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On the Perils of Purchasing

January 8, 2010

I can’t win.

If I buy non-leather shoes from Payless, I probably support sweatshops. If I buy the vegan shoes for $300, I get criticized for spending so much on shoes when I could be giving some of that money to my local no-kill shelter.

If I wear the suede shoes I purchased over a decade ago that I used to resole (with rubber) every year and I get “caught,” I’m not a vegan (I don’t do that anymore), but when I buy boots that are made of vinyl, well, there goes the planet.

I tend not to participate in fast fashion (inexpensive, often trendy, and can include “organic” and “fair trade” items), which is great because then I don’t have to feel guilty about the workers, the cotton, the transportation and the bad quality. But that means that most things I purchase–and I don’t purchase much–are far more expensive than they could be because of my choice to not participate in abuses that I know about. I look at it as an investment. At the same time, it’s not necessarily true that just because something costs more it’s a better choice. The example I most often read about is the fair trade cotton T-shirt where the cotton’s fair trade but the T-shirt’s made in a sweatshop. You could pay a premium for it thinking you’ve done right by the planet so the premium’s justifiable, yet it was made in a sweatshop!

Meanwhile, the premium you pay for goods that don’t use animal products or sweatshops could be used for other things. It could go directly to a vegan food program or to a sanctuary. Do you have a headache yet?

And to top it all off, for some reason, part of human nature is the urge to “catch” people who have a belief in a moment where they are being hypocritical. You say you’re a vegan, they ask what your shoes are made of, you say you’re an environmentalist they ask what kind of car you drive. If you say a word about human rights they want to make sure you’ve never shopped at The Gap or bought a pair of Nikes. So you’ve got the vegan police–not composed of vegans, and the planet police–not composed of environmentalists, waiting to pounce. And all you’re trying to do is replace some damn T-shirts or find a winter boot.

Yesterday’s “Fur Real: An Ethical Question for Vegan Fashion” raises some of these issues, and here’s my response/strategy:

  • Because I don’t believe it’s ever necessary to use an animal for my food or clothing or household products, I first do my level best to make sure there are no animal products.
  • When it comes to testing, that’s a bit dicey as there are laws for the release of products that we have no control over. I’m not talking about discretionary testing, as in the case of cosmetics. So yes, I might purchase items that were tested on animals because that is required by law. Obviously, I try to keep those purchases to a minimum.
  • I visit or to educate myself about my options.
  • Check my local Freecycle group for something I might need or want to get rid of (like the enormous television that’s been in my garage for almost a year, in addition to several pieces of furniture). There are plenty of local groups that serve people who need clothing. And suede shoes. And that don’t sell them the clothing, like Goodwill and the Salvation Army do.

I guess the most important tip from yours truly is to simplify, simplify, simplify. Buy what you need, do your research first, and when you want to get rid of something, give it to someone who needs it (or recycle it responsibly, and check out Earth911 for more on that) rather than sending it to a landfill.

How do you deal with shopping?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. January 8, 2010 10:18 am

    Don’t forget about the American Apparel dilemma!

    Pros: the company pays its workers relatively well, is transitioning to organic cotton for its tees, runs a bike-sharing program, uses solar panels, supports immigration and LGBTQ rights, etc., etc., etc.

    Cons: their advertising resembles ’70s softcore porn (“hipster” porn!); many of their models look young – very young (hello, child porn!); and founder Dov Charney is reportedly an all-around skeezeball (Google “American Apparel” on any random feminist blog; and I’m not just referring to the sexual harassment suits).

    That said, a number of my favorite vegan t-shirt designers use AA, so….yeah. That about settles it. I’m a bad feminist.

    • January 8, 2010 10:37 am

      Yeah and it’s also important to note that while they herald themselves as “nonsweatshop” they have also been exposed as nonunion and having payment systems that end up making people work like sweatshop workers anyways as they are paid by the garment. Most workers are hispanic and female. Most models are extremely objectified.

      AA is just another business capitalizing on things people care about and being skeezy to do it.

    • January 8, 2010 11:44 am

      I haven’t bought anything from American Apparel yet, but I figure I will one of these days, for the reasons you mentioned. I’m also grossed out, also for your same reasons. Having a conscience sucks. I’ll join you in the Bad Feminist Club.

    • January 9, 2010 5:29 am

      Actually, AA is known for union-busting. Just because workers are paid well (which is still low considering it’s garment industry work) doesn’t mean they have rights.

      A few years old but still one of the best pieces on the matter:

      More updated stuff, as you mentioned, is readily available online as well.

  2. January 8, 2010 10:21 am

    I posted the following comment on the pro-fur article:

    “There’s a lovely organization called “coats for cubs” that you can donate the fur coat to where it will be used to help comfort orphaned baby animals and wildlife in rehabilitation centers. If you do care about the cost of fashion on animals and the planet, that is a great way to help.

