So, it’s December 20. You meant to finish your Christmas shopping early this year, like you do every year, but then life happened and here you are. Again.
You want to shop local, ethical, blah blah blah, but it’s too late to order from Etsy, you missed the renegade craft fair, and there is just nothing at Ten Thousand Villages your dad would tolerate. And let’s be serious, you don’t have time for hand-making gifts for 20 people.
So we’ve put together this little guide to help you do the best you can with what you’ve got. So let’s start by dropping the guilt about your situation and the sweatshop goods you’re about to buy. And let’s get shopping. Here are our tips:
1. There are a few bad industries and countries you could choose to avoid.
This is a rather impressionistic way of doing ethical shopping, as there is certainly at least one good factory in every country or industry. But you can be pretty sure that when you buy these products, there are high odds of there being labor trafficking, forced labor, child labor, or the support of genocidal regimes and practices somewhere in that supply chain. According to the Department of Labor, the worst offenders for forced and child labor are India, Brazil, Bangladesh, Burma, the Philippines and China. But also watch out for Vietnamese apparel, and most of the electronics industry. We all know about the problems with conflict minerals and precious stones, so be particularly aware of the jewelry you’re buying.
2. But you promised your 6 year old an iPad for Christmas! Don’t worry. You can still buy it--just talk to a sales clerk about the supply chain.
And it’s not just that iPad. It’s December 20! You just remembered you need to get a present for your friend’s baby, plus some more stocking stuffers for your dog so you run to Target or Walmart to knock out all your shopping at once. And who knows where this stuff comes from!
Here’s the key: Businesses rarely do ethical things because they care--they do it because YOU care. You, as a consumer, have some power to influence the actions of the businesses you frequent. And it can be as simple as asking a few questions of a sales clerk.
“Hey, I’m thinking about buying this fish that sings Joy to the World and I see it was made it China. Do you all do any due diligence on your supply chains to make sure workers are treated well?”
“I’m looking at these beautiful necklaces for my girlfriend, but I don’t want to give her something linked to conflicts or bad mining practices. Do you have any line of products you’ve vetted for human rights abuse?”
You should expect an “I don’t know” or a BS answer. That’s fine. The point is to ask. Because as everyone of us who has worked in retail knows, those conversations filter back to managers, and then filter back to buyers. You’re showing that there is a profit-related reason for them to care about this stuff. When they give you this answer, you can go ahead and buy the product if you want, knowing that you’ve at least nudged the company to do the right thing.
3. “But it’s so uncomfortable to ask people these questions!” No problem! Write them a letter after you buy the thing.
Like this: Dear Company, I was recently in your store and bought this great product. I love it. It fits great. It looks great on my mom. Etc. But I saw that it was made in Vietnam. I know labor practices there are subpar. Can you tell me a little about what you do to ensure your supply chains are clean? Thanks so much, Your loyal customer
4. “I do all of my shopping online and I can’t even check the tags. At this point, it’s Amazon prime or nothin’ honey. Also I don’t write letters because this is not 1999.”
Ok fine, I also do last minute shopping on Amazon prime. I’m not proud, but I have two kids and a full time job and a flat tire. It is what it is.
This one you already know about but just need the nudge: blow up their social media! Tweet at Amazon to stop selling Trump products. Tell them you just bought this great mini-trampoline and want to know where it came from and how they view their responsibility to ensure clean supply chains (hint: they don’t think they have any responsibility to do so). They will either not respond or give you a BS answer but it doesn’t matter! You did the work by engaging with them on this topic.
5. Make a donation to a favorite charity trying to clean up global supply chains in the name of your super cool progressive uncle or sister who has everything.
There are so many great organizations out there trying to address supply chain abuses. We hope Corporate Accountability Lab is on that list, but also consider the Interfaith Center For Corporate Responsibility, International Rights Advocates, the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, Earthrights, or so many others. These organizations are not trying to offer ethical alternatives or create niche ethical markets, but instead are striking back at those major companies who lead the pack and set the standards. If we ever want a clean economy, we need folks like this fighting for systemic change.
Now pat yourself on the back. You did the best you could in this dirty economy in which we dwell, your loved ones all have presents, and next year you’ll do your research in advance and make it to your local renegade craft fair for all your Christmas needs! Just kidding, you probably won’t. But if every year you can get a little more ethical with your buying, and a little more communicative with the companies you frequent, you’ll be doing what you can with a bad (read: impossible) situation. So let go of the guilt and happy shopping!