The Transition to Being a (More) Ethical Consumer

One thing I’ve been wanting to do for a while now is document my experience and journey towards trying to be a more ethical consumer. I’m using this term because it feels like it encompasses multiple areas, not just slow fashion or environmental awareness, two areas in which I’ve been trying to grow. I’m writing not to brag or to give you how-tos, because I certainly don’t consider myself to be “doing it right” or having all the answers. (Spoiler alert: I have zero answers.) I’m writing simply to share my experience, share some resources that I’ve found helpful, and share why this feels important to me. This is one of those topics that I would always love to chat about with friends, acquaintances, or even strangers, but doesn’t always come up organically. But the beauty of the personal blog… you get to write about whatever the heck you want. So here goes.

Where it started

1. Fashion – I have to credit one particular account (and really, one particular friend for exposing me to that account) for my initial engagement with the slow fashion movement. My friend Catie told me about Dressember back in 2016 (that feels like yesterday but was actually ages ago.) According to Dressember’s website, “We are a community of international advocates utilizing¬†fashion + creativity¬†to help end human trafficking.” My involvement was committing to wear a dress every day of the month of December and fundraise with donations going towards organizations working to end human trafficking. This was my first window into the concept of slow fashion. From there I began learning about the connection between the fashion industry and not just human trafficking but also the exploitation of laborers all across the globe. I want to reiterate that I am not a spokesperson for the slow fashion movement. This is not my area of expertise. I am learning every day. But every day that I learn more, I feel more committed to making sure that how I participate in the clothing and textiles industry (via my purchases) is not coming at the cost of other humans’ lives, fair wages or safety.

Ever since then (but mainly in the last 2 years) I have been slowly shifting my purchases of clothing to be from ethical, sustainable, fair trade companies. I am such a newbie here that I don’t even know all the right terms to use. Basically, I’m trying to support companies that source their materials sustainably, pay their craftsmen and women (or employees) a fair and living wage, have safe working conditions and facilities, and create products that are meant to last years and years (not a single season). This comes at a higher price point, but it all comes back to this: is my ability to purchase a $5 t shirt from ____ (insert big clothing retailer here) coming at the cost of another precious human life being paid pennies for their labor (or trafficked into labor without any pay)? No matter the money it “saves” me, I’ve become more and more uncomfortable with this trade off. It’s easy to avoid thinking about it, of course, but now that I’ve been convicted about it, I feel committed.

2. Materialism/Minimalism– Digging into this topic came right around the same time as Marie Kondo’s show on Netflix become popular. I remember also listening to podcasts with the authors of a book called Minimalism. I’ve always loved organization, I’ve always loved simplifying. I’ve loved storage systems and aesthetically pleasing spaces. I’ve craved a less cluttered life and house. I’ve attempted to “purge” along with every military move. I’ve downsized my wardrobe and tried to embrace more of a capsule approach. But lately, it’s taken on more urgency. This idea that when I’m “done” with something, it’s either going to go into a landfill or I have to spend the energy finding it a new home makes me feel like I’d rather spend the energy up front on being super intentional in only collecting/purchasing items or things that I really love, plan to keep a long time, serve a purpose, are a necessity, or bring joy.

3. Environment– I’ve recently felt very convicted that I need to aggressively learn more about and participate in the solution for the climate crisis. Bill Gates’s book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, is my current read and I recommend it for newcomers to this field. It explains things at a very basic level in addition to providing not just doom and gloom (like a lot of climate conversations do) but hope and suggested solutions. At this moment, my “participation” in trying to treat the world better is very simple. Keep reading for my list of what we’re doing.

