I Started Paying Attention: My Journey Toward More Ethical Purchasing
Five years go, if you asked me where my clothes were made, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Bangladesh, China, India maybe? I might have stretched behind my neck to try and read my shirt tag without actually taking it off. I probably would have kicked off my shoes and looked for a label. Now, on an average day, I can look down at my outfit and tell you where 60-70% of the items I made came from and at least a basic summary of the companies that made them.
Why the change? Does it really matter where our stuff comes from?
After the birth of my second child I was desperate to remake myself. I was tired of spending most days in pajamas and workout clothes. Having spent months housebound and chained to breast pump as I dealt with my second child’s feeding issues, I felt like I would never look nice again.
So I slowly began buying myself a few new things. I looked for stylish pieces at low prices, and stretch my budget through cheap accessories. Then I found out about The Root Collective through a Facebook post from an old friend (That old friend also happens to be Root Collective founder Bethany Tran). Suddenly, I looked at my closet differently.
It was full of new items, but not all of them were holding up well, and I had no idea where any of them were made, and more importantly how those who made them were paid and treated.
So I began my research. It was a long process. Often frustrating when I couldn’t find out what I wanted to know. It turns out, a lot of what we buy in the United States is made cheaply in part because the people who make it are paid incredibly little, and sometimes nothing at all. Slave labor is still a very real thing in the fashion market. Just because an item is priced higher or has a designer label doesn’t mean the people who made it were paid a fair wage. (Though if it’s super cheap, chances are a fair wage is nearly impossible. How long would it take you to make that $5 t-shirt you picked up? How much would it cost to buy the fabric? Anyone who does any sewing for themselves knows that there is no possible way that cheap clothing can be produced in an ethical way. The numbers just don’t add up).
Now I Feel Guilty!
I felt deep guilt. But I wouldn’t let it stop there. Guilt is only useful if it serves as a catalyst for sustainable change, otherwise it’s just a distraction and it has the potential to paralyze us and make us ineffective.
Of course I wanted to change everything all I once. I made a list of every item I bought and looked up all the brands. The majority of them didn’t have transparent supply chains.
What does this mean? That means that they won’t allow how they source their materials and how they pay their employees to be easily accessed by the public. That’s usually a red flag. Companies using fair labor practices, and ethically produced materials are usually eager to publicize that fact!
How Do I Start?
It was paralyzing. I felt like I didn’t even know how to begin. But I actually did know how to begin: with shoes. So I starting following the Root Collective on social media and taking note of the other companies Bethany posted. I’ll admit my first pair of shoes were a less than perfect, final sale purchase I made. But it opened the door. The shoes were fun, and unusual and certainly like nothing else I’d ever owned. Was the regular price more than I usually spent? Yes, which is why it took me a while to warm up to the idea. But when I saw how often I wore these shoes and I slowly wore the other pairs in my closet less often, I realized that while the upfront cost might be more, the cost per wear made them a better deal.
As The Root Collective came into its own in the ethical fashion world, I took note of the other companies they recommended. Amani Ajue, Elegantees, PACT, Trades of Hope. Shortly after that Tsh Oxenrider at the Art of Simple posted her Ethical Purchasing guide. This made my life so much simpler. It didn’t answer all my questions, but it was a place to start.
Five years later, when I need something new, I know where to start. If it’s undies, I go straight to PACT which have slowly replaced my previous favorites (even hubby approves and likes them better now). If it’s a dress or a new top, Elegantees is first stop (though PACT may also work). If it’s a gift for a girl friend, I can spend hours scouring Noonday, Vibella, Trades of Hope or Amani looking for the perfect piece of jewelry or home item.
While the ethical market is strongly targeted to women, there are companies making strides in men’s and children’s wear as well. I’ve learned to compromise and find companies that I know aren’t fair trade but who seem to be making strides in cleaning up their supply chain. Looking for those rare made in USA items is a good compromise as well.
So what does this mean for you? Does this feel totally overwhelming and do you just want to click away to your favorite clothing site and pretend you never saw this? That’s Ok. I felt that way too at first. But here are a few specific things you can do to get started.
Make small changes
Start with something small. When you need/want a new pair of boots, buy a second hand pair and then put your savings aside to purchase a better brand in the future. (Or if you can wait, set it all aside with a future more ethical purchase in mind).
Go through your kitchen cupboard and your medicine cabinet and pick one item you think you can easily replace with a fair trade option. (For me it was chocolate chips and coffee, then makeup items). It’s Ok if you don’t like the first brand you try. Try another. At this point, I have been able to find ethical substitutes for many of the items in our house.
If you need something and you can’t find a decently ethical alternative, then see if you can get it second hand. Small rarely used appliances can often be found at the local thrift store, sometimes new in box! (I like this even better if the thrift store supports a non-profit I love).
When it comes to shoes, if I’m not buying fair trade or made in USA, I check out ThredUp. Some of my favorite tall boots came from there, pricey brands in like new condition. Obviously it can be risky, and I know not everyone likes ThredUp, but it’s worked well for me, since regular thrift store runs are difficult with multiple children in tow.
Sometimes the best thing you can buy is nothing. Most of us in the United States just buy too much. We popularized the concept of retail therapy and shopping as a sport. Practice restraint and only buy things when you need them. This will be helpful to your budget and your closet. Plus it will make it easier to save up for those great fair trade purchases that you thought you couldn’t afford before.
Do the best you can for now
Sometimes I just need something, and I need it now so I have no choice but to buy what’s available. I try to remind myself that we can’t all make the best purchases all the time. But we can do better, as we learn more.
So take the challenge: Find three things in your life you need to buy and replace it with a fair trade of ethically produced item. One thing in the kitchen (such as a food item), one thing in the bathroom (such as a toiletry or makeup product) and one item of clothing. If you don’t know where to start, check out this guide here.
You have more power than you think. Your buying choices influence entire industries, which we have the power to change as we adjust how we spend money. Don’t change everything at once, but do be open.
You can always afford to pay attention.