By Luke Ellery
With a new year comes an unconscious desire to try and be better than the year passed. 2018 was an excellent year for many and a hard year for some. One way all of us can work to improve this new year is to start practising a few techniques to become more ethical consumers. LKC has always been outspoken on ethical consumerism and ensuring that the organisations we give our money to are producing their product in such a way that supports their workers, the economy, and the environment. In this article, we will simplify the practices of being an ethical consumer, so you have something to refer to when you feel like you need a bit of guidance. Without further ado, here is our handy guide to being an ethical consumer for 2019.
It is almost impossible to have a serious discussion about ethical consumerism without understanding the gravity of the consequences of being an unethical consumer. The best way to show just how dangerous it can get is to recall the Rana Plaza tragedy of 2013. Now, if you're an avid reader on ethical consumerism you will have most certainly heard about this tragedy – almost every article or news story concerning ethical fashion references the Rana Plaza tragedy. However, it is referenced for a good reason. In 2013, after receiving warnings that the building was a structural risk, the landlords of Rana Plaza insisted workers remain in the tower and continue production. The tower later collapsed, killing over 1000 workers. Most of these workers were in a cycle of poverty and were being mistreated and overworked. The companies that were using this production-line for their clothing include Primark, Walmart and more. I don't want to play the blame game, but at the end of the day, big-name companies make big bucks purely because they need to meet the demand of the consumer. It is entirely up to the leaders of these companies to seek out ethical factories, and fair trade resources. However, it is impossible to deny that part of the reason companies get away with slacking off is that a vast majority of the world's consumers just don't care enough to be outspoken and selective about how they want their products made.
Start being a consumer who cares by embracing a few simple practices. Being an ethical consumer comes down to three ideas, which are: reuse and recycle wherever possible, demand exposure, and identify the good guys.
Reuse and Recycle
Image by Shanna Camilleri
It's not a crime to buy new clothing. However, one surefire way to not give your money to companies that may be dabbling in fast-fashion and worker exploitation is to just not. Buying second-hand clothing means your money is going to a local business or charitable organisations like Red Cross. You can't necessarily guarantee that the second-hand clothes you are wearing will have come from an ethical source but, as a consumer, the best way you can protest these unethical sources is by not giving money to the companies that aren't practising fair trade. It's guaranteed that not a cent of the money you spend on that second-hand pair of jeans will go to the company that originally produced them. Moreover, it is worth considering that vintage clothing, given its age, may well have been created before the fast-fashion craze which began in the late 90s. Therefore, the chance of vintage clothing coming from an undesirable source is lower.
Image by Sergey Zolkin
The power to enact change is, more than ever, in the hands of the masses thanks to social media. Spread the word, use hashtags, share articles that inform the public about ethical companies and ethical shopping practices. Moreover, stop following companies that are known to be poor performers in ethical practices. If the idea of exposure and clarity around the ethical practices of companies became a viral one, then we would win. New Zealand's Tearfund charity is leading the way in exposure with their annual ethical fashion guide (https://www.tearfund.org.nz/Get-Involved/Ethical-Fashion-Guide.aspx). Tearfund graded 407 brands and 114 companies on their ability to maintain a high standard of worker's rights. Some of the grading categories include the right to a safe workplace, a living wage, and the freedom from forced and child labour. Out of the total number of companies graded only 18 received a grade in the A-range. Many of the brands we love like AS Colour, Barkers, and Karen Walker received C-range grades which reflect a meagre standard of ethical practices. This is the kind of information we need to exposing on our various platforms. It doesn’t matter if you only have 100 followers on your Instagram account. It would be commendable to have stopped 100 people from supporting companies that have been found lacking in providing support for the people slaving away to create their products (not an exaggeration, the likeness of poor labour conditions in fast-fashion have absolutely been compared to slavery).
Beyond utilising your social media, don't be afraid to ask store owners, business owners, or workers (though the latter may be uninformed) if they practice fair trade. Simple questions like " Do you know the source of your raw materials?" or "Are the workers who provide your raw materials treated fairly and paid a living wage?". Layla Kaisi, CEO of Layla Kaisi Collection, personally selects every trader. She believes (and rightly so) that the selection process ensures she knows her diamonds are conflict-free and of a fair trade standard. It should be a universally accepted fact that is simply not good enough for a business owner not to know the source of their raw materials. And yet, looking back at Tearfund's ethical fashion guide, 93% of the companies fell into that very category.
Identify the Good Guys
Image by Layla Kaisi Collection
Identifying "good guy" companies is achieved through the process of demanding exposure. You will begin to learn which companies can be considered fair trade standard. Through reading companies' about pages and looking into exposure projects like Tearfund, you can form a list of companies that are worth supporting. Some examples of companies we know to be the good guys include:
(The following list is of well-known companies that have either proven to know their raw materials are of a fair trade standard, received a fairtrade certification, or received an A-range grade in Tearfund's Ethical Fashion Guide.)
- Layla Kaisi Collection
- Common Good
- Ben & Jerry's
- Cotton On
- Wild Bean Cafe
- Havana Coffee Works
- Robert Harris
- Z Station
It's simple for you to go to the Fair Trade website and search their list of certified companies by product. However, their list is limited so utilising other resources like the Tearfund guide and having the confidence to directly question your favourite companies yourself is bound to leave you with a nice long list of "good guy" brands that you can trust.
It is worth considering the other side of "good guy" coin. In this case, that means knowing what brands have not been working to a high standard of ethical practice. It may come across a little salty to name these companies, but it is information that needs to be shared for those of us who wish to be ethical consumers. It should be noted that in some cases companies refuse to provide information to Tearfund which often leads to a low grade. In such cases, Tearfund grades those companies on publicly available information – With that in mind I highly respect every company that chose to participate, and I can only hope that all the low scoring brands get the push they need in order to do better. The following brands failed Tearfund's investigation (receiving a grade lower than C-):
- Coco Beach
- Forever 21
- Ralph Lauren
- Trelise Cooper
- Victoria's Secret
So What Next?
Image by Anna Dziubinska
The power is in the hand of the consumer. We may not run the companies ourselves, but the companies exist because we let them – we give them our money. If we demanded transparency and stopped purchasing products from unethical sources, then we force the hand of the big name companies to start making internal changes. This process has already begun, since the Rana Plaza tragedy which sparked a worldwide discussion on worker's conditions and fair trade resources there has been a significant change in the transparency of companies. Brands are being open about utilising sustainability (i.e. the H&M Conscious Collection) as well the processes that ensure ethical conditions for the workers on the front lines (i.e. Layla Kaisi Collection on the selection of conflict-free diamond suppliers https://laylakaisicollection.co.nz/blogs/our-ethics/conflict-free-production). What we mustn't do is let the momentum decline. So start recycling, start demanding exposure, and start identifying the good guys. Let 2019 be the year where we at least make the change in ourselves and maybe soon we'll see that change reflected in others.