How it’s going

1. Fashion– I already explained the basis of our current mindset towards clothes shopping, but to be more explicit, here are the resources that I’m using to help me find companies to shop from. As I keep reiterating, I am not the expert, so I utilize the experts who (thanks, internet) are at my fingertips. Simply Liv (the account I linked to before), has a great list on her website of ethical brands. Any time I need an idea for where to shop ethically for purses, shoes, accessories, lingerie, clothes, menswear, maternity or swimwear, I head to her list first thing. Part of why I count on companies like Olivia’s is because it is super easy for brands to pretend to be sustainable, ethical or “green”. Olivia and other bloggers and accounts like hers do the digging and investigating and help me to understand what actually makes a brand ethical and why I can feel good about supporting them. One of the best things I get out of continued social media use is seeing her and others share about businesses that they support and then bookmarking those websites so that when it comes time to buy a gift, invest in new sofa pillows, replace a pair of shoes or spend some birthday money, I already know where I’ll be excited to use my dollars. In addition to @thesimplyliv, I also love @girlthrifted and @the.ethical.edit

Another thing I’m doing right now is a year long hiatus on buying clothes. Starting on my birthday in 2020, I decided to try and go a year without buying clothes or shoes for myself. It has been surprisingly EASY, liberating and has saved me so much time (no more browsing the aisles at a store or adding things to an online cart that I may or may not ever purchase), not to mention money. The point was not just to save money, the point was to go a year wearing exactly the clothes I already have. To make it work. To figure out what never gets worn, to figure out what my true personal style preferences are, and to get creative with repurposing an item for a completely different look. If you’ve heard of The Lazy Genius, one of her principles is “decide once.” I felt like I gave myself the gift of an entire year of not deciding on whether or not to buy clothes. I had simply already decided. So much mental energy saved.

If you’re going to be spending more on a single item and have a relatively fixed budget for clothes, then it follows you would also need to buy in smaller quantities in favor of quality, versatility and lastingness. Once I return to clothes shopping, I’m excited to invest in some pieces that reflect the personal sense of style I’m uncovering (not just what’s “in” during a given season), that will last me years and years, can be worn different ways or through different climates, and support laborers earning a fair wage, in safe working environments, using materials that were sustainably sourced.

My two caveats here are that 1) we are still shopping big retailers for children’s clothes. I think the best solution is probably to buy mainly second-hand, since you can’t really spend big bucks on purchasing “clothes that last for years” for your constantly-growing children. 2) I did end up buying two items (for myself) since last September. One was a warm hat when Simon and I got a weekend away in Greenville, SC and it was significantly colder than I had prepared for. I decided on that purchase to improve my quality of life for that weekend. Secondly, I got pregnant soon after starting my challenge. I already had lots of maternity clothes from my last two pregnancies, but there was a time during this pregnancy that I found it really hard to dress myself comfortably. It was too cold for dresses and shorts, but my belly wasn’t big enough to hold up normal maternity pants yet. Of course my normal pants didn’t fit anymore, so I felt stuck. It was making every single morning a headache of figuring out what to wear and then half the time I spent all day being distracted by my discomfort. In the end, I ended up buying a pair of leggings. They really did help bridge the gap between normal and maternity clothes during a colder season. I compromised by buying second-hand off of Poshmark.

Now’s a great time to discuss second-hand shopping. This is a REALLY great addition to simply buying brand new from ethical brands. If the goal is to 1) keep clothes out of landfills and 2) not directly buy from or support brands that have unethical supply and production processes, then second-hand shopping is a great option. It also helps makes your ethical fashion journey an easier transition on your budget. I’m grateful to have a few second-hand shops in Charleston where we currently live (much prefer trying things on in-person than online shopping) but I also utilize Poshmark, and anticipate I will continue to use it more in the coming years when we are living in a much smaller town. It’s also a great way to get rid of some of your own clothes that you no longer want/need or no longer fit. I’ve also sold to ThredUp before, as well as local second-hand stores.

2. Materialism/Minimalism– I don’t have a great summation of how it’s going. Basically we’re just trying to limit our accumulation of stuff, specifically by focusing on spending our resources on experiences instead of “things”. For example, for the past few years we’ve been grateful to family members who have been willing to purchase memberships and tickets to the aquarium, children’s museum, zoo, county parks, etc. instead of toys and physical things for birthdays and holiday gifts.

