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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70 Comments

Filed under Ethical Fashion, Good Books

70 responses to “The Conscientious Consumer and the Guilty Closet

  1. I love going to thrift shops! It is nice to give clothes a second life! Makes me feel so good!

  2. Story of my life!!! It’s impossible to be good all the time and live like a normal person (especially without going completely broke). I’m a gay, conscientious shopper. But, if I’m starving and the only store for miles is a Chick-fil-A, I’m gonna eat the hell out of that sandwich. Am I going to make a habit of it? No. Will I tell anyone who knows me? Noooooo.

    • Ha-Ha! I identify with both not being good all the time and not wanting to tell anyone when I’ve strayed from the path. There are a lot of factors that come together when we make consumer “choices” – our sense of urgency, proximity, affordability, and whether there really are meaningful conscientious alternatives (that we can afford) that are available to us. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Some of my best wardrobe pieces ever have been from thrift shops! My absolute favourite was a black men’s blazer I found in Minerva’s, a thrift shop in Vancouver, B.C., back in the 1980s. It was the perfect “boyfriend” blazer with the coolest pink, purple, black and white Pucci-inspired-print lining. Man, I loved that jacket. 🙂 You’re right – it’s impossible to be good all the time, but if we were all good even part of the time, we could begin to make a difference.

  4. Op Shopping, as it’s coined here in Australia, is a very big passion for many people here, including myself, and I think you are right by saying that we are on our way to changing the culture of consumerism. I think you are also right that it’s going to take time for change to create a tipping point where the major players like Target change their culture but it’s so worth it. I too have a mix of store bought and pre loved clothing and homewards and like you, have made purchases at different times based on what I need, can afford and desire and like you, am on my way to changing these habits one purchase at a time. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for your comment. I hadn’t heard of “Op” shopping before – what is “op” short for? Great point about reaching a tipping point where the big retailers offer more ethically sourced options. I recently saw organic cotton blankets at Target – while they most likely were produced with cheap labor, I do believe it makes a difference for the cotton harvesters to hopefully not be exposed to the harmful fertilizers and pesticides associated with non-organic cotton. It’s at least a step in the right direction.

      • Haha, oops, “Op” refers to Opportunity. Here we call them Opportunity Shops but as Aussies usually do, we shorten everything we love and call them OpShops 🙂
        I think that you are right about the step in the right direction – it’s easy to get bogged down in the ‘you have to immediately change everything, big conglomerate people or we won’t support anything you do’ attitude but I believe that with a community that believes in reforming the culture, and perhaps even re-patterning our thinking towards sustainability, we have an effect on these big companies and it flows on. I commend them for taking some steps and hope they will continue to take more.

      • Opportunity Shops. Cool – I learned something new. Thanks for the reply.

  5. There are moral choices everywhere, and nowhere other than here is the maxim true: Nobody’s perfect. In fact, nothing’s perfect, including the system. When I was writing for the LA Times, I felt I was doing good, but I had to overlook their investments in the logging industry. For 30 years, I recycled newspaper, sometimes bringing it to the recycle center in the trunk of my car, but when I moved to the suburbs, it was a half-hour drive, so I dropped it. I don’t shop at Wal-Mart, but once, I was in Kansas City and had to buy a quick CD for our hosts, and Wal-Mart was the only quick solution. The good thing, though, is that sustainable, free-trade, and recyclable have entered the national vocabulary. Natural-food stores are no longer fringe. I see Priuses all the time. As the system gets better, we get better.

    • Excellent point (and very sociological) about how systems play a role in the “choices” that we make. It’s not about what an individual consumer personally wants in terms of how much people are paid to produce the goods they buy, or whether workers are exposed to poor working conditions. In our own lives, we often try to make good decisions, most of the time. But our lives are set up in ways that practically ensure that there’s not much conscious decision-making to be made – the “choices” we don’t feel proud of are made easy and convenient for us, while the ones we feel good about require a lot more effort (or perhaps aren’t even available). Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. DeAnna

    I try to be good too. My cousin and I love to do the thrift store/ consignment store/ yard sell stuff. I feel its hard to buy the “good” choices because of the extra time and effort! COngrats on being fresh pressed!

  7. Thanks for not just laying a guilt trip but sharing the positives of Brown’s research. I am happy there is evidence of consumer shopping change happening – one thrift store at a time. Big Smiles.

