed to Adbusters for years (though, perhaps ironically given the subject of this post, stopped when they began selling shoes). I wanted people who give a fuck to revolt, not attempt to achieve change from within and ultimately fail. Capitalism was the enemy. The idea of shopping toward a better world sounded absurd, something that only someone who’d been deluded by “the system” could believe in.

Well, I’ve changed my mind. Whether you like capitalism or not, it isn’t going anywhere any time soon. No, I don’t think ethical consumerism will save the world, but it’s part of the puzzle. It’s a start. It’s a push in the right direction. People who want to engage in ethical consumerism are noticing a spark within themselves, an awareness that things aren’t quite right, a desire to change. Instead of blasting them for being only marginally effective in how they react to that spark, I want to encourage them. I want to respond with a “Yes, and” instead of a “No, but” (or, #wellactually) to steal lingo from improv (and twitter).

Shopping consciously is no substitute for voting, volunteering, donating, being politically active, etc., but it is an action that complements those other things. It’s clear cut, easy-to-understand, and does not involve much risk, sacrifice, or difficulty. For some people, it will be a first step toward becoming more aware of and involved in issues related to labor, inequality, public health, and the environment. Instead of criticizing and shutting down people who try to shop ethically, I think it’s better to support them and prompt them to dig deeper into whatever part of them felt motivated to take that step, to encourage them to think about what else they can do to get more involved and have even more of an impact.

Continuing to shop the way we as a society now shop is not only unsustainable, it’s horrible. Our current system is damaging first and foremost to the workers. In many instances, it’s also damaging to the consumers who buy the products and, finally, the earth and those living on it as a whole.

Joke about the culture and tastes of people who buy organic clothing all you want, but know that workers who farm non-organic cotton are dying from cancer caused by the pesticides used on that cotton. There is a difference between the two products and the effect their manufacturing has on those who make them. Joke about Fair Trade chocolate, coffee, and clothes, but know that there are still literal slaves in 2016 making items sold in stores all over the United States. If you have a problem with America’s history of slavery, it is only logical that you should have a problem with the current manufacturing industry.

I hate when people pit one social issue against another, which is something that seems to happen quite a bit when ethical consumerism comes up. The general implication is that the same people who put effort into shopping consciously do not put effort into other issues that are perhaps more visible here in the US–issues related to immigration, public health, segregation, police brutality, etc.

I’m not well-versed in feminism (planning on changing that), but I’ve heard enough to know of the term “intersectionality” (very basically, the concept that issues of race, class, and gender are not at odds, but rather intersect) and that I agree with it. I think the same mentality applies here. Again, it’s the “Yes, and” approach. If someone says they want to shop Fair Trade, that’s opening a doorway to help them recognize labor inequality and its effects in the US. It makes sense that anyone with that initial impetus to shop ethically in order to benefit workers in other countries would also care about domestic human rights issues.

If you don’t think there should be slaves making clothing in 2016, you probably also don’t think people should be getting shot in the street because of their skin color, I’d guess. If you don’t believe chickens should be pumped with hormones, smashed into crowded cages, and kept so fat they can’t walk, you probably also don’t think humans of skin colors different than yours should lack access to clean drinking water and adequate healthcare.

Corporations hold massive amounts of power. They spend massive amounts of money trying to get consumers’ attention. If enough people take their attention (and money) away from a company, that company will listen and begin to change. At this point, I’ve lost hope that the government will, on its own, require trade agreements to adhere to US labor or environmental standards. A multi-pronged approach is needed. Consumer action is a powerful tool, an important prong.

Right now, clothing, beauty products, and food items are those that are the easiest to research and find more ethical versions of. It’s not that hard to find organic food or jeans, Fair Trade chocolate or lipstick. Good luck, however, finding a sweatshop-free laptop, or Fair Trade car. (Spoiler: they don’t exist.) Since the clothing, beauty, and food industries are the ones beginning to undergo change, those are the areas in which I will focus. If you have any insights (additional information or constructive criticism only, please), I encourage you to share them.

Honestly, at times I feel very helpless and overwhelmed. Our world is full of violence, human rights violations, and inequality, much of which appears to be the direct result of consumerism, greed, and our current manufacturing system. I know that, at heart, most people do not want these horrible things to be happening, and they turn away from them, ignore them, because it’s easier than acknowledging that their own lifestyles and behavior is contributing to them. As a writer, I want to research and share clear, direct actions that I and others can take. Ethical consumerism is one of those actions.

Standard
labor, learning, personal growth

On going sweatshop-free

 

I’ve written and rewritten this post for months. Time to stop being a perfectionist. Here I go, starting with a blank page and writing it once and for all, being okay with publishing it even if it’s raw and unpolished.

I first found out about sweatshops in high school and was appropriately horrified. First, I boycotted the Disney store. Over the next few years, I boycotted the GAP and Old Navy and Banana Republic. Then Nike. Then Victoria’s Secret. Then Wal-Mart and Kohls and JCPenney. Then the Express and Limited. The more research I did, the more “bad” clothing labels I found and the more I boycotted.

