After my recent post about quitting my Amazon Prime and Kindle Unlimited accounts following the news about the company’s employment practices, I got a range of reader responses, from “That’s awesome, I’m going to do it too” to “So what? Are you going to shop at Wal-Mart now? Because they’re definitely the bastion of workers’ rights, and they’re also known for their wide pool of ethically-sourced products,” to “That sounds like a good idea, but do you really think it will help? Should I write a letter to Amazon? And what will I do if I need to buy rubber gloves, an 18-pack of baby wipes, and a nozzle for my Hoover at 2:30 am?”
All (OK, most) of these are very good questions. It’s all well and good to make a grand declaration about quitting or boycotting something, but how well does it really work? What kind of impact do we as consumers really have on corporate decision-makers? Most importantly, where else, besides Amazon, can we buy an economy-sized pack of Gas-X (admit it, you’ve done it) and have it discreetly shipped to our home within 48-hours?
Here’s the answer, and you’re probably not going to like it.
You can’t have the stuff.
At least not exactly the way you had it before. Not if you want anything to change.
We’ve come to expect it all in the Oz of overnight shipping, $10 manicures and $20 dresses. Companies spend billions in advertising and on lobbyists to assure us we can have it.
It’s too good because it’s not true.
In the game of lower prices and faster production, corners are cut. If a product or service is offered at a mysteriously low price, it’s safe to say someone, somewhere is getting the short straw.
The really cheap convenience of places like Amazon (and, let’s be fair – Wal-Mart, Target and other big-box retailers) as well as the ‘fast-fashion’ movement and the miracle of below-market priced food and fuel here in the U.S. is not just a handy convenience. It’s deliberate, and it’s the work of many behind-the-scenes business and policy players who have worked for years to make it happen.
Food is cheap because it’s subsidized by the Farm Bill and the agriculture lobbies. Fashion is cheap because it’s made in countries where there are no labor laws, and people are sewing your Old Navy jeans for 20 cents an hour. And commodities from Amazon are cheap because someone in a warehouse is being paid minimum wage to get them to you, minus the overhead costs incurred by individual retailers.
Think about it — usually you pay shipping on a package (each package) to cover the cost of things like labor to ship the package. With Amazon, you can get a Prime membership and buy as much as you want in a year minus the onerous shipping. Who do you think pays this price? It’s not the shareholders. In many ways, this is brilliant — it’s a business model, and it’s working. As I noted in my previous post, Amazon recently took the spot as the world’s most valuable retailer.
Of course, this only works if you view people, and employees, as commodities. Right below the rent, but possibly above air conditioning.
If you’re bothered by this approach (and the fact that you might be a commodity in the near future), why not put your Visa where your mouth is?
Here’s three concrete ways you can do so:
- Keep your old stuff longer
If you’re like me, the thought of giving up your iPhone makes you break out into instant hives. While the minimalist movement has been gaining plenty of followers lately, it’s not for everyone. Try easing into it. I view this type of move kind of like a diet or exercise regimen — it has to be something you can reasonably stick with, or there’s no point.
I know I’m not going to completely stop buying clothes and makeup, I’m not going to get rid of my computer and phone. But I can buy fewer of them. I don’t really need 15 pairs of shoes and a new phone every year. The electronic and auto industries have done a great job of making us think we need to replace these items often. You don’t. Not really.
Unless something actually breaks, or is actually old, try doing a mental check — do you really need it? Or is it just an impulse buy? Another option — try shopping used. I mean vintage. That makes everything, except food, seem a little bit cooler.
This is hard. It’s not easy to be the one buying less stuff in a culture where everyone buys, especially if you’re used to being able to shop from your phone at any time. I hear you. I’m one of those people. But it’s one of the very tangible ways we can make a difference.
- Investigate your investments
Not every corporation views its employees as disposable commodities. Many treat their employees very well. Some are a mixed bag. Benefit corporations, or B-Corporations, are a type of for-profit corporate entity, legislated in 28 U.S. states, that includes positive impact on society and the environment in addition to profit in their legally defined goals. They have the same tax structure as regular corporations, but they’re like corporations 2.0. They promote health and environmental preservation and economic opportunities (besides just jobs) Some examples include TOMS, the famous buy one, give one shoe company, King Arthur flour, shoe company Dansko, tea maker Numi, and Seventh Generation, which makes cleaning products.
