Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Conscientious Consumer and the Guilty Closet

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me, pleased with myself and my morning coffee

I’m sipping a locally-roasted latte, with creamy milk sourced from a local farm (Autumnwood Farm) in paper cup with a “25% post-consumer recycled content lid”, purchased from a local coffee roaster (Dogwood Coffee) from a local independent coffee shop (Groundswell). I’m wearing a vintage dress, a 1960s black-and-white floral with French darts that I purchased from a local shop (Up 6), accessorized with a vintage pin and earrings from another local vintage shop (Blacklist Vintage). My black sandals are my last pair standing, after half the summer left two others in a bag, waiting to go to shoe repair.

Do I sound like a virtuous, ethical consumer? I immediately think, “If I were more virtuous, I would have brought my own mug to the coffee shop so that I’m not wasting paper,” and “I should have bought these sandals secondhand, but I think I got them at Herbergers.”

There are many vintage, secondhand items in my closet. Some, like my Skunkfunk dresses and skirts, are from brands that claim to produce with sustainability in mind. I also have dresses that were made in the USA, ones I’ve sewn myself, or purchased from local independent boutiques and Etsy.

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me, not pleased with my history of unethical purchases

Also hanging in my closet there are…..ummmm…..gulp………clothes from Target. I’ll also sheepishly admit that I am typing on a desk from Target, my mouse rests on a Target mousepad, and a tall Target shelf stands to my right. Heavy chagrinned sigh.

I could have furnished my office with antiques, I could have gotten a mousepad from the “please take” table at my college, but the stuff from Target was easy (there’s a superstore 5 blocks from my house), attractive enough, and cheap.

I hold no illusions about the ethics of these purchases; I don’t try to justify it with Target’s charitable donations (after all, I know about their political donations as well). They were items whose low price was made possible by paying people next to nothing in poor factory conditions. I can’t pretend these objects were made with practices meant to reduce their environmental impact. And yet there they are in my home.

The road to ethical consumer-dom is a straight and narrow one, with guilty purchases strewn about, littering its shoulders like road kill.

I’m afraid I am what sociologist Keith R. Brown calls a “conscientious consumer” in his new book Buying into Fair Trade: Culture, Morality and Consumption.  Brown interviewed people who buy fair-trade coffee from independent coffee shops and fair-trade gifts from Ten Thousand Villages. The “conscientious consumers” he interviewed were “somewhat critical of the belief that shopping can change the world but still willing to shop for a cause….acutely aware of the widespread contradictions between their professed values and their everyday shopping patterns” (ch. 4). For most who shop with social awareness in mind, the fair-trade coffee, the organic food from the co-op and the thrifted clothing is almost always interspersed with other items from Target and the Gap.

Only a small proportion of shoppers take ethics into consideration for almost every daily purchase. And even the most thoughtful ethical consumers still face difficulty making purchases from companies that completely align with their values, as this excellent post on “Questioning the Meaning of Ethical Fashion” by A l’allure garconniere discusses.

The rest of us mostly feel guilty and seek ways to rationalize our consumer behavior when it falls short of our ideals. We muddle through, perhaps comforting ourselves that we’re at least doing more for a better consumer world than the average Walmart shopper (Walmart seemed to be the one place where most of Brown’s research subjects drew the line that they would not cross).

And here’s some food for thought: our ethical purchases might be precisely what we use to license our unethical shopping. Like the man on a diet who feels he has a pass to eat an entire pizza because he went on a five-mile run, buying the occasional fair trade, local, organic, eco or thrifted item can serve to relieve guilt about the Target t-shirts and home decor.

And yet, Brown found evidence that consumers’ behavior is changing. In the final chapter of Buying into Fair Trade he describes market research conducted at Home Deport that found that those who shopped the eco-aisle were becoming more mindful of the social impact of their purchases. And buying fair trade does make a small difference – particularly to the producers who supply fair-trade products. Brown concludes, “We will never be able to shop our way out of the huge social problems associated with over-consumption. Nevertheless, if we are going to continue to shop, we can do it in a better way.”

  • Nancy L. Fischer

Photos by Nancy Fischer

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