Social Justice

The Wise Guy-de to Making Ethical Purchasing Decisions

If you’re a friend on facebook, then you know how ecstatic I am when I find American made goods in unlikely places. I have a visceral reaction. For instance, when we planted our garden, I knew that I wanted to make my own pest control products so that I could control what was going on my food. In order to make your own pest control products, you have to have….plastic spray bottles.

There are certain classes of goods that make me cringe and anything made of plastic seems ripe for being manufactured in China. So, imagine my surprise when I trudge to the spray bottle aisle at Home Depot, sighing loudly about globalization and victimization, and I find that the Home Depot brand spray bottles are made in the USA.

My brain shutdown. I might have done a jig, wept loudly, danced naked, and sung “God Bless America”. Whatever I did, it looked like I was having a spiritual moment on the lawn aisle at Home Depot.

In April, we went to a wedding shower for a friend and Alex put me in charge of getting the gift. Two hours of wandering the aisles at Target, weeping loudly, gnashing my teeth, worrying about how it might look if we showed up with a secondhand board game and a fair trade chocolate bar, when I stumbled upon NordicWare, which is a line of bakeware at Target that has some really cute things made in America (not all of their things are made in US- check the label!). I, again, overreacted, cried happy tears, and did the mambo up to the counter. Two hours- not wasted! From now on, if you’re getting married, you’re either getting a fair trade wooden spoon or brightly colored cookie sheets. It’s your call.

Before you yell at me for nagging on Asian manufacturing, let me clarify a few things for you:

– I asked a fair trade store owner about goods from China. He estimated that only about five percent of the goods coming out of China are produced in a “fair” manner by American standards.

-I understand that people in developing countries need jobs. Korean factories import their labor force from Bangladesh and they are treated like total crap, but, I’ve been told, that it’s still better than being with no-job in Bangladesh. I get that. The problem there is that my buying Korean products simply perpetuates the “This hell hole is better than that hell hole” situation for these people. It’s like that stupid argument that you threw trash on the ground so that someone has to be paid to come pick it up. I’m not satisfied with any poverty, whether it’s better than another kind of poverty or not. If I wouldn’t want my family or friends to work long hours in a dangerous factory for a pittance, why on God’s green earth would it be okay for anyone else? We’ve got to realize that someone (predatory companies) is making a crapload of money  so that someone else (ahem, us)  can get goods they don’t really need for really unfair prices.

Anyway, I’ve been on this journey for a while now and I wanted to share some of my governing principles when it comes to purchasing decisions. They’re by no means comprehensive and I learn more every day.

1. If you can, buy fair trade (or ethically made).  Fair trade certified means that the companies have undergone quite extensive certification processes to ensure that people are being paid a living wage all the way down the supply chain. This means, the person that weaves the cloth, stitches the shirt, works in the distribution center, etc are all making enough money to survive in their respective countries AND/OR an artisan is being paid fairly for their time and talents for a good.

The fair trade certification process can be very expensive and time consuming. Smaller companies might not have the resources to get this certification and so they might go a different path. I’ve found several companies who aren’t “technically” fair trade certified, but they have company policies about treating their suppliers ethically. You can go to the company’s website and see if they have a corporate responsibility policy that talks about their supply chain. You do have to use good judgement with these though, as Wal-Mart has a “corporate responsibility” policy and we all know that is a total joke.

Fair trade things are expensive and often, not things that we “need”. For instance, I’ve been looking for curtains for our livingroom for over a year now. Fair trade curtains seem like a pretty simple thing to find, but the fair trade websites have more elephants made out of tin cans than things that I would actually use. This is changing but the change is slow.

If you’re going to start somewhere, start with fair trade food- tea, coffee, sugar, chocolate. Traditionally, these kind of agricultural goods are full of companies using cheap labor to feed bulging Americans. Those four things are also fairly easy to find fair trade in your typical grocery store. A word of caution: An off-handed comment about quinoa (a vegetarian’s miracle grain) led me down a rabbit-trail that ended with an article that asserted farmers in the Andes mountains are starving because quinoa was the base of their diet and now that quinoa is so popular, the prices have soared and they can’t afford it. Fair trade does drive the price of goods up. In things like curtains or rugs, I would imagine that fair trade does more good than harm, but in the case of quinoa, it’s possible that fair trade could hurt. By the way, another article asserts that farmers are still retaining a tenth of their quinoa crops to eat; the real trouble is the environmental impact of more aggressive quinoa farming. I know, are you feeling overwhelmed with all the information and now you don’t know whether to eat quinoa or not? Welcome to my world.

