Every time Ellen Kennedy of Takoma Park, Maryland even thinks about buying something, she considers where it was made, under what conditions, what it was made from, and where it’s going to go when she’s done with it.
“Is it going to be used again?” she asked. “Is it going to wind up in the landfill? Is it going to biodegrade or just stick around for a few thousand years?”
The other day, Kennedy went hunting for Christmas gifts for some of her young cousins. She went to Fair Day’s Play, a store that sells toys for the ethical shopper, like flying discs made from fabric not plastic, and soccer balls that were made without child labor.
“I don’t think people understand how often soccer balls are made by kids or in poor conditions,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy shops with the environment, local economy, public health, and workers’ rights in mind. It’s not easy.
“You can make an ethical choice in one issue and unwittingly cause a problem somewhere else,” she said.
For example, maybe you stop buying leather because you’re concerned about animal welfare and the environment. But many synthetic fabrics, like polyester, are made from fossil fuels and plastic, and they’re not biodegradable.
“It’s just so hard to tease out how to be a good person, how to do the right thing,” she said.
It can also be hard to dig up details about where a product was made — and under what conditions. And the “ethical choice,” if you can figure out what that is, can be expensive.
Alaena Robbins, who lives in Southern Maine, has her eye on a new pair of pants made from cotton and rayon and stitched in Minnesota, that have been in her shopping cart for months. She said she’s probably not going to buy them, but she thinks about them “all the time.”
She also thinks a lot about climate change, and the pants are made by a company that markets itself as sustainable. But they cost $160.
“It’s that devil on my shoulder being like, ‘you could buy three pairs of pants for the same price from the Gap or something.’”
She hasn’t bought the pants and that’s how some shoppers answer these tough ethical questions. They just buy less.
“It’s about using what you currently have,” said Shobha Philips of Los Angeles. “If it’s clothing, I repair it and make sure that I get as many uses out of it as possible.”
Philips is the founder of an online retailer called Proclaim. It sells underwear and bras in shades designed specifically for women of color and made in part from recycled plastic bottles.
Yes, she realizes that most retailers don’t encourage people to shop less.
“It’s not how most fashion brands operate, I think, especially if it’s a publicly traded company, their goal at the end of the day is to make money for their shareholders, which is usually by selling more product,” she said.
That’s regardless of what that means for workers or the environment. This usual way of doing business leaves shoppers who want to make ethical choices with limited options.
“Ultimately, we are kind of prisoners of an economic system that makes it really hard for us to go about our daily lives without causing environmental harm,” said Emma Marris, an environmental writer in Oregon.
Marris said it’s counterproductive to obsess over individual perfection.
“Those of us who can afford to buy these really green things or have enough leisure time to do this research, we start to judge or become alienated from people who are just poor or overworked and aren’t able to make these sort of super sustainable lifestyle choices,” she said.
Marris said the burden of sustainability or ethical business operations has to fall on companies and governments. They have a lot more power than individual consumers, she said.
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