The Shopping Ethicist: In Search of a Feminist Boutique

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Photo: Corbis

Soon Americans will buy holiday gifts — the inevitable cashmere sweaters, plaid scarves, and pendant necklaces. And we will do so with new enthusiasm: A survey released two weeks ago showed that consumer confidence is at its highest level since February 2008.

While we shop, we will probably also wonder about the backstory of what we are purchasing. Just a week ago, a fire broke out at a garment factory in Bangladesh that made clothes for suppliers to Wal-Mart, Sean Combs, and Sears; 112 workers were killed. At the time of the blaze, doors to the factory were reportedly locked, blocking escape. Fire extinguishers on the premises weren't functioning, or workers didn't know how to use them.

The factory joins a list of those with terrible working conditions. They may work directly for companies or serve as more indirect suppliers (middlemen). The Chinese company that makes iPhones had to install nets outside some of its buildings to catch the workers who made suicidal leaps from the windows.

Awful, even deadly workplace conditions are only part of the holiday shopping problem. There are also the political donations made by the retailers or their owners — causes that might be inimical to our values. This happens not just at the Southern-fried Baptist Chick-fil-A chain (gain weight while you discriminate!) or the politically conservative gym Curves (which has partnered with pro-life and anti-gay groups) but also at seemingly progressive companies like Urban Outfitters. On the surface, UO's worst offense might appear to be badly appropriated Bushwick style — vinyl! flannel! But UO's co-founder, Richard Hayne, has donated money to Rick Santorum’s candidacy and supported Senate candidates who oppose same-sex marriage; the store pulled a pro-gay-marriage T-shirt from shelves in 2008. The disposable-teeny-bopper-clothes-secretly-worn-by-twentysomethings-in-the-media franchise Forever 21 has evangelical owners and a line of Christian T-shirts with sayings like "Jesus Hearts You" — problematic if you are a passionate atheist.

So, what should an ethical shopper do? I asked Fran Hawthorne, the author of Ethical Chic, where to find clothes made by adults in decent working conditions.

“The company that stands out in a good way is American Apparel,” Hawthorne says. The company has long been famous for making itty-bitty cotton garments in American factories with subsidized cafeterias, bikes, and huge windows. American Apparel supports immigration reform. But it also has founder Dov Charney, who has been served with numerous sexual harassment lawsuits that suggest he is a repeat molester. Hawthorne offered a counter-suggestion to “save” American Apparel: Pressure the company through web campaigns to get rid of Charney, the founder and the majority owner.

Another answer, of course, is to shop less, both for yourself and your friends. After all, do you or they really need that “Navajo” (ugh) Urban Outfitters shirt? As I sit clad in a new Ulla Johnson sleeveless silk that I bought myself as a Hanukkah gift (sample sale), I confess that shopping less is hard. Low-cost gear can make restless people like myself feel marginally happier. But the amount of fabric we consume on a per capita basis has soared in recent decades to levels that are unsustainable, and consumers' over-purchasing — an average of 64 new articles of clothing per American per year — leads directly back to nasty factory conditions in developing countries, according to Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed.

Cline thinks the choice between buying from a company that dangerously outsources and one that donates to disagreeable causes shows "how reckless corporations have become in the pursuit of selling us cheap consumer products."

As consumers, we can pressure corporations both to monitor and improve workplace conditions overseas — when inspections reveal violations, these companies should address the gaps immediately. That means a better inspection system. Labor organizations have been working one where an independent inspector used international safety codes during factory visits. Two companies, including the corporation that owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, have so far agreed to use the system. It couldn't hurt to voice our support — pressuring corporations to improve workplace conditions had an effect on Nike and Apple, after all.

Cline sees another option. "We just need to get out of the mall and these chain stores and get back to finding happiness in what we already own," says Cline. (I myself advocated this approach in my first book, Branded, calling it "unbranding.") "Once I taught myself about fabrics and garment construction, I started to spend a lot more time hunting for well-made garments and building a wardrobe."

That means going local in our shopping. For example, you can purchase your holiday gifts from crafters like Jenine Bressner, who sold and showcased her wares at Maker Faire this year. When I spoke to Bressner and other craftivists like Church of Craft's Callie Janoff, it was clear their DIY wasn't just Portlandia-ish kook. They do tend to have ideals. They aren’t creating a mass-production line that can lead to exploitation and dangerous corner-cutting. Buying and selling from real people and being able to make everything they need: These were some rationales for all that knitting, felting, and decoupaging.

Cline also suggests Nanette Lepore (especially if you want to shop "Made in the USA" and still resemble a character in The Hour) and Patagonia. We can also keep looking for independent designers in our own and other cities — I was never happier with a purchase than when I got a leather satchel hand-made from an artisan who had been doing it forever. And we can at least try to pay attention to not just what but whom we buy from and why we are buying.

Broadminded is a weekly column about gender and women's issues, written alternately by Alissa Quart and Lauren Sandler.