2. Take your time and do your research. Fight the American tantrum of “I want it now”. Are you ready for my sad, sad tale of woe? We went to Estes Park, Colorado last summer for vacation. We mostly napped, hiked, fished, ate, gamed, etc, but we also did a little shopping. I was in heaven a little bit because my normally slim options were a little wider in CO, where the hippies converge and care about things like, oh, our global brothers and sisters. We were in this little shop that had just opened and the owners were from Texas and, lo and behold, they had a case full of beautiful sunglasses proclaiming to be “handmade in LA”. Wowee, I was in hog-heaven. You see, my current state of shielding the sun from my eyes is two pairs of plastic crap sunglasses that could be sat on or lost at any minute. I have nightmares about losing these somewhere and being left to stare at the sun until my eyes have shriveled up. So, sunglasses made in the USA? Sign me up. I told them that I’d have to think about it. I took 2 days to think about it and I poo-pooed Alex’s suggestion that I research the company because, well, the sign said so and I was also doing a media fast so I didn’t want to spend alot of time on the internet. I went back a few days later and I bought some. They were expensive and they came in a fancy case with a bag (a far cry from my free sunglasses from the State Fair that have the word “VOLKSWAGON” emblazoned down the side and that probably leech cancer onto my face). When we left the store, I ripped the tag off and slid them onto my face, satisfied that I had made a good decision. An hour later, I was trying on something in a store and I asked Alex to hold them. He was examining them and he said, “Uh-oh”. I said, “WHAT?!?!” and he pointed to one small printed word on the stem of the glasses.


What the?!? How is something that is “handmade in LA” stamped with CHINA? Did some Chinese sneak in and stamp the glasses while the LA artists were sipping their morning lattes? I debated back and forth about returning them, but we came to the conclusion together that I had already

1) ripped the tag off

2) sweated in them

so they probably weren’t returnable.

Here’s the deal: Companies are on to us. They know that we like to buy American made goods so they’ll say “Made in America” but what they mean is all the pieces that were made in China or Indonesia or Korea were put into the box here in America. My favorite is when they say, “Designed in America and made in China”. YEAH, RIGHT. As if “designed in America” means anything to me. It doesn’t.

You have to watch out for “fake” charity too. Toms Shoes, for example, has been under fire for years because, while they purport that they care about the poor in the world, they make their shoes in China. (I own about five pairs of Toms Shoes (that I bought pre-ethical decision making) and I wear them all the time. Imagine my disappointed when I realized where they were made). Then, they flood these markets in developing nations with free, Chinese-made shoes, thus hurting the local economy by competing unfairly with those that sell or repair shoes. The criticism has been that these needy areas need jobs,  not free trendy shoes. Toms has responded by starting to build a shoe factory in Haiti that will employ 100 people. They still have alot of work to do, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Target launched a Feed brand, where you buy an article of clothing and a portion of the proceeds goes to feed a hungry child in America. The irony is that these goods are made in developing countries and are probably made by hungry people.  Save an American child at the expense of other children and families you can’t see!

I know it can be overwhelming but, I promise that you’ll get a great sense of accomplishment when you find exactly what you want and it’s been manufactured in a way that is ethical. It’s also great to feel like an informed consumer. It’s a little like I’m taking a stand against The Man.

3. Buy used. Etsy. Thrift stores. Craigslist. Garage sales. Ebay. I don’t really care. When you buy something that someone else has already purchased, you’re not pulling out of the consumeristic system. If you buy a pair of colored jeans from a thrift store, that means that someone recycled the jeans instead of throwing them away and you’re not buying a brand new pair of jeans that may or may not have been made ethically. You’re essentially trading things around instead of feeding the monster.

This kind of shopping definitely takes patience. It might take me six weeks and several trips to different stores before I find what I’m looking for. It’s kind of nice though because it makes me slow down and really think about my purchasing decisions. “Is this really worth all the effort?” is a question that often ends with “No” and so we end up saving money.

4. Rethink traditions. Could you get someone an experience? Circus tickets? A mosaic class? Dinner at a fancy restaurant? Support your local businesses and create memories, instead of buying them that candle that smells like death. Give a family a pizza gift card and a board game.

5. The biggest and baddest advice I can get: Don’t buy as much. Ew! I know, right? What an ugly thought- denying ourselves of what we want. This has been the hardest for me. Think about the last 10 items you purchased. Did you really need those? Do you need  a red sweater to match your new skirt? Our consumeristic society has warped our ability to differentiate needs from wants.

This has been the very hardest part for me- denying myself something even though I really want it. Granted, it’s helped that I’ve decided to not buy things from certain countries and/or I try to buy used. Sometimes, I can’t find what I want and so I don’t get it by default. But, when I go to a thrift store, I still have to fight against purchasing things that I don’t need.

You see, researching how things are made and trying to shop ethically affects other people. It’s a justice issue, so I’m all behind that. But not buying something that I want is a heart issue and it’s one that is between me and God. Guys, I will buy a stupid pair of pants that I don’t need at the thrift store. I will buy that lamp shade because it’s cute.

Our culture tells us that things can fill us up. We all know that’s not true. They might provide momentary happiness but they won’t ever fully satisfy us. Our wealth can blind us from what God wants us to see and experience. Our love for things, whether they were bought brand-new or used, can build a wall around our hearts.

When we start to refuse to play the game, we make room for God to move. We remember that God can satisfy us, sans cute pillow and amazing high heels. As counter-cultural as it may seem, try praying about purchases before you make them. We can let God guide our wants and our needs.

God is enough.

A quick word to the wise: The Bible has some really strong teachings on money and wealth. It’s easy to read those verses and think they don’t apply to use because we like to compare and it’s easy for us to say, “Oh, so-and-so is richer than me. That’s who this verse is about.” Don’t be fooled, friends. The fact that we are sitting at a computer, probably in a house with heat, there’s food in our bellies, and clothes on our bodies means that we are the rich ones.

James 5:1-6 (Ouchie, James!)

1 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.

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