May 14 is World Fair Trade Day and a wonderful reason to celebrate. It is also perfect timing to share what our friend Maggi Carfield has written about socially conscious shopping. Read on...
In the introduction to this three-part series, I offered up the following quote from Anne Lappé, co-founder of the Small Planet Institute, “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the world you want.”
This three-part series explores what it would mean if we took that quote to heart. Today, in Part I, I’ll examine the idea of how spending money is like casting a vote. How are you voting? What do your consumer votes say about the kind of world you want to live in? And how can we cast consumer votes to better reflect our preferences and values?
When we make a purchase, we are usually faced with a number of products to choose between. In this sense, products are akin to candidates. We select a product (or candidate) based on a calculation that weighs our personal preferences and interests. This purchasing calculus likely includes factors such as cost, convenience, quality, and taste. It is less likely, however, that we factor in the impact our spending has on others.
It’s a fair assumption that most people would prefer not to live in a world where workers are underpaid (let alone grossly underpaid) and subjected to unsafe, dehumanizing, and/or exploitative working conditions. Yet many of us spend money in ways that help create just such a world. But why is that the case? I think one primary reason is that many people simply do not consider the ways in which their spending impacts the world.
But consider this: As consumers, we pick which products and companies will succeed in the market. In this sense, our consumer choices have a large impact on the lives of people involved with every aspect of the supply chain. Our dollars line the pockets of producers who in turn pay for the materials and labor used to make the goods that we buy. If we spend money on products that were made using cheap labor or materials that are detrimental to the environment or our own health, then we are in a very real sense supporting those practices. Without our dollars, those companies would not be able to survive, let alone thrive. In this way, our votes matter significantly.
For this reason, it’s worth exploring how you are voting with your dollars. Try this exercise: jot down a few ideas about the kind of world you want to live in. Obviously this will be different for everyone. For me this list includes:
- Individuals have the opportunity to do fulfilling work and they are fairly compensated for the work they do;
- Products are made and distributed using materials and techniques that are not harmful to the environment; and
- People everywhere have sufficient resources to meet their basic needs and enough left over to enjoy simple pleasures.
Keep your aspirational list in mind as you shop and before you buy anything consider whether your purchase helps to promote your values and goals. I’ll be honest, this exercise can be a bit daunting. When you really start examining your spending through this lens, you begin to realize how many products simply could not have been made and delivered in a way that comports with your values. The price on that item of clothing that seems too good to be true? It is. Someone somewhere is likely subsidizing your purchase by working for far less than they should be paid. I can almost guarantee it.
Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that you agonize over every purchase or that you berate yourself over your spending habits. In our globalized economy, it can sometimes feel nearly impossible to find products in certain genres (i.e., clothing and shoes – although this is finally starting to change!) that were made in a way that aligns with your values. My goal in writing this series is to encourage people to at least consider, as a factor in their purchasing calculus, the impact that their spending has on the world. I truly believe that if more consumers brought this awareness to their spending, we could begin to build a better world.
Maggi Carfield is a lawyer, social worker, and teacher. She is passionate about social, economic, and racial justice issues. She lives in St. Louis, MO
I have a favor to ask: please use hashtag #FairTradeDay the next few days and help us spread the word. Saturday, May 14 may be World Fair Trade Day, but for us it's a daily celebration!
Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3, coming soon!