Journey to a sustainable future

Friday, June 8, 2012

Consumer Responsibility Part 1

New Gap jeans, new Gap shirt, new Prana jacket, new belt from Target...hmmmm

You go down to your closest Big Box Store (aka Target, Macy's, Gap, Wal-Mart, etc).  You pick up a new shirt.  It fits, it looks nice, it's on SALE, you were looking for a new button down shirt.  After you wear it a few times, though, you notice how itchy the tag is.  It really drives you nuts!  And then a button starts to fall off. 

Being the eco-conscious, frugal consumer that you are, you cut off the tag, and re-sew the button.  After another month, though, that spaghetti sauce stain won't come out, and you decide you don't want to wear the shirt anymore.  You toss it in the car and take it to Goodwill.  No worries, you figure.  I got it on sale, wore for a few months, and now I'm passing it on.  End of story. 

But do you even have the start of the story?

Let's say the shirt was originally priced at $14, and you got it on sale for $7.  Totally awesome, right?  But how could anyone along the supply chain make a truly decent livable wage if your shirt only cost $7? 

Answer: they probably can't.  It was probably made from pesticide-laden cotton that was grown in Pakistan, turned into cloth in Cambodia, sewn in a sweat factory in Sri Lanka, transported via ship, train, and truck (read: oil!) to the store near you, where it was then shelved by people working minimum wage and overtime with no health insurance benefits. 

Sweet deal, right?  All that impact for only $7!  But you didn't force those people to work like that...all you did was buy a shirt!

And then you pass it on to a thrift shop--which is a fantastic thing to do, don't get me wrong!  But what are the chances that they are going to sell a stained shirt with the tag missing?  Slim to none.  So it will go to the dump.  (But if you didn't take it there, it no longer feels like your responsibility).

If you truly NEED that shirt, and you do your best to maintain and repair and wear it out, then that helps to compensate for the TRUE, externalized costs of the item. If it is vital to your well-being, then it is hard to find fault with that.

I'm not saying to never buy new clothes.  I'm not saying to never throw hopeless clothes away.  What I am saying is that you, as a consumer, have an impact when you buy something.  By purchasing this shirt that was manufactured under those conditions, you tell the companies and conglomerates that you support their agricutlural, manufacturing, and selling practices.  When it ends up in the landfill a few months later, you are creating a demand for more shirts just like the one you bought for $7. 

Every purchase we make as consumers makes a difference, but whether that difference is good or bad is up to us.

Think about your purchases this way: you are responsible for the items you buy, from their birth to their death.  From the oil used to make the plastic buttons and the pesticide used to grow to the cotton, to the conditions underwhich they are turned into your shirt and sold to you--you have responsibility.  As a consumer, you create the demand--and you create the difference.


  1. on the flipside, in buying that shirt, you are supporting free enterprise, a business, and helping many people keep their jobs in Sri Lanka, Philippines, etc. That job is the vital means by which they feed their families.

  2. after thinking about this more, i do agree that - while the producing of goods for the benefit of man is good and right - the working conditions throughout the world where many of these goods are produced are horrible, and these goods are made by men, women, and even young children essentially in slavery. going to look into this more with regard to Free've got me thinking on this one! :) my cousin told me about International Justice Mission ~ going to check it out. link below.

  3. I will address this issue more deeply in future blog posts (this one is really just part 1 of several on consumer responsibility) buy still, in buying that shirt, you are creating a demand for those conditions. Briefly, you could take that money and save some more to buy a more ethical shirt. Or you could buy a used one from a local consigment shop. Or you could take that money and buy more organic food from the farmer's market, and decide to go without the shirt. You could refuse to buy a shirt made under such conditions, and instead use the money and energy to participate in organizations that promote workers' rights. More to come!