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Lithium Ethical online shopping: putting your money where your mouth is

Sep. 4, 2020
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Over the course of the last two months, Americans young and old have walked the streets for the Black Lives Matter movement. Left-leaning individuals have signed petitions and made phone calls in hopes of defunding the police and reallocating their resources to homeless shelters, schools, mental health care, and rehabilitation. Social media platforms including Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok have supported a rise in easily accessible and digestible political information such as doodles depicting proper protesting attire and checklists of action items. From where I stand, political action and education appear to be at an all-time high.

During this period of political awakening, what I believe most of us have learned (generally speaking) is that it isn’t nearly enough to avoid racist, harmful, and oppressive behaviors—we must actively practice anti-racism, educate ourselves, and uplift others. We must listen, learn, vote, and support each and every day. We must engage in conversations with individuals that aren’t like-minded and we must put our money where our mouths are.

Learning to speak with your spending is, in my opinion, one of the most important practices brought to light in the last several months. In a capitalist nation, money is power and thus, to speak with your spending is to speak the language of those in power. Yes, posting and reading and listening are incredibly valuable, but for action to happen, money needs to leave the pockets of unethical and racist companies and be poured into the hands of BIPOC organizations and ethical businesses. This reallocation of money can take the form of a donation (preferably a recurring donation) but it can and should also take the form of mindful day-to-day spending—meaning treating each purchase as a chance to keep the planet clean, support fair labor practices, and uplift the BIPOC community. 

When looking to take up more ethical shopping practices, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Personally, I think a good first step is your wardrobe. The fast-fashion industry is responsible for producing 10% of global carbon emissions, 20% of global wastewater, and 35% of all microplastics that are currently polluting our oceans. Plus, this industry is notorious for its unethical and exploitative labor practices. (For a list of fast-fashion retailers to avoid click here, and for more information stream The True Cost on Amazon Prime). Curating an ethical wardrobe doesn’t require much sacrifice from the consumer but has a significant positive impact on the production chain. To help you get started (or enhance your ethical shopping practice) we can address two main routes: buying new and buying secondhand. 

Buying New

Unfortunately, ethical shopping isn’t as easy as googling “ethical clothing stores” and clicking on the first link you see. More often than not, companies that claim to be ethical unsurprisingly spend more time trying to look appealing and win over consumers than they do maintaining genuinely ethical practices. In an attempt to learn how to spot a thoroughly ethical clothing source, I investigated nine popular, self-declared ethical companies: Alternative Apparel, Everlane, The Girlfriend Collective, Levis, Madewell, Pact, Parade, Patagonia, and Reformation. (Feel free to view the detailed breakdown of what I found here.) Through inspecting these companies, I discovered some trends and have crafted six main tips for others looking to find ethical shopping options.

Tips for Finding Ethical Clothing Companies

  1. Know what you are looking for. An ethical company does much more than use organic cotton. Before purchasing from a company, investigate. The three main elements I look for are sustainably sourced materials, fair and humane working conditions, and social consciousness. Does this company recycle their water? Do they use wind or solar power? Do they use recycled materials? Are they transparent about their factory locations and conditions? Are they Fair Trade Certified? Have they acknowledged Black Lives Matter? How diverse are their corporate offices? Are they using their brand to promote values that are important to you?
  2. Don’t trust what the company tells you. Always fact check. Several of the companies I looked into project an image of diversity—but Googling “(company name) corporate diversity breakdown” revealed otherwise. Use outside sources and don’t rush into trusting a company.
  3. Sustainable and ethical are not the same thing. Many companies treat the terms “ethical” and “sustainable” as relatively interchangeable when they’re in fact critically different. Items that are sustainably made are better for the planet (often being made from organic and recycled material) whereas items that are ethically made are both better for the planet and the people that reside here. Moreover, genuinely ethical companies don’t try to treat “ethical” and “sustainable” as sales-boosting buzzwords but rather, as cornerstone values. 
  4. Size matters. The bigger the company, the more likely it is that it isn’t ethical. To find ethical clothing sources turn to companies that are small enough to value their employees, keep a close eye on their factories, and invest care in each of their garments. Also, don’t trust “sustainable” clothing lines made by large, unsustainable companies. (H&M is an example of this.) While the clothes may be sustainably made, your money is going to the same place as those shopping fast fashion. 
  5. When in doubt, shop from Black-owned businesses. An easy way to ensure that your money will be in good hands is to shop Black-owned. Making this a habit helps combat the growing racial wage gap, supports Black livelihoods, and keeps money away from the world’s white billionaires. The Nile List is a great catalog for finding Black-owned businesses. 
  6. Understand why truly ethical items come with a high price tag. Buying ethically made clothing isn’t cheap, nor should it be. The price tags we’re conditioned to view as “normal” reflect mass production, exploitative labor, and unsustainable consumption. When workers are paid a fair wage and materials are mindfully sourced prices will naturally rise. If you are able to, invest in these higher-quality garments and learn to treat an ethical price tag as the new normal. 