As the internet fleshed itself out with information in the early 2000s, I finally realized that “uses sweatshop labor” was the default for clothing manufacturers, not an exception to the rule. I realized it made little sense to approach this by opting out of confirmed sweatshop-using brands. If one wants to avoid sweatshop-made clothing, one must consider all brands guilty until proven innocent. One must boycott everything and only opt in to brands that declare themselves Fair Trade, ethical, or sweatshop-free.

For years, I tried to do this. I tried to avoid supporting sweatshops by buying used clothes from vintage and thrift stores and supplementing them with Made in the USA clothing from American Apparel. It wasn’t enough, though, and at least a couple times per year I still ended up going to regular stores and buying the same old stuff that was probably made by children or slaves (or both). I justified this by telling myself there weren’t enough sweatshop-free options out there, and that I didn’t make enough money to be able to afford them anyway. I rationalized my guilt by telling myself I was helpless to do anything about the situation so I should stop wasting time thinking about it.

This past summer, I became more mindful. I was dealing with a lot of anxiety and I turned to long meditations to deal with it. This led to me becoming more aware of my emotions. I noticed that my sweatshop guilt had not left me. I noticed that every time I got dressed in the morning, I had a slightly unsettled feeling of doing something wrong, of contributing to something bad. Although I wanted to keep pushing those feelings aside, in the spirit of mindfulness and acceptance, I looked straight at them.

It was rough. At first I found myself defensive and argumentative, wanting to push back against this nagging voice telling me to pay attention to the unsettled feeling I had. “You’ll do this later. You care. You’re a good person. That’s enough for now. You’re a broke graduate student. You can’t afford to make any change this minute. Wait until you graduate and have a real job and more time and then you’ll only buy sweatshop-free for the rest of your life.”

It didn’t take much reflection to recognize the absurdity of that. First, the sweatshop issue isn’t about me or my identity as a good or bad person, or at least it shouldn’t be. It is about the workers who are suffering. Second, how ridiculous is postponing action until after grad school? “Slavery is bad and should end, but right now is inconvenient for me. Let’s end slavery later, when I have completed my luxurious graduate degree in creative writing.” I mean, really.

So I told myself I’d listen to the nagging voice and begin paying attention to the issue I had tried to push out of my mind in recent years. I started doing research. True Cost, a documentary about the fashion industry, was immensely helpful and I encourage everyone to watch it (it is available to stream on Netflix). I plan on watching it every few months just as a reminder, as something to motivate me to continue living in line with my values on this issue. I learned about Fashion Revolution and the “Who made my clothes?” movement. I read countless articles about various specific sweatshops and began compiling lists of ethical clothing brands and organizations.

Most importantly, I vowed to start buying sweatshop-free clothes only. I recognize that this is an imperfect action, and probably not enough, but it is a start. Ideally, the US should ban the import of sweatshop-made clothing. That would make sense in a country that is anti-slavery, right? For our country to boast about ending slavery then voraciously consume slave-made goods is disingenuous.

We didn’t end slavery–we moved it outside of US borders. I’m not discounting the significance of the end of US slavery. That was a good, important thing that needed to happen. But to pat ourselves on the back and talk as if that was the end of that, to teach our K-12 students as if that was the end of that, is disingenuous. We did not end slavery; we pushed it onto other people that we don’t have see in person.

I’d like to do what I can to help people realize that slavery has not ended and that we as Americans continue to benefit from it and perpetuate it. I’m not sure of the best way to approach this. People don’t want to feel guilty or bad, especially for something that seems out of their control. Also, I don’t think the responsibility should fall on the individual. Our corporations and government are failing us. They are creating and perpetuating this situation, and then obfuscating it so individual consumers have trouble figuring out what’s what. To make an individual buying a shirt feel guilty when these systems are to blame seems misguided and will probably backfire. Most people will probably feel defensive or make excuses, just like I did for years.

I debated writing a journalistic style article detailing the atrocities and widespread nature of sweatshops. Right now, I just don’t have the time. Also, my purpose isn’t journalism. My purpose is to identify what I personally can do to help end this injustice. (If you are wanting information on sweatshops and modern slavery though, look here, here, and here.)

Moving forward, I will only buy sweatshop-free clothing and accessories. I will probably write about the items I buy here and post photos of some of them on instagram. I recognize that this is an imperfect, consumerism-centric start, but I believe an imperfect start is better than no start. I recognize that, as True Cost points out, the whole “fast” fashion industry is a problem. That we cannot just slightly improve working conditions yet keep the whole larger system in place. But this is the start I see available to me now.

I have faith that, with time, I will learn more, gain knowledge and wisdom, and gain clarity on what action to take. I have faith that, with time, I will be able to do more than “conscious consumption” and a piddly blog post. I have faith that I will think of ways to join a larger movement, to put pressure on corporations to change, to put pressure on government to properly regulate. I know that this issue does not only extend to clothing and accessories. That is where I am beginning because that appears to be the most accessible “in” to ethical manufacturing and consumption. I have faith that, with time, I will find ways to promote modern slavery-free food, furniture, technology, etc.

If you have any knowledge on this issue that I do not yet seem to have, please leave a comment. Share your resources. Share your thoughts. This isn’t something that can be tackled individually.

Standard