A response to Michael Hobbes’ “The Myth of the Ethical Shopper”
Every few years someone does a marvelous job of laying out all the problems that lead to our clothes coming mostly from sweatshops, but do very little in terms of offering solutions.
The arguments run in circles: “We need more protections within trade agreements.” “No wait, that will never happen, we need shoppers to boycott.” “Actually isn’t it the responsibility of local governments?” “Local government institutions are broken, we need brands to step up.”
The HuffPo’s most recent article, “The Myth of the Ethical Shopper” tells us that trying to vote with our dollars is bullshit. I’ll tell you what’s really bullshit—weaving together all the hopelessness of today’s broken fast fashion supply chain and then click-baiting us into believing that it’s because ethical shopping does not work.
The 1990s movement to boycott sweatshops was an important first step. It got many of the brands named in this article to pay attention and set up codes of conduct and a monitoring system, that while flawed offered some visibility into what was happening in factories far away. Many factories did get safer.
The anti-sweatshop movement in the 1990s correctly went after the biggest brands because there was a trickle-down effect of improvements. The 207th brand was not going to listen, but Nike and H&M were.
Even today, factories in which the biggest brands produce are usually better and safer. The 1990s ethical shopper did that.
Then the fast fashion industry changed production at a breathtaking speed, with demand for sooner, faster, cheaper, and slid back many of the inroads made.
That doesn’t mean that shoppers who care have not and cannot continue to make a difference. It just means we as shoppers are evolving our playbook because naming, shaming, and boycotting is not enough.
Today the globally connected shopper can digitally see, meet, and get to know the makers of our clothes and understand that we are no different.
Twitter and Facebook lowers the barrier to enter into conversation with our favorite brands, to ask about her, the maker of our clothes. And if enough of us ask, you can be sure that policy advocacy and supply chain consolidation will follow.
In Mr. Hobbes’ article, we are led to believe that BRIC shoppers with increasingly disposable income are disconnected from the ethical shopper movement. This division between the developed and developing world is false.
At Remake, we’ve found our community of ethical shoppers to be truly global—we aren’t just Americans rallying against sweatshops far away, we are Chinese, Brazilian, Pakistanis, and Indians, all asking not to wear clothes that are made with the blood and pain of someone who is just like us.
Too many of these articles are talking to people inside the sustainability industry: auditors, brands, researchers. I think its time we talk more to our average 18-24 year old ethical shoppers and ask what changed their habits? How are they bringing their friends along?
And they will tell you, we reward brands that we believe are making a difference. Just look at the explosive growth of TOMS shoes and Warby Parker. Take a look at Uniform’s Kickstarter campaign and the explosive growth in the fair trade category of clothes.
We need to get to know this new generation of ethical shoppers—it’s not just naked people dancing outside of Old Navy. They are your future fashion designers, policy makers and journalists, who’ve been digitally connected since they were in diapers. Who don’t see an otherness between shoppers and makers around the world.
So let’s not make this a conversation that pits “hemp woven daisy dukes” against “H&M”. It’s about “my Reformation jacket designed and created in LA, my Uniform T-shirt stitched in Africa’s first fair trade factory”.
It’s coming—let’s not wring our hands in depression, but be inspired to make a difference.
What we need is to increase the drum beat for slow fashion. Increase demand for durable over disposable. Say no to the global fast fashion apparatus.
It’s hard to believe brands or governments themselves will band together to create effective policy driven change. The ethical shoppers who vote with their wallets will also advocate for the right policies and trade agreements.
There is no silver bullet solution. It’s not about more policies, less advocacy at the cash register. We need all of it.
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