When I first started writing this blog, one of the major reasons was my obsession with ethical shopping. Clearly, I have written on much more than that, but it is still a topic I hold dear. My master’s thesis was on the subject. More importantly, I think about every purchase I make, and often I research purchases and companies prior to buying anything.
I wanted to address the topic now, though because there has once again been a flash-in-the-pan boycott of a particular company. I only wish people’s enthusiasm would last. The cynic in me, who still lives, realizes that at the end of the day, most consumers are going to choose cost and convenience over ethics. It is VERY easy to just turn a blind eye to injustices because you don’t want to part with your favorite product.
My intent is not to shame you, so please don’t take my words as chastising or criticizing. We all need to live our lives and we all need to make choices that meet our health, lifestyle, economic and personal needs. I just would like to suggest that you think about the impact your purchases have.
If one consumer stops buying a product, that won’t have much impact. If thousands or millions of consumers stop, that will.
Power is in numbers, and you are number one.
I recently wrote specifically about Amazon. In my vocal opinion, there is literally no argument to make that anyone should shop at Amazon. Classic example of cost and convenience kicking compassion’s ass.
Today, I want to address shopping with your conscience more broadly. The inspiration for this was the recent call to boycott Starbucks because of their reaction to employees wearing black lives matter (#BLM) pins. I say, kudos! I was thrilled to see people realizing the power of the purse and standing up against the corporation for their beliefs. However, the cynic in me popped up her little cynical head and asked, “Why now? Why this?” I have long stopped buying Starbucks unless there is no other option and my addict’s headache starts screaming, and even then, I just get a refill of my own travel mug. Here are a few practices, some of which made the news, which caused me to curb my Starbucks habit years ago:
- Reported slave labor on coffee farms in Brazil
- Reported use of prison labor in the U.S.
- Booting out people of color for using “customer-only” restrooms, but not white folks
- Racial slurs written on coffee cups
- Working conditions of employees making your $8 latte
- Starbucks has always claimed to be green, but single-use plastic lids alone should give one pause.
So why did the #BLM moment tip people over when arguably, many of the people in the above list would also be Black? The answer is obvious. The U.S. is in an important moment in our history, and there is a lot of change happening. Starbucks actually has a broad policy that prohibits any political statement, and it was not really singling out the particular movement, but with the threat of boycott, guess what Starbucks did? Embraced the movement. Not only can employees wear BLM clothing and pins, they are actually making a BLM shirt as a uniform! Notably, the company had already embraced the LGBTQ movement, so it had already broken its policy and that difference brings up a valid point.
THAT is the power of the consumer. However, cynical me asks, “Is that enough?” What about all those other ills? Is the freedom of speech of American employees more important to consumers than the Brazilian farm workers, the American prisoners, the Latino and Muslim customers? That is up to each consumer to decide for themselves, but we could be collectively saying, “No, that is not okay!”
A number of my friends on Facebook are now promoting “Buy Black,” and I say, “YES!!!” Social media posts on their own have limited impact unless you are an influencer, but a movement to raise awareness and encourage behavior does. Given the present moment, I wanted to first share some resources for “Buying Black.” All I did was Google, so you can do your own research, but here are a few resources to get you started:
Shoppe Black– Their website says, “Since 2015, we have profiled thousands of businesses and interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs and professionals from New York to Nigeria, all in the name of celebrating Black Business excellence and encouraging our community to invest in itself and to #SHOPPEBLACK.”
Official Black Wall Street Directory– I love this one because it allows you to search Black-owned businesses in your area. Of course, many companies are on-line, so that may not matter, but you can support LOCAL and Black.
Support Black Owned— Similar to the above, it lets you search by category or by state to find Black-owned businesses.
We Buy Black— this site offers loads of different products that they say are all made by Black-owned businesses.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, so do your own research. Corporate America has neither a heart nor a soul, but it responds to consumer demand, and it is doing so now, but will it last?
A few days after posting this, I was thrilled to find this list of Black-owned ethical and sustainable fashion businesses!
What about other affinity groups? Do you want to support women-owned businesses? Here are just two resources:
- Top Women-Owned Companies– This article highlights some of the fastest growing women-owned companies across a range of sectors.
- Women-Owned Businesses– This site tracks and lists companies owned by women and profiles each of them. You can search by category if you are looking for something in particular.
The Small Businesses Association has resources for LGBT-owned, women-owned, Native-American owned and Veteran-owned businesses, but not Black. Want to do something impactful? Write to them and lobby to have them include Black-owned businesses!