Buying Second-Hand

While it’s important to support the slow fashion movement and treat clothing as an investment, I understand that the tight budgets of young people don’t always have room to support small-batch, ethical clothing brands. Fortunately, shopping second-hand is an option as affordable as fast fashion while also being as sustainable as slow fashion. In choosing to shop second-hand, you’re choosing to not contribute to the demand for new items. You’re choosing to reduce waste by reusing what is already made. 

However, before we can write off thrifting as the answer to all of our ethical shopping woes, we must remember that to shop ethically is to shop in a way that’s both environmentally sustainable and socially conscious. While an onslaught of teens shopping at thrift stores may not perpetuate the use of sweatshop labor or promote the further destruction of our planet, it can contribute to gentrification. Thrift stores were ultimately created to provide an affordable clothing source to working-class communities, not to serve as a hot teen shopping spot. As members from upper and middle classes have begun to swarm thrift stores—the worst of whom buy large amounts of clothing to sell at marked-up prices on Depop—these stores are no longer able to fully serve the communities for which they were created. What we ultimately must remember is that thrifting is still consumption and, like any consumption, it must be mindful. Ethics must still be considered.

This isn’t difficult to do. If you’re choosing to shop second-hand and don’t have to shop second-hand, acknowledge that your ability to choose is a privilege. Moreover, if you’re choosing to shop second-hand and notice that certain items or sizes are understocked, save these clothes for those that cannot afford to shop elsewhere. Then when it comes time to get rid of old clothing, consider donating your unwanted clothes to the thrift stores you frequent instead of selling them at prices working-class individuals may not be able to afford. Lastly, be aware of who you are buying clothes from and support BIPOC sellers when you can. To make online second-hand shopping a bit easier, below is a list detailing some retailers I’ve used and links to some BIPOC sellers to support on each platform. 

Online Second-Hand Platforms and BIPOC Shops to Support

EBAY 

BEST FOR: Bundles of clothing and very specific pieces. You can either bid for or buy items on eBay. 

BIPOC SHOPS: Because sellers remain fairly anonymous on eBay I couldn’t find any resources that highlighted BIPOC sellers.

ETSY

BEST FOR: Small businesses and artisans. While not everything on Etsy is second-hand, it’s an umbrella website supporting loads of individual craftsmen and collectors. Lots of lovely vintage finds and handmade items.

BIPOC SHOPS: On Etsy, you can search “Black-owned” to be led to a page with over 62,000 results. If you’re looking for something specific, the blog The Mad Mommy provides this catalog which organizes over 1,000 Black-owned Etsy shops into categories, making it easy to find whatever you may need. 

DEPOP

BEST FOR: Curated second-hand and vintage clothing. Depop is the most popular online thrift source for young people. If Depop is a regular shopping spot for you, make sure to check out and support BIPOC sellers. 

BIPOC SHOPS: Both this post and this article showcase a multitude of Black-owned Depop shops to support.

INSTAGRAM

BEST FOR: Discovering and uplifting small businesses and independent designers. Although it isn’t often used for shopping directly, Instagram is a great platform for discovering vintage shops and small businesses. 

BIPOC SHOPS: This link leads to a post highlighting 22 different Black-owned vintage shops that sell and advertise through Instagram.

POSHMARK 

BEST FOR: Very specific second-hand items. If you’re looking for an item you can’t seem to find anywhere else, I tend to have luck with Poshmark. A very good source for second-hand shoes.

BIPOC SHOPS: Karis Renee, Melissa Danielle, and Maynard’s Closet are all top-rated Poshmark sellers. While I’m sure there are dozens more, I couldn’t find a cumulative resource. 

THREAD UP

BEST FOR: Popular brands sold second-hand. ThreadUp is great if you want a fast-fashion brand without supporting the fast-fashion industry—but before spending your money here, it’s important to note that ThreadUp recently partnered with Walmart.

BIPOC SHOPS: Because clothing is sold to ThreadUp, there are not individual sellers you can support.

A Closing Note on Ethical Consumption

With all of this in mind, it’s important to remember that while it’s great to support ethical companies and sellers, you must also be an ethical consumer. This means reevaluating your spending habits, buying only what you need, and reusing what you can. It means being mindful and doing your best to detach from fast-paced trend culture. Possibly most importantly it means acknowledging that your values can and should be reflected in every choice you make, even if it’s something as mundane as choosing where to buy a new t-shirt. 

Conscious consumption is daunting and I’ll be the first person to admit that it’s far from second nature to me. But you don’t have to be perfect. Ethical shopping, or any form of life change for that matter, isn’t an all-or-nothing game. So don’t be intimidated! Just think about what you value, open up your wallet, and do what you can.

Some More Resources I Found Helpful

https://lucyandyak.com/blogs/news/what-to-do-when-privilege-makes-sustainability-a-choice

https://wildmag.co.uk/2020/04/25/second-hand-shopping-checking-privilege/

https://www.instagram.com/p/CCB5mwdCzd3/?igshid=5gcc5l028ke2

https://www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/racial-gap-business-ownership-explained-four-charts/