Journey to a sustainable future

Monday, July 16, 2012

Consumer Responsibility part 2

In a borrowed dress at my father-in-law's retirement ceremony (2009)
A few weeks ago, I wrote this post detailing how we as consumers are responsible for what we buy, from its start to its end.  I used a shirt as an example, and discussed it from its start in a cotton field, to its manufacture in a factory in Sri Lanka, to its demise in the dump.

Someone pointed out that if you buy this shirt, then those Sri Lankans working in the horrible factories at least have a job and are able to feed their children. 

That may be true, but the logic is faulty: when the concentration camps closed, all those Nazis lost their jobs, and a way to feed their families.  But I think we are all agreed when we say that closing the concentration camps was a good thing!

When you buy that shirt made in those horrible conditions, you create a demand for more shirts also made in this horrible conditions.  As a consumer, you are telling the producers "yes, please, more like this!"  Supply and demand isn't a pure thing anymore, but the general gist of it is still there--you demand cheap shirts made in pathetic conditions; cheap shirts made in pathetic conditions will continue to be available.

So as a consumer, what are your options?  You could a) borrow a shirt b) save a bit more money and buy a more ethical shirt c) buy a shirt from a thrift shop or a consignment shop d) decide to go without the shirt entirely or e) buy the shirt, because you have no other way of getting what you need.
Me in a Patagonia fleece, and a fair trade wool hat; Rachel in a borrowed fleece suit (2012)
Let's break this down a bit.  You could borrow a shirt.  Borrowing is awesome for lots of reasons!  For one, it costs you zero money.  And because you are only borrowing the shirt for one occassion, you increase the size of your wardrobe, temporarily.  It also builds community, and trust among your friends.  This works well with specialty items, like ski goggles or snow suits or shoes for a wedding, because the people you are borrowing the items from also rarely use them.

Another option is to bypass that shirt on sale, and instead buy a more ethical shirt, i.e, one made under fair trade practices, or at least from organic cotton.  All clothing takes resources to make and sell; that is a fact that is ok.  But it is up to us to pick the clothes (or any item, really) that supports the future we want to see.  The Good Guide helps us to do that easily.  There is an even an App for you SmartPhone people.  Personally, I am a fan of Patagonia, a clothing company that is trying very hard to reduce their ecological footprint and add transparancy to their supply chain.  Plus, their clothing is very high quality, which means you don't have to buy as much because it lasts longer.

You could buy the shirt from a consignment shop or a thrift store.  These are always hit and miss, and you may not have a good selection of consignment shops where you live.  However, there is always ebay or craigslist!  We are blessed to have some stellar resale shops where we live.  Another reason I like shopping at consignment shops is that they support a local business.
Rachel's Easter dress 2012, from a consignment shop

You could also decide that you don't actually need the shirt, and neither buy nor borrow it.  This is, of course, the thriftiest and most "minimalist" decision.  If enough people do this, though, jobs will decrease--not just in America, but all over the globe, because economies are so connected.  We do have a responsibility to help other peole, and try to ensure a working, livable wage and decent living and working conditions.  Obviously, buying a cruddy shirt isn't going to do that.  Devoting time, energy, and money into organizations that are striving for this, though, is a good way to actually bring about situations we want to see.  More on this in a later post!

But what if you do need the shirt, and there are no other options than to buy this particular one, despite its toxic, inhumane tag?  We recently encountered this with our new tent.  We wanted to get a family-sized tent.  Our backpacking tents from our college days just weren't working out for us anymore.  Yes, we could have scoured Ebay for a used tent in stellar condition, but the chances that we would find the tent we wanted, in the condition we wanted, in the timeframe we needed it in, were slim to none. 

So we bought a brand new tent.  We used it on vacation last week, and we are thrilled with it.  And we intend to use it until it completely dies.  We intend to repair it when it breaks or rips.  We intend to treat it gently and care for it correctly to prevent it from breaking or ripping in the first place.  Those intentions, combined with the fact that camping gives us so much pleasure, and helps us to remember WHY we are tree huggers, and also helps us to teach our daughter to live lightly and love the Earth, assauges our guilt.  We feel that this choice was the best one that we could make, given our circumstances. 

Living means consuming, and consuming means resources and labor.  I believe it is our duty to live lightly, and consume lightly.  When we make choices as consumers, it is our duty to make the choices that support our worldview and morals.  Sometimes, that choice will be one that perfectly aligns with our ideals.  Sometimes it will be the "lesser of two evils."  And sometimes, we have to accept that what we need, what is necessary for us, is made in a way that we do not support.  Even if we buy that item, we need to work in other ways that bring about the world we want to see.

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