In the spring of 2012, I went to a human trafficking conference. After a very interesting presentation about sex trafficking, there was a panel discussion about labor abuse. Until that point I honestly had never thought of labor trafficking as something I should care about. Out of curiosity – but mostly because I was on the front row and couldn’t just leave – I listened. And the more I listened, the more I started to care; the more I started to care, the more I wanted to know. By the end of the session, I was in tears after learning about the numerous instances of abuse happening right here in the Los Angeles garment district where I had always prided myself in finding a great deal.
Sex trafficking was horrible, but I wasn't part of the problem. The orphan crisis was horrible, but I was already in the adoption process. But labor? I couldn't escape that one. None of my usual go-to guilt erasers applied here. And it bothered me. A lot. My closet full of $5 tee shirts bothered me. The fun of Black Friday shopping for things I didn't need bothered me. Buying something new to impress other people bothered me. Justifying purchases of clothing I knew I'd only wear once because they were such great deals bothered me. I was a part of a really big problem. And it bothered me. A lot.
We started our journey slowly over a course of months and simply thought about how we could incorporate thoughtfulness into our lifestyle and our purchases. We didn't exactly know what we were doing, and I assumed it meant I'd be wearing lots of ugly clothes made out of hemp. I also assumed it would be crazy expensive, inconvenient and impractical. I began to notice items on blogs I'd read, thought "I bet there is a more ethically produced version of that" and started looking for those items. Slowly, I found and got introduced to various fair trade labels. I realized that there were so many great companies I was overlooking simply because I'd never heard of them! Naturally, as a blog reader, I started looking for ethical fashion blogs to add to my daily reads. What I found were hundreds of "ethical" fashion blogs that praised products that treated animals and the earth well, but there was a massive element missing. A human element. I vividly remember telling my husband, "Someone really should start a people friendly lifestyle blog." Two weeks later we purchased the domain for Let's Be Fair.
Over the past three years we’ve learned a lot about labor abuse, human trafficking and how spending money thoughtfully can create a huge impact. Here are some of the questions I'm asked most frequently and what I understand today!
I donate to charity, volunteer, etc.; so, why should I care about this?
I think it was Mother Teresa that said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Every day, we see people doing extraordinary things and want to be a part of something extraordinary. However, I believe the way that we can create the most change is by living each moment with integrity. Integrity happens when we align all of our choices with the values that we advertise. So if I say I value honesty, I need to strive to be honest in all things, not just the easy things. If I say I value justice and love, I need to strive to live out those values in all things. Serving children in Africa is an act of love, but it is not greater than serving my neighbor. Integrity doesn’t categorize, and our values should be reflected across our whole lifestyle. So if I give money and time to the work of eradicating slavery, how can I then purchase products that promote slave labor and abuse? Poverty is a major contributor to the global orphan and human trafficking crises. Poverty is also, in many ways, preventable. Treating people fairly, not necessarily handing out ‘charity,’ gives families and communities more resources and more of an ability to care for the children in their communities. This frees families from desperation, and therefore, the promises of pimps, traffickers and abusive business owners loose some of their charm and power.
How do you define ethical consumption, and what are things I can look for?
I ask myself, “Were the people making this item treated with respect?” This can be a hard question to know the answer to. Personally, I need to hear that companies:
1. Know where their products are coming from
2. Know who is making their products
3. Put forth reasonable effort to make sure that the people involved in sourcing and making those products are being treated with respect and are being paid fairly
After that question I look for key words such as B Certified, Direct Trade, Fair Trade Certified, upcycled and Made in the USA. These distinctions don’t make them perfect, but there is at least some sort of accountability and effort to doing things ethically. The companies that get my attention the most are companies that are fully invested into the lives of their workers and their communities. There are so many incredible, hardworking artisans around the world, and they don’t need a handout. They need a market! Brands that help artisans get the resources they need to run their business and then help them establish a sustainable market in which to sell those items are a major win with me.
