The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

I Don’t Buy It: Ethical Consumption in the 21st Century


[A garment factory in Sri Lanka]

“Ly, an impoverished Hmong woman from Vietnam, signed up to work overseas through a government program. Her fees amounted to over five years of wages. She was promised eight hour work days and US$300 a month but once at the Taiwanese operated garment factory in Jordan she worked 16 hours a day for a fraction of that pay. The factory managers confiscated her passport and confined her to adjacent living quarters during non-working hours. Ly and her fellow workers did not speak or read Arabic. When she and other workers protested, the traffickers cut off their food and power and beat them. The Vietnamese government later repatriated the workers but they were never paid.” (From the Global Freedom Center)

These workers were making your blue jeans. And your socks. And your shoes.

Everyone consumes, but city dwellers are particularly susceptible to frequent and oblivious consumption. We pass dozens of stores on a daily basis advertising 75 cent cans of Coca-Cola, buy-one-get-one t-shirts and all-you-can eat buffets, and it is so utterly easy for us to walk inside and purchase to our heart’s desire. Western consumerist culture tells us we can have it all and we deserve to—no matter how much money we make—but most of us don’t stop to think about the hands that created these products. We expect a pound of rice to cost $2.50 every single time we walk into the grocery store (maybe $3 for the organic brand) and if that changes, then we think we’re getting ripped off.

[Children mining in Vietnam]

The fair trade movement entered my conscience during college when I started working with an anti-human trafficking organization on campus. I learned about the prevalence of modern-day slavery in which people are taken from their homes, stripped of their immigration papers and forced to work long, grueling hours in factories and fields for little or no pay. Of the estimated 20.9 million people currently enslaved, 26% are children.* I gave up unethically produced chocolate the minute I learned this and moved on to fair trade coffee, tea and sugar from there.  But pretty quickly, I got stumped. What about every other food item? What about my computer, my clothes, my shampoo, my bed?

The more I learned about global labor practices, the more it shocked me. That 20.9 million is only a fraction of the number of people who must labor in unsafe conditions for miniscule wages, even if they’re not technically enslaved. To give you an idea, here’s a 2013 list of the least ethical companies, as rated by Covalence, a international research agency. In it, you’ll find reports of physical abuse of employees, violent suppression of employees who attempt to organize, and destruction of employee property—all this by some of the largest companies in the world that produce basic items like oil and food. Then there’s this list of popular clothing companies (including Gap, Old Navy, and Nike) that employ children as young as eight, give no bathroom breaks or days off to their workers, and steal their employees’ passports, forcing them to work off a “debt” to earn them back.

Once you start down the rabbit hole of awareness about global labor practices, you can’t stop. You are implicated with every single item you buy or use. Your purchases affect the lives of women in China, boys in Sierra Leone, families in Guatemala and millions of people across the globe. Their labor supports our obsessive-consumerist lifestyle, our ability to casually stroll down the street and buy that can of coke on a Sunday afternoon.

[Fair Trade chocolate]

But luckily, this is not one of those insurmountable social justice issues with no solution.

The first step in ending this cycle is to consume less. Period. When it comes to “stuff,” we could all get by with a great deal less. The truth is, you don’t need to shop for new clothes every time the seasons change and you probably have enough school supplies, Christmas decorations and hair products lying around your house to last you for several years.

The second step is to look—really look—at the products around you. When you see a chair on sale at Target for $15, consider what enables that cheap price tag to exist. Consider what the woodcutter, the factory operator, the packer and the salesperson were paid in order to create the chair standing in front of you. Would you work 14 hour days for $5 a week in an overheated, dangerous factory? What if you had no choice? You don’t need that chair, so don’t feed the global labor system that created it.

The third step is buying carefully, when you do choose to buy. I don’t think you need me to tell you that local, used or recycled purchases are much safer options, but what you do need to hear is that these are not bourgeois, rich-person practices.** They are necessary actions that will combat this rampant disregard for human beings that prioritizes concentrated empires of wealth over flourishing communities. I reject the notion that only the wealthy can afford ethically produced products. True, many ethical brands are more expensive than mainstream options, but they are likely to be better made and longer lasting. Consider that $30 you’re paying for an ethical t-shirt the actual price, as opposed to the artificially low price you pay when all the people who put their labor into that shirt are swindled out of their wages and rights. We have walked ourselves into this system and if we weren’t so insistent on constantly artificially low prices, we could walk ourselves out.

[Fair Trade coffee farmer]

Finally, the most important step in all of this is to share what you know. You’ve jumped down the rabbit hole—now bring others with you. When everyone is informed about the conditions that create their possessions, they are far more likely to take action. Remember the Bangladeshi factory fire? That was just the tip of the iceberg, but it made people pay attention. If you care about workers’ rights, become a voice for the movement.

This is something you need to commit to for the long haul because the movement doesn’t happen overnight—but I am hopeful. Since that moment just five years ago when I started considering my purchases more carefully, I have watched a massive increase in the availability of specific fair trade items like coffee and chocolate, as well as a growing demand for ethical clothing brands like Everlane. Slowly, Westerners are catching onto the fact that their lifestyles are propped up by slavery and abuse in the Global South. Indeed, productivity in our American cities is fueled by forced productivity of an oppressed underclass in third world nations.

When we shift our consumption toward fair trade items, we send a message to the unethical companies that their practices are no longer profitable. We won’t buy it.

So, knowing all this, will you commit to reexamining your purchases and directing your money toward ethical brands? Will you join the fair trade movement today?

[Fair Trade labels]

*While I’m not focusing on it in this post, over 20% of modern-day slaves are forced into the sex industry as prostitutes and porn actors. Thankfully, a growing movement of activists (particularly people of faith) has focused directly on ending their plight. The Not for Sale campaign is one of those.

**I do believe that people of means are especially responsible for spending their money on ethically-produced products because they can afford to in almost all circumstances. Seriously, at this point, you can even buy fair trade underwear.


Want even more ideas for how to combat global economic inequality? One of my favorite bloggers, Esther Emery, wrote “Four Ways to Resist” a few weeks ago.

Danielle L. Vermeer’s blog is also a fantastic resource on ethical consumption.




5 thoughts on “I Don’t Buy It: Ethical Consumption in the 21st Century

  1. Great post Rachel! This is an issue about which I have been feeling that I must commit myself more fully. The extent to which the value of simplicity could truly transform our impact on the world is incredible – from our impact on the environment to global working conditions.

    I would add one more suggestion to your great list: we need to develop a political discourse about the ethics of international trade and global capitalism – and as citizens, hold our government accountable for its lack of oversight when it comes to these corporations. The fact that a “fair trade” industry exists is predicated on the idea that anything less than fair trade is still legally acceptable. It shouldn’t be. It should be criminal to distribute these unethical products in the US.

    It’s just true that some people in the US have no other option but to consume unethically sourced goods. To take an overly simplistic example: folks who are regularly receiving their meals from shelter programs don’t have much choice about the origins of their food. AND IT’S NOT THEIR FAULT – our government has failed to implement policies which would ensure that ANY food we consume is ethically sourced.

    I guess that I’m saying that in addition to the personal work, we need to do some political work. However, your post has definitely reinforced to me that I need to focus a little more on the personal work, and remember that my consumption always matters.


    • I agree 100%. And I definitely feel that the people with the most money have the most responsibility to consume ethically since, as you point out, those with less have less control. Money talks, as much as I wish it didn’t. You are completely right that political work and stricter laws have to be part of this process. The EU is much further along in this process of legally mandating certain fair trade requirements and thus, ethical products are much more widely available there.


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