  8. Am inspiring, candid and thoughtful blog post. Thank you. And great follow up comments, too. Over the past decade or so, I have stopped buying much stuff other than food and things related to music. It helps not to watch much TV or read much print media (since they mostly exist to sell advertising and trigger my desires for more stuff…) My most recent non-food purchases, I think, were a blue and white checked shirt from a used clothing store in Davis Square, Somerville, MA (bought on impulse sometime last winter), a ukulele plus the second volume of the excellent “Daily Ukulele” songbook bought at a local music store, and a pair of noise-canceling headphones plus a small digital recording device at a big-box electronics chain store this summer. I have an active imagination; so I do tend to wonder where and how things are produced before I buy them (or decide I don’t need to buy them after all…)

    • Hats off to you for being mindful of your purchases – buying less is ultimately the best for the environment. This reminds me of when I was in Vancouver, Canada a couple of years ago on the University of British Columbia campus. The garbage cans had a cartoon picture of waste going to a landfill and there were words to the effect of “consume less.” Afterwards I was talking with someone who works with waste management in Portland, Oregon and mentioned this idea and they said that message would not go over well in the U.S. – that they would upset business to have such a message on public garbage cans. There are many more messages (on TV, in magazines) that tell us to consume more. Thanks for your thoughtful response.

  9. The perfect can be the enemy of the good. While we can berate ourselves for not being “perfect” consumers, doing some good is better than doing none at all. Love your topic, glad that “freshly pressed” led me here!

  10. I get the whole, “every dollar you spend casts a vote for the sort of world you want” ethos, but we’re not saints, we are after all mere time poor, just trying to do the best we can when we can, human beings. I think society puts so much emphasis on being perfect at everything we do that you can be made to feel guilty, even, as your wonderful post demonstrates, when we are still doing more about putting our money where our mouth is than most people. We have a rule with our adult kids that for our birthdays and Xmas they either ‘make it or bake it’ or even ‘re-gift it’, but it doesn’t mean we never shop at Target either 🙂

    • That is an excellent rule for gifting – thanks for sharing that.
      One reason I wrote the post is I think that it’s very easy to fall into an absolutist mentality of “if I can’t make every dollar count towards what is right, then I give up.” In other words, sometimes the guilt leads us down the exact opposite path. I think it’s better to do the best we can – which does mean pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone of not always buying what’s easy and cheap; but it also means not beating ourselves up when we don’t because that’s likely to make us give up on the whole enterprise.

  11. Good article, thank you. Thrift shops are great places for me, I tend to buy some of my favorite items there!

  12. well done on the Freshly Pressed! I’m writing an article on buying food mindfully at the moment. Not an easy task when you really want to do it seriously!

  13. Tara-Erin

    Great post – I relate to this really well. When I moved to my new home in Brookfield MA I swore off Walmart forever when I found a great locally owned one-off store called Klem’s (Rte. 9 in Spencer, MA). Then reality set in: I’m bringing in only 3/4 of a paycheck and my sweetheart is still in job search mode and we’re raising 3 teenage boys…and I can’t afford to shop where I’d like to. But that doesn’t mean I have stopped trying. Much to my surprise, I actually enjoying hanging my laundry on the clothesline in my new backyard, at least on nice weather days…

  14. Great read!
    Congrats on getting pressed!

  15. “All the time” vs. “some of the time” is a false dichotomy. I buy “Ridgid” brand power tools at Home Depot because I know that they stand up to rugged use and won’t end up in a landfill in a year or two. On the other hand, I scrounge for construction materials at Habitat for Humanity Restores because there’s so much that is re-usable. It’s a healthy balance, not an ethical conflict.

  16. nic awesomeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

  17. I love just slowly looking round charity shops and being able to put together outfits from clothes that wouldn’t have come together otherwise! Have only just gotten back into this and really want to try and improve my impact with things like this! 🙂

  18. Reblogged this on pykeiloh and commented:
    check this out

  19. Happy I’m not the only one that feels that “guilt” of buying something new mostly because its easiest, when my mind is saying, i can do better! I think i am fortunate to live in a place where the thrift shop bounty is immense! I can clothe my family of four for next to nothing. I find amazing brands, and my kids are the best dressed on the block!

  20. Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I believe I also fit the description of the “conscientious consumer,” as I try to make ethical purchasing decisions whenever possible, but realistically, make choices everyday that violate my personal values. In my blog, I chronicle my daily outfits, which often feature second-hand items, but just as frequently include less ethically sourced pieces. I always feel conflicted about telling people where those items originate so I appreciate the comfort that I am not a lonely hypocrite; rather, one of many individuals who is conscious of the need to make better choices, and yet faces a reality that makes it difficult to be perfect.
    ~Laura
    http://copycatfashionista.wordpress.com/

    • I have a sociology friend who says the systems in which we live ensure all of us are hypocrites about something, so maybe it’s not so useful to criticize on that basis. I think when we feel like that it makes us feel like just giving up, that all or nothing approach, which isn’t helpful to anyone. Thanks for sharing.

