Becoming a More Conscious Consumer

A square still-life painting of vegetables and fruits.
Farmer’s Market Finds, 2012. Private Collection.

Over the past year, I’ve made a few significant changes in my purchasing habits. These changes weren’t part of any resolution or major life overhaul. They came gradually as I educated myself on certain issues and decided I no longer wanted to contribute to certain problems. I changed what I buy to support positive practices and avoid supporting negative ones.

Now, I don’t mean to be preachy. I don’t judge people who haven’t made these changes, because it wasn’t very long ago that I changed my ways. I also understand that I am privileged to be able to make these choices. I am paid a good salary and can afford to choose more expensive products that align with my values. I realize not everyone has that luxury. Some people must accept what is available to them. With those caveats in mind, here are three steps I’ve taken toward building a better world with my dollars.

1. Seeking Ethical Fashion. I had heard rumblings about the downsides of fast fashion and cheap clothing over the years, but I tended to turn a blind eye. I wanted nice, new things, and I didn’t want to spend a fortune. It wasn’t until I watched the documentary The True Cost and read We Are What We Wear that I realized just how much suffering was caused by my desire for inexpensive, readily available clothing.

The conditions in which many garment workers work are horrendous. Because consumers demand low prices and a constant array of new goods, and because corporate shareholders demand ever-growing profits, clothing companies demand ever-lower prices from overseas factories. To meet the demand and turn out products quickly, garment workers are forced to work grueling hours for very little pay. Factory owners cannot afford to comply with safety regulations or environmental laws, so they ignore them. Clothing companies often claim not to know about the violations because they do not actually own the factories or employ the workers. Thousands of workers have lost their lives because of these practices, and many more have been permanently injured or have developed terrible illnesses. Once I learned about these practices and the suffering they cause, a $15 shirt no longer seemed like a good deal.

Now when I buy clothing, it is either fair trade, made domestically, or thrifted. I buy from companies like Everlane and Prana that maintain close relationships with their overseas factories and provide assurances that workers are paid fair wages and work in safe conditions.

I purchase clothes that are made in the USA because I know that our country has robust labor laws that are enforced. I recently read some less-than-positive information about clothing factories in Los Angeles which gave me pause about buying Made in USA clothing, but I still think the conditions in U.S. clothing factories are probably better on the whole than those in places like Bangladesh. Some companies, like MM.Lafleur and Of Mercer, contract with small and/or family-owned factories in New York to produce smaller batches of products. At first, it was difficult for me to adjust to the higher price points of those brands, but the clothes are well made and not overly trendy, so I feel confident that the pieces I buy will last me many seasons. Online retailers like Nordstrom, ModCloth, and Bare Necessities allow users to search for “Made in USA.” Prices on those sites are often as low as you would expect to find at popular fast fashion stores. Though it takes some digging, you can also find Made in USA items at discount stores like TJ Maxx and Ross.

Finally, when I want to save money or buy items from fast fashion brands, I buy them from thrift stores. Online thrift store ThredUp is a great source for second-hand items, as is eBay. You can also check out your local Plato’s Closet, consignment store, or charitable thrift store.

2. Eating an Earth-Friendly Diet. I’ve known for years that consuming large quantities of meat products was bad for the environment, but like most people, I wanted to eat what I wanted to eat, without stopping to think about the global consequences. I’d also had success controlling my weight with low-carb diets, and I was concerned that giving up meat and consuming more carbs would cause me to gain weight.

Last year, a paper by Oxford University researchers quantified just how significantly and quickly we are damaging our planet and depleting our resources by raising and eating so many animal products. I read articles like this one and this one, and I felt it was time to make a change. To provide additional motivation and harden my resolve, I watched documentaries like Cowspiracy and Vegucated, which I’d seen before (it hadn’t stuck the first time). I began to understand not only how animal agriculture contaminated our water, destroyed wide swaths of land, and released huge amounts of earth-warming methane into the atmosphere, but also how those factors negatively affected human populations. I decided I could no longer feel good about eating meat, so I became a vegetarian.

There certainly are more changes I could make in this area of my life. I spent one month as a vegan, but I am back to consuming dairy and eggs. This is mostly because I like to eat out and I live in an area with few vegan-friendly restaurants. I also didn’t like being “that person” who refused to eat what my friends and family offered me because of my very restrictive diet. I realize that this is a bit of a cop-out, and I am working in the direction of eating fewer dairy products and eggs. I would estimate that two thirds of my meals are vegan and the other third are vegetarian. On very rare occasions, I eat fish, but typically only when at a restaurant that has no vegetarian menu items (fortunately, such places are not all that common).

I also don’t buy all local food. I do patronize my local farmer’s markets from time to time, but I also buy items in stores that I know were produced many miles away from where I’m consuming them. About once a month, I order a big box of frozen vegan meals from Veestro, which is shipped to me from California. I experimented with Purple Carrot, the weekly vegan meal kit service. I understand that transporting these items is inefficient and produces greenhouse gases. I know that food packaging creates unnecessary waste. I’m not perfect. I’m doing what I can. I think eliminating meat from my diet will have a substantial impact despite these other shortcomings. If my example encourages others to eat less meat, the impact will be even greater.

3. Avoiding Animal Testing. I used to be ok with the practice of testing cosmetics and beauty products on animals. I assumed such testing was necessary to ensure the safety of the products we use. It turns out that it isn’t necessary, it isn’t particularly effective, and it’s quite cruel. Animal testing of cosmetics is banned in Europe. There has been some recent political action in the U.S. regarding animal testing, but as of now, cosmetics and beauty products sold in the U.S. can still be tested on animals, and most are.

Fortunately, it is possible to determine which companies test on animals and which don’t. Many brands include a “cruelty-free” or “not tested on animals” label on product containers. Additionally, the Amazon listings for many cosmetic and health and beauty products state whether the products are tested on animals. Beautypedia allows users to filter search results for products with no animal testing. And you don’t have to spend a ton of money to avoid animal-tested products. Several drug-store brands like Physician’s Formula, CeraVe, Wet ‘N Wild, and OGX do not test on animals. For me, this change was an easy one to make–all it required was a little research.

What changes have you made to bring your lifestyle more in line with your values?  How do you vote with your dollar?

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