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Shopping…With a Conscience

Since it’s Black Friday/Local Saturday/Cyber Monday season, it’s hard to avoid thoughts of shopping.  I admit…I like to shop…too much probably.  Like most Americans, I have a bit of a consumerism problem (I could bore you at this point with my long academic ramblings on the subject…but I’ll spare you!).  But lately I’ve been thinking more and more about the impact of my purchases.  And wouldn’t you know this popped up on my Facebook feed today:

Clearly a sign to think harder (and to write a blog post!).

These are wise words on many levels and have implications for how we parent and what we teach our children about spending and buying.  Consider the following:

  • The things we buy impart our values on our children – mostly in subtle ways, but in ways that are long lasting.   One very basic example, if we buy our children strictly gendered toys (more on that in another post), we send messages about expected gender roles.  The way we shop – brands we choose, the types of items we buy – all of those things influence the way our children will one day shop.  Consider that it took me years to change toothpaste brands from what my parents always bought or that my instinct is to always buy the same brand of frozen vegetables they did.
  • Products are not without history, that is they do not magically appear on stores shelves waiting to come home with us.  I recently caught the tail end of a news story about chocolate, and the fact that a large portion of the world’s chocolate is produced under questionable circumstances including child labor and forced labor.  So do I buy the bag of chocolate for $3 that has a potentially questionable production history?  Or do I buy the $6 bag of fair trade organic chocolate?  How does this decision mesh with efforts at budgeting and teaching fiscal responsibility?  Surely, I could just lay off the chocolate – but we could ask this same question of nearly every product we buy, food or otherwise.   Are our purchases supporting someone in a sustainable way?  Or are they supporting corporate profits at the expense of thousands of nameless individuals?
  • Labor considerations go beyond just the production of products.  Consider the recent workers’ action against retail behemoth Walmart.  Many Walmart employees (and for that matter the employees of other big box retailers) don’t earn enough to put themselves above the poverty line.  Low prices aren’t without cost.  And of course the big retailers also push smaller, local retailers out of business in many cases.
  • What do we spend money on?  Things or experiences?  Quantity or quality?  Is it better to spend $100 on 5 different toys for the holidays or on one year’s membership to a local museum?

I am just beginning to think about this and would welcome your thoughts.  I am by no means anywhere close to where I’d like to be on this.  I admit I love Amazon and Target, buy way more clothes than I (or my kids) need, and could stand to downsize in many respects.  I don’t always buy fair trade/organic/local/sustainably – or even think about those things when I purchase.  But small steps are the first step – so let’s walk together!

Here’s what I’m working towards – a more ethical ethic of shopping:

  • Buy less!  That’s pretty obvious and in some respects the hardest to do.   I’ve made a start by focusing on certain areas – like my closet – and avoiding trips to Target.
  • Buy used!  Buying used is great in many respects – it saves you money and it puts added use into an item.  Kids’ clothes are the most obvious place to start with this as kids’ consignment shops and consignment sales are found almost everywhere.  And if you don’t have one near you, there’s always eBay or services like threadUp which allow you to exchange used kids’ clothing online.  Lots of great used mama clothes out there too.  Another advantage to buying used – you’ll be able to purchase higher quality clothing which lasts longer – and more importantly may be made with more ethical labor and resource usage practices.
  • Buy local!  Buying local supports the local economy.  The most obvious place for me to make this change has been with our food – we are lucky to live in an area that not only has abundant year round farmer’s markets but also a variety of CSA (and even home delivery CSAs).  Local produce uses fewer resources from field to plate than buying produce that’s shipped in.  My next step…work on local meat and eggs on a more regular basis.
  • Buy small!  Supporting small businesses is great as is buying from WAHMs and small scale artisans.  Scope out local craft fairs or the ultimate craft fair…Etsy.
  • Buy simple!  The simpler the product, the more “ethical” it is likely to be and, in the case of food, the more likely it is to be better for you.  There’s a good rule of thumb about avoiding the center aisles when grocery shopping. Processed food is harder on your budget and your waistline – and is more likely to have problematic production practices.   I’ve been dabbling in things like bread baking and yogurt making – fun and fairly simple (and the kids can help!).  Stay tuned for future posts on making ethical food choices.
  • Buy quality!   Handcrafted wooden toys last ages; mass-produced plastic ones don’t.  A few more expensive but well made items will last long and leave a smaller footprint than the dozens of cheap things that replace them.
  • Buy globally!  Consider the impact your purchase makes on the world – in terms of both resources and labor.  I love shops such as Mata Traders and Global Girlfriend  that offer fair trade products crafted by women around the world – that means economic security for the producers vs. wage slavery.
  • Buy experiences!!  Most of us remember experiences over things – that says something about what we value.  Membership to local museums, tickets to cultural events, day trips to special places – all make great gifts.  This goes for adults too; we’ve started a tradition of gifting grandparents donations to organizations (our local animal shelter and Heifer International) instead of yet another thing they don’t need.  And of course they get some kid crafts too – because all grandparents need more of that 😉

So there’s a start.  I definitely have a long way to go to be a truly ethical shopper.  Maybe I’ll never get there.  But in this season of shopping, small steps can lead the way to big difference – a shift from getting to giving and a better understand of how our dollars shape the lives of both those we will never meet and our children.

I hope to explore this topic more in depth in the coming weeks – would love to hear your ideas, questions, and suggestions!


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Published in Parenting Simple Living