Shopping, Slavery, and Shock
"What do I do now?"
When I began proselytizing to my friends, family, and the very kind people who will listen (including, recently, my banker) about Fair Trade practices, the conversation tends to run a well-worn path. I talk, enthusiastically, about how Fair Trade pays its workers fair & livable wages, and ensures they work in a safe environment. The listener nods along kindly while I preach excitedly, and then looks at me with surprise.
"Wait," they say, "isn't everything I buy made this way?"
This is the part of the conversation I dread, and I always have to brace myself. "Unfortunately, no. Many products are made with enslaved and child labor. And, sadly, it is very difficult for a consumer to know if the workers who made the product were paid a livable wage, not to mention if they made it in a safe environment." (The Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 is a prime example of an unsafe environment, which resulted in over 1,000 deaths of garment workers, who were making clothes for fast fashion brands).
It is a horrifying realization to come to; the realization that you have, inadvertently, funded slave practices through your purchases. That you, at some point, have bought and owned something made by a child who had to work for their family's survival. I HATE to see that realization set in when I discuss Fair Trade. I know that sinking feeling all too well myself- the shock, and the guilt. Until I learned about Fair Trade, I had never asked myself who made my clothes, or my jewelry, or my chocolate. The thought never occurred to me. And it doesn't occur to most people. Once you know the truth, the truth can be overwhelming.
"What do I do now?"
This is the follow up question I receive, and it is a great question! Perhaps my favorite question. It is a question that people ask because they WANT to buy ethically. People don't WANT to support slave labor, or child labor. People are so good, and I never tire of seeing that goodness shine through.
"When you know better, you do better."
Now that you know, here are my suggestions.
- Accept the fact that you cannot change the past.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by guilt when you are exposed to the human rights violations that exist within everyday retail. Remind yourself that you DIDN'T KNOW. You cannot change the past- only the future.
This step is so important. When I learned about unethical practices in retail years ago, it shocked me. Shocked me to the point where I didn't allow myself to think about it. Instead of moving forward, armed with new knowledge, I retreated, and feigned ignorance. I eventually went back to purchasing items the way I had always done. If I could go back and tell younger me one thing, I would tell myself to stop wallowing in guilt, and to buy better, one step at a time. Which leads me to my next suggestion...
- Take it one step at a time.
Trying to change everything you buy at once will just leave you overwhelmed. We spend years cultivating our taste, finding our favorite brands and retailers, defining our style. Unravelling these patterns and figuring out which are acceptable and which are not takes some time. Here are my recommendations on how to make progress toward being a more ethical buyer, one step at a time.
--- Think Fair Trade when you are buying your next gift.
Gift-giving is a great place to start. Do you have a friend's birthday coming up? A baby shower? A holiday? When you are searching for that perfect gift, look up Fair Trade items that fit their interests or style.
--- Look at items you purchase regularly.
The majority of what we buy are repeat, perishable items. Look at something you purchase on a regular basis (i.e. coffee, body wash, etc). Check to see if the item you are purchasing is Fair Trade. If not, look for an alternative to that item that is Fair Trade certified. If you cannot find a replacement that is Fair Trade certified, look for brands that are a Certified B Corp (B Corp status means that the brand meets the highest standards of environmental and social responsibility). Also, if you have a brand of an item that you really love, a great option is to reach out to them and ask them questions about the people who make their items. Some brands are ethical, but are not Fair Trade certified for a variety of reasons (this might be a good topic for another post!). So you might be pleasantly surprised!
Once you find an ethical alternative for that item, move on to another item. Taking it one step at a time will help to make purchasing ethically a habit.
- Learn more.
It becomes much easier to buy ethical items when you are plugged in to the Fair Trade conversation. It can be something as simple as following #fairtrade on Instagram, or subscribing to an email list for a Fair Trade Certified company. There are also great podcasts that talk about Fair Trade and ethical purchasing (the Business with Purpose Podcast with Molly Stillman is a favorite of mine!)
- Pat yourself on the back.
Seriously! You deserve it. There is an amazing quote by Anna Lappe that says, "Every time you spend money, you're casting a vote for the kind of world you want." You are making the world a better place each time you buy ethically. That is a lot of power for good.
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