Let's Get a Serious

We’ve got strong beliefs around here, and we think that voting with our dollars is just as important as voting with ballots.

We boycott some companies that violate human rights and we try to buy from companies that support ethical practices. It’s a process that’s still in progress, so don’t think that this post is coming to you from a position on a high horse. People who boycott and people who don’t boycott can be jerks about the whole thing, so we’re giving you our perspective on it.

Our boycotting journey started with Walmart. When we first got married, I was pregnant, we were in college, and we were super poor. Obviously. We also lived with my grandparents for the first year and a half or so, and that house is almost rural. There weren’t exactly a lot of shopping options at the time. Having a baby, part time jobs, and full time classes, we liked the one stop shop of Super Walmart. But as we learned more and more about Walmart’s business practices, we started to feel bad about giving Walmart our patronage. Many of the products at Walmart are made through extremely unethical practices including sweatshops filled with workers that are almost slaves. Walmart gives unequal pay to women, don’t give the majority of their employees benefits, and have a business model designed to close down local businesses. (They lower prices on food so low that local grocers can’t compete, taking a loss, then raise prices again when the competition is closed down.) All of these things led us to decide to stop going altogether. We decided this while we were still in college, still poor (even more so by this point, because we were in our first apartment), but the change wasn’t hard.

After making the decision to boycott Walmart, we were inspired to make more lifestyle changes. The companies that we started boycotting after that were honestly due to really reactionary decisions. We’d find out something horrible about a company, and we wouldn’t want to shop there anymore. We didn’t really research the source of everything we bought.

We began boycotting Nike (and sadly, later Converse after Nike bought the company) because of their use of exploitative child labor. They’ve improved their child labor practices, but workers at Nike factories around the world still report sweatshop working conditions, exposure to harmful toxins, and abuse from supervisors. We stopped shopping at many clothing companies, most notably Old Navy / Banana Republic / GAP, after watching a documentary on the use of sweatshops and indentured servitude in the U.S. territory Saipan. You can watch Behind the Labels: Garment Workers on U.S. Saipan to learn about why we made that decision (watch out for misleading “Made in the USA labels”!). It’s hard to find current research, but it seems as if these unethical practices in Saipan are no longer allowed and that the companies have moved from the territory. It’s difficult for us to figure out if similar practices are still going on somewhere else.

We also added Hershey’s to the list of boycotted companies last year after reading about the links between child slavery and chocolate production.

Giving up all of that was pretty easy. There are more horrible companies out there, but those are the ones we frequented often before learning about their business practices. But we’ll be honest with you; trying to buy ethical products is hard. It’s overwhelming. Once we started researching, we started realizing how few companies in the United States have ethical business practices. And it’s really all pick and choose. As this Daily Show clip points out, living your values isn’t easy. It’s all about choices, and we’re very aware that we’re moderate with the ethical shopping: we make sacrifices, but we’re honestly not willing to completely overhaul our lifestyle (we’re not going to give up electronics, for instance).

Now we try to focus on shopping at companies we know are ethical instead adding on to the boycott list. Many fast food companies have very unethical practices, so we stopped going to those (which was also a health decision). We’ll bend the rules every once and a while and we still go to medium-food restaurants like Chipotle, but we mostly try to go to locally owned resturants. Trader Joe’s makes it easy to buy ethical food with all of their free trade options (we only buy free trade coffee). We’re going to start buying more clothes at American Apparel, where we previously bought most of them at Target. We make sure to support companies we really love that do great things, like Ben & Jerry’s and Toms. We know that everything we buy isn’t ethically produced, but we hope that someday, it will be. We like that we’re making the changes gradually, because it’s easier to keep up with it for us. We like baby steps (as can be seen in our One Step at a Time series).

It can be hard to decide where to draw the line. One of our favorite local coffee shops gets their supplies at Sam’s Club (a Walmart subsidiary), but we’re not going to stop going there. One aspect of a purchase might be ethical, with other aspects being completely horrible (this video Do You Eat Ethically? illustrates this point well and is filmed in a very interesting way). What we’re trying to do is do our best. We realize that we can’t source everything, and local and homemade is king for us. We still use the stuff we’ve bought from companies that we don’t support now (Jake and I hold on to clothes until they fall apart, so we’ve still got Nikes and Old Navy stuff in the mix). We’ll buy stuff at thrift stores that originally came from companies we don’t support. And we don’t refuse gifts from places we boycott, because we’re too polite.

Why are we posting this? Because we believe that if everyone made a choice to switch from shopping unethically in ONE area (shoes, make-up, food, building supplies, etc.), then that would make a BIG difference in the unethical practices in the world. We like to focus on human rights and labor practices, but you might want to try to switch to a company that is more environmentally friendly or that donates to good causes (there are different areas of ethical business practices). With so many companies doing unethical things, many people feel like one person’s patronage doesn’t make a difference. But boycotting does work: so does shifting shopping practices. Businesses follow the dollars. Think about how many environmentally friendly / fair trade / organic products there are now compared to a few years ago. There’s a demand for it, so there’s a supply. Many companies, like the garment industry and Apple, have shaped up because of negative public backlash. Making little changes can make a difference, and that’s what we’re trying to do.

Have you made any changes in the way you shop because of ethics?

Let’s Get Serious is a blog series where we share our opinions and put ourselves out there. We get that not everyone thinks the same way; the same things don’t work for everyone. These are our opinions. They don’t have to be your opinions. We’d like to hear about what you think, but please don’t be mean to us. Let’s respect each other and talk about it!