    Also, acting like fur is somehow a green product, old or not, in comparison to other products is silly. How many chemicals do you think dead flesh has to be bathed in so it does not rot? I say, give the fur back to the animals by donating the coat, and trade it in for a nice used coat that won’t perpetuate that it’s nice to wear the flesh of tortured beings.

    Win win for you, the animals, and the planet.”

    I think wearing used suede or wool is acceptable but fur just isn’t bc there are ways you can use it to help animals rather than for (ugly, gross) fashion. But, I have gotten flack from the occasional privileged middle or upper class vegan for advocating that we use up animal products we have before purchasing new vegan things, and that the purchase of a used wool coat is a thousand times better than the purchase of a new vegan pvc coat.

    And as for people looking to find something nonvegan we are wearing, I have two pairs of vegan, sweatshop free, shoes that look like leather. People may think they’re leather even though they are not. I don’t care. If people are looking that hard for a way to discount the cause then they aren’t ready yet. Good for them, sad for the animals. But it’s not our fault and wastefulness should not be adopted to counteract a few idiots.

    Nice entry. Glad people are talking about consumption because green capitalism is the worst thing that’s happened to the animal liberation and environment movements.

  3. January 8, 2010 1:13 pm

    You all aren’t bad feminists for doing your best. All businesses suck and so does capitalism so you’re never going to find a perfect one. The best thing to do is get free or used stuff but even then that’s not always possible.

    It is important to know where our stuff is coming from though.

  4. Marji permalink
    January 8, 2010 2:04 pm

    Good entry. I get frustrated and, to be honest, I focus most of my efforts on the exclusion of animal products from my life. When I can, I choose more sustainable, less human-harmful products. It’s good to be reminded of how life is a continuous struggle for self-improvement. :)

  5. Jen permalink
    January 8, 2010 2:50 pm

    These shopping decisions are hard. Reading Kristoff’s book Half the Sky (highly recommended) complicated things even further for me. I abhor sweatshops as much as everyone else (though I admit I’m not perfect about avoiding them)…and yet Kristoff offers compelling examples of Chinese “sweatshops” that are keeping women from being trafficked as sex slaves. I have to admit, it made this issue more gray for me. I haven’t really figured out how to integrate this perspective into my buying preferences.

    • January 8, 2010 3:20 pm

      I’m glad you brought this up, Jen. When I first read the argument for sweatshops, I was shocked, yet when you look at the evidence and the history of nations that are developing, you see that sweatshops are actually better than the alternative for many people (particularly women), and the sweatshop is the first step toward more legitimate, safe, fair, ways of doing business that get a country and its people out of abject poverty. In other words, it’s not a matter of sweatshop=evil when viewed in a larger context and when you factor in the complexities in some cases (not all). I completely forgot about Half the Sky, by the way. Thanks for reminding me to read it.

  6. January 8, 2010 3:10 pm

    I make a priority list for products I buy:

    1. Must not be animal-derived, as that would be directly supporting the enslavement and murder of other animals.
    2. Organic, to avoid toxic chemicals that harm nonhuman animals, human workers, and ecosystems.
    3. Fair trade, to improve working conditions for humans.

    If the product doesn’t meet criteria #1, I won’t buy it no matter what (regardless if it meets criteria #2 and #3; I add that anything animal-derived is in no way “fair” as nonhuman animals are exploited by humans without consent). If the product meets criteria #2 also, I’ll choose this over one that just meets #1 if I have the choice and the means to buy it. If the product meets #3, too, I’ll choose this over ones that only meet #1 and 2.

    In sum, we’re all entangled in the system of captalism and consumer choices are difficult. In addition to “voting” with our dollars, we need political change to transform society.

  7. Billie permalink
    January 8, 2010 6:45 pm

    I obviously try to do the best I can when I purchase things. My number one priority is making sure there are no animal products. I just feel like that’s the easiest, most obvious thing I can do. All the other problems are so complex, I feel overwhelmed trying to juggle the other issues. I try to counter that by just not buying things unless I need them. And the sweatshop issues are so awful. There was an article in Harper’s recently, mostly about the lack of sweatshops in Cambodia, but it mentioned Vietnam and their sweatshop situation. The sweatshops are awful, but a large part of their economy. People live in dumps there, a dangerous and degrading life, who would love to work in a sweatshop. If you don’t buy, or enforce conditions on work, it will only force businesses to close and drive the workers into more poverty. It’s awful. So, yes, I’m a bad consumer. But I don’t know anyone who isn’t. I wish it were a clear issue.