I’m also a firm believer of minimizing our household goods to the things that get used regularly. I really dislike having closets or attics full of bins and bags of stuff that is basically just in long term storage. Christmas decorations get a pass, obviously, but anything else that spends all it’s time sitting on a shelf just feels wasteful. To me, this ties back into being an ethical consumer in that it’s made me more conscious of how every purchase of a physical item is going to fit into my life- not just how much I’ll use it but also where it will be stored. I heard on a podcast once that the question you should ask yourself at a bulk store (like Costco) isn’t, “Can I afford this?” but “Where am I planning to store this?” It’s stuck with me since then. Now when I consider a purchase, I *try* to be mindful of something’s long-term usefulness, where it will be stored, how it will improve our quality of life, etc.

I realize this isn’t revolutionary by any means. It’s basically a subtle mind-frame switch that I hope helps us to better use our resources (money) on things that improve our quality of life, don’t cause us annoyance or frustration by creating clutter, or are experiential in nature.

3. Environment– Our personal endeavors to “go green” are very simple and aren’t going to be the difference between whether or not the tides turn on the fight against the climate crisis. But it feels good to do small things. So here’s our list:

  • We recycle, even though our area doesn’t offer street pick-up. We collect our recycling in large containers in our garage and take it every few weeks to a local recycling drop off location.
  • We’re slowly decreasing our single-use plastics. I switched to bar shampoo/conditioner. We use mainly glass hand soap pump dispensers and buy our refills from a company that sends us soap in recyclable cartons (Cleancult). We buy all-purpose cleaner concentrate and refill our same spray bottles over and over with concentrate + water. Next I’d like to try the toothpaste tablets and get to a zero-plastic laundry detergent and dishwashing tablet situation.
  • Reusable grocery bags. As much as possible (aka every time I don’t forget the bags at home), we use our own grocery bags, including mesh produce bags.
  • Reusable ziplock bags- I’ve had a good experience with the Stasher brand. Also, silicone airtight toppers for bowls (instead of plastic wrap). I don’t use these all the time, but I do have them and try to use them whenever I can!
  • Support local farmers, when we can. We love the farmers markets and we really enjoyed our time participating in a CSA (community supported agriculture) weekly produce box. We also got locally baked bread, locally roasted coffee, local eggs and more. One benefit to buying local is that your food (or whatever the item is) didn’t have to be transported nearly as far as most of our food is transported to get to our local grocery stores. Less transportation is always a good thing.
  • Reusable cloth wipes for the counter top and kids’ hands. We still go through paper towels, but as much as possible we try to use our washable cloths for wiping hands, wiping down counters, cleaning up spills, etc. We also try to use cloth napkins more than we use paper or anything disposable.
  • Switching to a menstrual cup and period underwear (Thinx has been my go-to brand). I only got a few months into this before getting pregnant, but I definitely plan to go back to them after this pregnancy.
  • Using Crowd Cow for the purchase of the majority of our meat/animal protein. We have loved this company and been happy with how they source their products from farmers that are using sustainable practices and raising animals that turn into high-quality meat. It does have to be transported to us, but they use recyclable packaging for their ice packs, insulation and boxes.

In conclusion…

As I got well into writing this post, I realized just how long it was turning out to be. I also realized it may come across as “look at me and how good we are” and I’ve tried to explain as best I can that this isn’t my intention. This is a topic that I love discussing, love learning about what others are doing, and wanted to share about in regards to our own journey.

An important reminder I heard (in regards to sustainability efforts) recently was, “just because you can’t do it all doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do one small thing,” or something to that effect. I suffer from an all-or-nothing, perfectionistic kind of approach at times, so this was a great mantra for me to cling to. It’s a common encouragement to Enneagram Ones: “done is better than perfect” or “don’t sacrifice progress in pursuit of perfection.” Certainly, I’m not doing ALL the eco-friendly, sustainable things. I’m still buying from companies/stores that aren’t selling ethical, sustainable brands. I still buy things on Amazon. I’m not cloth-diapering. We get the majority of our food non-locally sourced at a normal grocery store. We go through rolls of paper towels. My kids’ clothes are almost all from Target. We drive two large vehicles and aren’t able to walk or bike anywhere for errands.

But we’re taking some small steps to reduce our family’s footprint on the earth and be conscious of the way our purchases impact others around the globe, and that feels right.

Would love to hear what you’re doing in the comments!

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