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Consumer ethics affects shopping habits

Art+by+Braden+Leung
Art by Braden Leung

Whether it’s for food or clothing, junior Milena Rodriguez said she always looks at the labels of the various brands she buys, hoping to find one indicating its ethical background. Her weekly trips to the Sunday farmer’s market on California Avenue, for example, provide a variety of fresh fruits and veggies that come from local farms and businesses.

“My family buys almost all of our fruits and veggies from the farmers market on California Avenue, Rodriguez said. “It’s local and they don’t have to drive an extremely long way to get here, so we’re reducing our carbon footprint.”

Shopping locally like Rodriguez does is just one of the ways ethical consumerism — a broad label of social and environmental activism that influences where and how consumers buy products — manifests. Through mindful purchases, these consumers say they are encouraging ethical practices on the part of the businesses where they choose to spend their money.

One of the business sectors most known for its ethical practices — or lack thereof — is the fashion industry.

Many clothing companies use non-biodegradable fabrics and child labor, among other unethical practices.

Because of this, Rodriguez said she would rather purchase from ethical companies rather than other fashion brands with little to no environmental visibility.

“Before I order something, I’ll check to see if they say anything about how they manufacture their products or if the material they use is sustainable,” Rodriguez said. “I’m OK with having fewer clothes if it means the clothes last longer and aren’t made in sweatshop factories with child labor or slavery.”

Junior Payton Anderson also said the workplace that produces her clothes — especially if it is outside of the U.S. — is an important factor in her choice of companies to purchase from.

“I think a really big issue is the underpayment and exploitation of third-world countries,” Anderson said. “Their resources and laborers are greatly abused because there’s not strict labor laws like there are in the U.S.”

Agricultural businesses can be even more demanding and unethical. Because of this, many people opt for fair trade products or purchase from locally-owned farms and businesses.

One local fair trade business is run by the volunteer team at the First Congregational Church of Palo Alto. FCCPA is a part of Equal Exchange, a for-profit Fairtrade cooperative that strives to build economically just partnerships between farmers and consumers. Volunteer Nancy Peterson and her team take farm products to the tables of their buyers, all quality-controlled by Equal Exchange.

Peterson said her experience with selling fair trade products has helped her to make more environmentally sound food purchases.

“I’ve been buying as much organic and local things as I can and that helps because often there is alignment there,” Peterson said. “There’s no absolute guarantee about all of the businesses’ practices, but I can have a lot more confidence that way.”

When COVID-19 hit, many consumers switched from purchasing clothes in-person to online, giving them greater accessibility to clothing, especially those who shopped at fast-fashion, low-price stores such as Shein and Forever 21.

But Anderson said this accessibility perpetuates the mentality that the best, most efficient way to purchase clothes is through fashion brands that sell them at low prices. Instead, she said her first choice is to buy responsibly in a way that is environmentally conscious.

“I try to shop second hand as best as I can, and I try to up-cycle a lot of my old clothes or give other people a lot of my old clothes,” Anderson said.

One company many consumers cannot get away from, however, is Amazon. Amazon is known for its Prime two-day shipping and its warehouses filled with everything a consumer can think of.

However, Amazon has also come under fire for its unethical practices in the workplace and its mistreatment of its workers. Despite these concerns, it remains a popular site that many feel guilty for shopping at but one they find difficult to give up.

“They have literally anything you could want on Amazon, and for really cheap, too,” Rodriguez said. “That’s the thing — instead of having to actively seek out another way of buying something you could just go on Amazon and buy it.”

Low prices of products are often the selling point for many consumers, rather than the environmental impact of their purchases, and those in worse economic situations are especially susceptible, especially since ethically-sourced products are often more expensive.

“Money plays a huge part in ethical consumerism because some people don’t have the money to shop at companies that cost more,” Anderson said. “Another big problem is that people automatically think, ‘I don’t have the money to buy items from this company,’ but end up going to use that same amount of money to buy more items that aren’t going to last as long.”

Peterson said that her customers are willing to pay for her products because they know the sourcing behind them. However, without this visibility, Peterson said there would not be as much business as there is now.

“Part of ethical consumerism is just getting people’s attention,” Peterson said. “Another part of it is deciding that you’re willing to pay more for things but part of it is just massive visibility. So it’s consumer action, but it’s also broad visibility through the media and through the financial markets and investors.”

The media becomes a huge factor when considering demand and trends, especially with clothing. It then becomes a cycle of supply and demand that neither side can resolve.

“A huge thing that’s pushing the supply and demand from these companies is not just the customers, but it’s the media trends and micro-trends,” Anderson said. “I think companies have a huge role in it, but customers also have a role in it because they’re buying the stuff.”

Even though it may seem like a grueling task, Anderson said everyone can do something to become a more ethical consumer. She said educating yourself is an easy, first step.

“Be aware of what you’re consuming,” she said. “Part of ethical consumerism is knowing what you’re consuming, knowing what you’re supporting and when you’re perpetuating the supply and demand cycle.”

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