  8. January 9, 2010 12:14 pm

    I also only buy products if they’re animal product free, on in the case of sneakers at least seem animal product free. (It’s often not labeled if things are completely man-made in my opinion).

    I try to shop at thrift stores but end up buying almost all my clothing new and at places that probably use sweatshops. In my opinion, the best bet is just to buy less new stuff. But for some reason I’m always in need of underwear and socks.

    I wear my pre-vegan wool coat and down coat, and I wore my pre-vegetarian uggs for a year before I donated them. I’ve never had anyone go vegan police about it on me, but have had people try to tell me numerous times that certain vegan candies had gelatin.

  9. Elaine Vigneault permalink
    January 9, 2010 1:43 pm

    When it comes to consuming anything, I think the most important questions to ask are:
    1) Do I need it or just want it?
    2) Does this consumption choice represent my values?

    The sense I get from the above dilemma of cheap synthetic Payless shoes vs. expensive vegan fair-trade shoes vs. repair old nonvegan shoes is that the worry isn’t so much about what choice is right, but rather the worry is more about which choice will receive less criticism. Choose the one your heart tells you to.

  10. John N permalink
    January 9, 2010 8:07 pm

    When I’m shopping I go for hemp, organic cotton or poly, sometimes bamboo. Yes I’m always trying to find the best deal (who’s not in this effed up economy?) and feel it’s plus if I can purchase it from a vegan or non sweatshop retailer. I also want quality for my dollar…again why shouldn’t I? My opinion is you’ll go crazy if you keep looking too deeply into it. One thing for sure is you won’t find any type of animal product in my clothing (as far as I know!) and that includes denim jeans which often have the little leather brand patch on the waistline.

  11. January 10, 2010 8:07 am

    When it comes to clothing and accessories, I tend to never buy new. I shop at thrift stores/yard-sales, but still go by a semi-strict approach.
    When I’m at the thrift/secondhand shop/yard-sale, I ask myself this questions before buying anything:
    “Does it contain any animal products?”
    If not, and I like it, I’ll usually buy it. But I don’t really buy clothing(I often get handme-downs… Before I went veg*n, I used to buy things like Tripp pants, which are more likely than not, made in sweatshops. So now, my attire is a heavy mixture of when preppy meets goth, but at least I’m not giving those industries any more of my cash)
    Not to mention, secondhand shops tend to be run by churches. Even as a Pagan, I still shop at places like those(People are probably calling me a hypocrite). But if you think about it, they donate money from such shops to organizations to help the homeless, sometimes even help animals at homeless shelters. They don’t usually keep the money for themselves. Not to mention you can usually find a great bargain!
    Then is someone pounces on you for having something non-fair-trade, you can always pull a quick “I bought it at a thrift shop, so it’s used.” That will probably shut up the environmentalist “police” and one could say nearly the same thing about sweatshop clothing from a thrift store. Sure it doesn’t right the original wrong, but it’s easier and cheaper than spending a ton of money to get new clothing that doesn’t support it.
    I have an American eagle shirt that I decorated with a cute baby chick(stencil and paint mind you!:) ) and painted “I am not a nugget” on it. If I had gotten it new, for like $50 from the store(instead of a free hand-me-down) I probably wouldn’t have, and as well supported a sweatshop(I dunno what AE’s policy is with that but still…)

  12. January 11, 2010 3:06 pm

    It’s tough. One New Year’s resolution for me in 2010 is to buy directly from people I support. For example, I could buy books on veganism or animal rights (or other issues I’m interested in) usually cheaper from Amazon. In fact, I can often buy them still cheaper if they’re used – I’m currently thinking of the Bloodroot vegan cookbook. But I’m determined not to do that this year. If the item is from or about something I support and want to see more of, then I’m going to buy new and buy direct from the author or the publisher or from the tiny underground distributor run by idealistic souls. This also means there’s a priority for buying from vegan-owned businesses. Further, it means that I can buy less things because they cost more – but I actually like this aspect because I’ve got more than I’ll likely ever use in my lifetime.

    Some examples are shoes (no more Payless!), organic fair trade socks and “Vegan Brunch” (Isa doesn’t sell it on her site, but rather than buying it used on Amazon, I bought it new and I linked to the Amazon from an animal sanctuary so it gets part of the proceeds). I’m also joining a CSA this year through the local co-op, even though the neighborhood chain grocery store is cheaper. Etc.

    On a similar note, I just started reading Lierre Keith’s “The Vegetarian Myth” about how eating vegan is worse for the planet than going hunting because of the ravaging effects of industrial agriculture and its monocrops of things like soybeans. No opinion yet.

    Still, whether something is vegan is still the first consideration when I buy.


  1. How Do You Deal With Shopping? | Animal Rights Blog

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