Many of these companies have found that making employees happy makes financial sense. Paying for nice employee perks might not produce the type of unrestrained short-term growth that investors like, but it promises value in the long run, said Ralph Carlton, King Arthur’s CFO, told The Atlantic in 2014.
I’m saving for my retirement right now. I’d like to have my money going toward one of these companies – I have a long time to watch it grow.
- Check before you buy
One of the biggest reasons more people don’t buy ethically-sourced clothing and products is that it’s hard. Rock-climbing without a harness hard. Harder than finding an affordable swimsuit that doesn’t make you look like an extra on Z Nation. Retailers don’t make it easy. Check the tag on practically any piece of clothing in your closet, and you can bet it says ‘Made in India’ or ‘Made in Bangladesh’. For reference, Bangladesh is where a 2012 fire in a garment factory killed 112 people, and a building collapse a few months later that resulted in 1,130 deaths. The factory was making clothes for Wal-Mart, who was completely unaware of the working conditions there.
As horrifying as that is, just try finding clothing from a major retail store that isn’t made overseas. If the top officials at Wal-Mart didn’t know their clothing was being manufactured in these conditions (they said they contracted the work, which was sent to other contractors,) how are we, the consumers, supposed to figure it out? It’s difficult.
Luckily for us, there are several apps and tools available to help find ethically-sourced products and brands that don’t use sweatshops. I’ve done some of the research for you to save time. (Don’t thank me, I expect payment in coffee.) You can scan a barcode at a store with the app from Good Guide to search out socially responsible products, or use Environmental Working Group’s massive database to check their product ratings on food, household goods and cosmetics. I’ve found their Skin Deep guide on cosmetic ingredients and carcinogens particularly helpful – usually because despite a decent college education, I can’t actually pronounce most of the things on my lipstick label. Sites Free to Work and Shop Ethical, two other databases of fair trade and ethically-sourced goods, are other great places to start.
Author Elizabeth Cline has compiled a fantastic ‘slow fashion’ directory based on research from her book ‘Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion’ and is one of the few I’ve found that lists many U.S. stores. Other fashion directories I researched, like Style with Heart and one called (get ready) Ethical Fashion Directory, are good, but are mostly full of either overseas stores or places I haven’t heard of. I’m absolutely OK with trying something new, but it’s nice to see some familiar names (J Brand, Nordstrom) in Cline’s directory.
Other companies known for either treating workers well, making their clothing in the U.S. and/or practicing ethical and fair trade include Zappos, Patagonia, New Balance, J Brand jeans, Everlane, Etsy, People Tree, Tarte, Madewell, J. Crew and TOMS, to name a few.
I get it. All this sounds really overwhelming, and maybe kind of preachy. It’s nice to aspire to things like this if you’re comfortably middle class and have the luxury of choosing between stores. For some of us, picking goods based on sustainability, fair trade or how the company treats a worker in a factory two continents away is secondary to picking goods that won’t put a checking account into overdraft, and balance the budget with food and medicine. I know this because I’ve been there, for a long time.
It can also be tempting to get smashed with a tsunami of everything wrong with the world, throw up your hands in the middle of the natural-goods aisle and scream ‘This organic sunscreen looks like bad Halloween makeup, and it’s not making a difference anyway.’ (Of course, this has never happened to me.)
These changes probably sound annoying and uncomfortable because they are. If you want to, try making one at a time. Overhauling life all at once is a guaranteed recipe for disaster and a rage-quit.
Grassroots consumer movements are built slowly, one person and choice at a time. Don’t consider yourself a failure if you don’t immediately (or ever) cut up your credit cards and move into a yurt. Changes like these have to be sustainable and feasible for you, and sometimes that means slow. That’s ok. But don’t be afraid to ask yourself the hard questions.