Do a search for whatever affinity group is important you. Clearly, there is also lots of cross-over because many proprietors and consumers fall into more than one affinity group.
There are other ways of shopping with your conscience apart from affinity groups. Is commitment to the environment important? Do some research on companies who focus on that:
- 11 Companies Considered Best for the Environment
- 8 Eco-Friendly Brands that are Saving the World
- 10 Companies with Amazing Environmental Initiatives
Something else that has come, although less prominently, during the recent civil rights movement is the issue of prison labor.
When slavery was abolished with the 13th Amendment, the clever white men who wrote it kept one caveat banning unpaid labor “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”.
Enter the prison labor system, which disproportionately impacts Black men.. It was unjust then and it is unjust now. In my opinion, it is perfectly fine to give prisoners employment, but it should be under free will and with an appropriate wage, whether that be federal minimum, state minimum, or better yet, commensurate with the skill needed to do the job. Many prisoners have families that they would like to support, and fun fact: they need money in prison to to purchase certain items. Furthermore, wouldn’t it be great if they came out with a new skill on their resume or at the very least, having demonstrated willingness to work hard (for a fair wage)? Prison labor is cheap, so that makes products cheap. It benefits the consumers, the business owners and the for-profit prison owners. It harms the prisoners, and really, their families. You can tell companies you oppose this practice by not buying from them.
The struggle, of course, with shopping ethically, is that there are so many factors. When shopping, here are a few things I consider:
- Do they use overseas labor? What are those conditions?
- Do they use domestic prison labor? Do they pay a livable US wage?
- Are their products environmentally conscious? What is their carbon footprint?
- Does the product include animal products? Do they test on animals?
- How far has the product traveled? Is there a local option?
- How are the employees of this company treated?
- What political party do they contribute to?
- What are their views on women’s issues?
By all means, buy Black-, LGBT-, woman-, minority-, local-owned, but do your homework. Do they have sustainable, ethical practices? Did your women-owned business fire a transitioning employee? Does your gay owner only have white employees? Did your black owner sexually harass employees? Do you only care about your affinity group or can you be a consumer ally to the others?
It’s hard!!! My father once said, as I was ranting about some purchase of my mother’s from Wal-Mart (who I never shop from), “It must be really hard to be you. Why can’t you just enjoy this?” I was furious.
Yes, it is hard to shop ethically, but you know what is harder? Being 12 an trimming thorns off of roses or being forced to farm tilapia for yuppies for pennies an hour.
Sometimes, it is easier to determine where to shop, rather than where not to shop. When I bought a bed a few years back, I did a lot of research to find a bed that was made with organic materials, was free from chemicals, was made in the US, etc. Did it cost me more? Yes. Did it take time? Yes. Was it worth it? For me, yes!!
Personally, my focus tends to be on the social and environmental ethos of the company less than on affinity with a particular group. Some brands I like:
- Pact Apparel– Organic cotton clothing and some linens
- Too Faced– LGBT-owned, vegan, cruelty free make-up
- Better World Books– non-profit, used and new books
- REI– co-op business structure, carries many ethical brands of outerwear and gear
- Prana– environmentally and socially conscious yoga wear
- Yohola– sustainable cork yoga products made in the USA
- Vegan Chic– vegan shoes, belts, bags, etc. for men and women
- Matt & Nat– Vegan shoes and accessories for men and women
- Brooks shoes– US-made running shoes and apparel and commitment to social responsibility
- Tom’s of Maine– ethical personal care products
Those are just a few examples from my personal history.
Coffee is particularly challenging because of the supply chain. I buy my coffee locally, which is locally grown and roasted, but that is not an option in the States. However, you can ask your local shop where they get their beans. They know. (Ask a barista at Starbucks. They won’t know.)
I wrote recently about ethical investing. You can apply the same principles of affinity to your bank choice. Banking has historically been dominated by white men, but you can bank Black. You can also choose banks that invest your money in ways that align with your views. You can do both!
As consumers, we have power. I’m glad people are calling out Starbucks now, but how many of them will be drinking a PSL this fall? Every dollar you spend is pooled with everyone else’s dollars. Collectively, consumers do have the power, but we must have the will too. Businesses take advantage of the fact that we want to spend less, but ethical products cost more. Businesses capitalize on our busy lives, but ethical products aren’t always at our fingertips. Businesses assume consumers are fickle, so they will green wash practices or respond to a particular movement (such as BLM) without actually making real change. As a consumer, you can demand better, and we all should unless we just want to let Amazon rule the world.