It can sometimes be tough to find these types of items in conventional stores, so it’s important for us to ask our favorite vendors for new options. And when I say "ask," I mean it literally. Ask your grocery store and favorite retailer for ethically sourced items. They listen!
I want to start shopping ethically, but it’s really expensive and inconvenient. It seems like a luxury for rich people, and I don’t think I should have to feel bad for not being wealthy.
Most things worth having are inconvenient and difficult! Relationships, children, a career you are passionate about and healthy eating are examples. These things require more work to have them, but they're totally worth it. I have also found that, over time, shopping this way has made my life more convenient because I have less clutter and less pressure to consume. Going to a wedding used to mean new shoes, new dress, blowing my budget, worrying about my figure, finding time to shop, etc. Now, going to a wedding means putting on my "wedding dress" (I have three go-to options) and focusing more on the celebration of the people that I love. Not only is it more convenient, it brings more peace.
As far as budget is concerned, keep in mind that someone ALWAYS PAYS for the goods we consume. So, do you think the person paying should be you or the person making the product? Now, since we live in the real world, we do need to be mindful about finances. I truly believe that I have saved money shopping this way because I’ve cut down on impulse purchases. I used to walk in to places and find “stuff I needed” simply because it was on sale. Now I wait for a sale for the things I actually need. So I have less junk and although I spend more money on the pieces I do have, I am only shopping for things I need; in the long run I really think I’ve saved money. Here are a few tricks that’ll help you save money when you’re shopping ethically:
Visit a website you’d like to purchase from, sign up for their email newsletter and then wait. Almost every company will send you a coupon for free shipping or 10% off your purchase within a couple of days, sometimes instantly. My favorite second hand clothing website is thredUP and usually send out a 40% off coupon within a few weeks of signing up. Also, if you use the links above, you can get $10 toward your first purchase.
Shop on holidays
Most companies will have their deepest discounts on major “shopping holidays,” just like they do in the conventional marketplace.
Shop off season
Last year I found Made in the USA swimsuits for 75% off in September. The companies don’t want to hold on to all that stuff, and they need to make room for new inventory. Take advantage of those discounts!
Don’t forget online goods exchanges and thrift stores! It’s a little more work, but you can save SO much money and not contribute to the unethical production of more items. We found gorgeous tiles for a project in our home for a third of the price it was at Home Depot. From wedding dresses to kitchen tables, you can find so much of what you need second hand.
I’m in! How do I start?
Find an accountability partner!
As a recovering compulsive sales shopper I really need accountability for my purchases. My husband is a great help to me in this area.
Go slow and create new patterns in your life that help you reach your goals.
For example, I can't afford to shop at Whole Foods Market for everything, but I do have a routine of going to Whole Foods about every other week when I'm on that side of town to buy things like fair trade tea, coffee and bananas. It's a part of my routine and my budget now.
Give yourself a few non-negotiables.
(e.g., I am ONLY going to purchase these items intentionally and ethically) and grow your list from there. For groceries, I’d suggest starting with coffee, tea, sugar, rice and chocolate. As a next step, add in lifestyle items such as shoes, bags, scarves and jewelry.
Get over the idea that you need more.
This part is perhaps the key to long term success as an ethical shopper. Before you purchase something, ask yourself if you really, actually need it. You could buy four pairs of uncomfortable $25 shoes that will fall apart in a few months, or you could buy one pair of $100 ethically made shoes that will last a while. It’s not just a lifestyle change but also a heart change that stops us from believing the lie that “more” and “new” will make us happier. The lifestyle change is tough – so tough – but so freeing.
Finally, remember, you don't have to be an “ethically sourced martyr.” If I NEED something and can't find it ethically, I try to show myself grace and just buy it.
This journey isn't about rules; it's about integrity.
Dominique is a social worker and supporter of thoughtful consumerism living in Los Angeles. She writes Let's Be Fair, a lifestyle and beauty blog focused on fairly traded, ethically sourced and life impacting goods. Dominique is passionate about thoughtful consumerism, orphan care and helping non-profits and ethical brands reach wider audiences through elevated media and storytelling.