1 Ethical Shopping Is Still Shopping (But Ethically) | The Billfold

Ethical Shopping Is Still Shopping (But Ethically)

What I call “ethical shopping,” others might describe—also correctly—as “complete self indulgence.”

My mother took up with the fair trade movement in the mid 1980s, so I’m naturally predisposed to such justifications. Fair trade, at this time, was not the movement it is today; it was far more niche, operating through a system of representatives who would wholesale order the products and sell them in their church halls and community centers. Another part of the job was education, and between the ages of 5 and 15 I heard my mother practise a lot of talks on the parlous working conditions of the people who grew our rice, picked our tea, and made our clothes.

When I first started buying my own things, I didn’t shop ethically because the options I knew of were either ugly or too expensive. Really, when I first started buying my own things, almost everything was too expensive—books, bottles of wine, branded bacon.

But then, after a fairly rapid succession of job moves and pay rises, I found a shop full of clothes that I loved—all ethical, because they are all made on the premises. I can shop there happy in the knowledge that the people making the clothes were working for themselves in conditions free of exploitation. I’ve seen these conditions! It’s the sort of space anyone would choose to work in—an airy, well lit room on a beautful Edinburgh street, with a sewing machine next to the cash register for the quieter times of day. 

I was delighted to pay the extra for my clothes—and I could afford to. It was a way out of an exploitative system, but it didn’t involve wearing the batik kaftans that were, in the 80s, the only real clothing option presented by the fair trade movement. I can look great! I can support communities! I can just about afford to do both of these things! Not all, but about three quarters, of the clothes I have bought in the last three years come from this one shop.

But then parts of my jeans—important parts—started fraying and falling apart. I have found no ethical jeans that fit me. (Perhaps because of the intersection between “people who care about the world” and “vegans,” jeans made without exploitation are cut for women with… smaller appetites than mine. Considerably smaller appetites.) I am solving this problem by not wearing them. I have enough clothes to live in. Jeans are not such a big part of my wardrobe that I’m lost without a pair. Because now that I’ve started on this path of thinking about my wardrobe’s supply chain, I don’t want to go back to contemplating the factories where my outfit might have been mass produced. No ethical jeans? No jeans.

But when my Converse fell apart, I had to find new shoes. Going without wasn’t an option. Looking for ethical trainers brought me to a Danish company who talks about all the right things, has a UK stockist, and has shoes that look exactly like Converse. And they’re cheaper! Ethical and affordable, done. But the stockist carries other brands of shoes. Like ethical Vivienne Westwood shoes. Beautiful ethical Vivienne Westwood shoes. Beautiful ethical Vivenne Westwood shoes that will triple the value of my order.

Every time my conscience shuts the door of one purchase,  it opens the window of another.

It’s a downward spiral of consumerism into which I’ve thrown myself enthusiastically and guiltily. I know that buying less would be better. That opting out of a cycle of wanting would be better than wanting so much, even in a category that I’m happy with. Can wanton consumerism be ethical? I’m hoping (and trying). The Vivienne Westwood shoes on my feet are trying, too. And I’ve signed up for the shoe stockist’s newsletter, you know, so I always know the latest thoughts and ideas on these and more “ethical issues.”


Alexandra Mitchell’s shoes are vegan.


13 Comments / Post A Comment

olivia (#1,618)

There are several made in the USA denim companies that are 100% sourced and made in the states, including the denim itself. One is Raleigh Denim-I’ve been to their gorgeous factory/store myself. http://www.raleighworkshop.com/ Another is Imogene and Willie.http://www.imogeneandwillie.com/ And I’m sure there are more, these are just ones I’m familiar with. That’s one bonus of the heritage brand/Made in the USA trend that is happening now.

sintaxis (#2,363)

This is a cute personal story, but there isn’t any meat to the argument for “wanton comsumerism” as ethical practice. Consumerism doesn’t really solve problems, I think it just assuages your guilt about buying things you don’t need.

EM (#1,012)

@sintaxis One could argue that spending your discretionary income supporting local businesses is with ethical practices is ethical by proxy.

sintaxis (#2,363)

@Michelle I guess that depends on two things: if you believe that choosing something that’s less ethical than your other options is still a valid choice (i.e. she could use that discretionary money in other ways) and if you believe that capitalism isn’t inherently unethical.

EM (#1,012)

@sintaxis “Opting out of capitalism” is a pretty high benchmark for ethical practice.

sintaxis (#2,363)

@Michelle Hahaha, yes, well, I’m not saying that it’s the baseline for being a good person, but if we’re going to have a conversation about “ethical consumerism” then you actually have to talk about capitalism. I think you misinterpret the critique of consumerism with an ethical mandate for personal action, which of course, is myopic.

guenna77 (#856)

i appreciate the sentiment, but technically, if that Danish company is selling shoes that are unlicensed knockoffs of well known brands, and those knockoffs are what you are buying, i don’t know if you could call that an ‘ethical’ purchase. I’m not saying that real vivienne westwoods are ‘ethical’ either, but still…

Theda Baranowski (#2,989)

@guenna77 I think in the case of the Vivienne Westwoods, they’re not knockoffs. They’re just made ethically, but are produced by the designer’s firm.

guenna77 (#856)

@Theda Baranowski if that’s the case, then that is actually pretty cool. i withdraw any objections!

@guenna77 I think ethics are personal. My personal ethics have no problem with unlicensed knockoffs from companies that use questionable labor/environmental practices. In fact, I fully support that.

sunflowernut (#1,638)

I have tried to go this route but have found that on my budget (and with my willpower), it’s just as hard as going vegan. Which is to say, too difficult to do for more than a week. But I do think doing some is better than nothing – making any sort of purchase with an ethical business is always a positive thing.

princessjasmine (#3,043)

Alexandra, what is this Danish company? I’ve bought a few pairs of shoes from Bourgeois Boheme in the past, but they seem to have gone downhill recently.

Vincennes (#1,693)

@princessjasmine It’s ethletic.dk. I totally endorse this product! They are very comfortable as well as all of the people/planet credentials.

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