  21. This is a wonderful discussion in a very simple sense. There’s an awakening, I think, to conscientious consumerism because so many people are tired of pretending that consumerism has been harmful to our cluttered minds and cluttered lives. We yearn to live more simply, thus more fully. The statistic: we are the largest consuming public in global history – is finally starting to reverse. When I was little, the typical childhood personal possessions were few; passed down bike, hot wheels, Tonka truck and sand box toys, a toy drum kit. Today, if we emptied the contents of our homes, the pile would go down the street and around the corner. So thanks for writing about this, and helping us see the importance of making better choices. One by one, we can make this a simpler, less cluttered place.
    David

  22. Thank you for sharing!
    Pre-loved stuffs are all over my closet and I big fan of thrift shops!!!

    *Alaine

  23. Really enjoyed reading this! I do believe that, especially in our consumer society, shopping is like voting… every item we choose to buy, or shop we choose to frequent represents the kind of production/ethics/values we’re voting for. It may not feel as though we’re making a difference, when there are so many people casting their votes blindly (or when we’re forced to vote for the cheap item based on our current financial situation), but gradually, all those little votes will eventually become the majority, and change will be inevitable!

    • In Buying into Fair Trade, Brown recognizes there are limits to how much changing our shopping habits can lead to bigger social change. It’s one piece of a larger puzzle of changing how our material goods are produced. Thanks for sharing.

  24. To me this kind of like the same dilemma of being a vegetarian but not going full vegan. In a similar manner, our consumer habits are sometimes hard wired into us by our parents or just convenience of the habit. Sometimes, you want to help, but you just don’t see yourself giving up cheese along if you already gave up the hamburger.
    Loved your article.

  25. Reblogged this on Reclaimed Mama and commented:
    Loved this so much I had to share it with you!

  26. I really enjoyed reading this. I am trying to have a smaller and smaller footprint in all these areas, the way I maintain and fuel my home, the places I purchase things, what I eat and how I use paper, plastic, chemicals – it is a lot to keep straight because I have been slowly overhauling my habits for a long time. Great to read your thoughts – love this blog.

  27. I think it’s important to do what we can, when we can, where we can. It sounds like you do that! When I moved to the Middle East, I figured clothes would be dirt cheap here since the manufacturing countries are sooo much closer. I discovered quite the opposite is true, and that the prices are significantly more here for, well, EVERYthing. To top it off, there are ZERO “vintage” shops / used clothing stores. My husband and I either wait until we are in the US to shop, or have clothes custom made here by Indian tailors. Thanks for a great blog post!

  28. I completely empathized with all of this. I tried to challenge myself to buy my clothes completely second hand for a year, and slipped up this weekend for the first time. Because, well, I’m slightly sketched out by buying consignment undergarments. Any suggestions on purchasing ethical underwear?

    • Hi – I just did a little sleuthing for fair-trade women’s underwear and usa-made underwear (guys have more options – particularly usa made). Wearpact.com has a decent selection. Duluth Trading Company has “free-range underwear” made from organic cotton. And if you search “made in the USA” for herroom.com, there’s a selection as well. I did learn that Smartwool socks are made in the usa as well. I hope that helps!

  29. Great post. I’m doing the opposite: instead of shopping 2nd hand I’m getting rid of a house full of stuff and trying to make sure stuff goes to good homes, each thing to people who want and need it, vs being left over somewhere and ending up in the landfill. I even found a great home for my old vinyl records this week — made me so happy!

  30. You made me think of the times I have recyclable items but our inside recycling box is full and its raining or I’m in a rush. I have often just thrown it away justifying that I recycle everything else! I think that follows the same principle as what you are describing!

  31. I have almost 90% second hand clothes.. Not really through choice, and I’m no fashion guru, generally wear what I find first. Recently bought some new clothes and was aghast at the terrible quality. I think learning how to find and buy secondhand should be in the teenage curriculum! We need to tread lightly and stop using this planet like there’s one next door for us to move into!

    • Thanks for sharing. I also believe the quality of new clothes has gone down. I don’t think I’m romanticizing either because I have done comparisons with the old ones. The new ones are made for a quick trip to the landfill and that’s not sustainable.

      • I’ve started to learn wardrobe renovation.. Modifying the finds that don’t fit and using those bags of motherinlaw donations as starting points for new clothes. And I’ve started spinning and learning to knit. We have to start taking responsibility and living locally.. This global economy is only good for multinational corporations who profit by exploiting people and our planet at any opportunity. Image is everything, and we do these companies advertising just by wearing them on our shirts, etc. quality, not quantity.. Austerity should become fashionable again! Hope it doesn’t take world war to make it happen.

      • Thanks for sharing!

        Nancy Fischer Sociology Department Director, Metro-Urban Studies Program CB 116 Augsburg College 2211 Riverside Ave S. Minneapolis, MN 55454 (612) 330-1095

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