Shopping for Change

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Cheap & Convenient for US = Costly & Hard for Somebody Else

Let’s face it – times are tough, and if you’re like most people, you’ve been looking to make the most of every dollar you spend. Big-box retailers, competing to offer the lowest price in town, sound like a real blessing, especially if you’re trying to feed and clothe a family.

Problem is – the prices we see at those big-box retailers don’t represent the real cost of the item we’re buying. To keep those prices low, companies have pulled their factories out of the U.S. and taken advantage of the weaker standards of the developing world, where unions can be blocked or prohibited, workers accept lower wages to survive, and nations sell their natural resources at a loss to prop up their tottering economies.

Bottom line? By basing our buying decisions on convenience or short-term costs, we’re paying these companies to keep their bottom line low, hurting American workers and the rest of the world in the process. For example,

  • the Hershey bar you buy for a snack may come from an Ivory Coast farm that uses child slaves to pick the coca beans…
  • your sleek new $300 iPhone may have been manufactured for only $2.00 in a network of Chinese sweatshops where worker suicide is a growing trend…
  • the oil you put in your car may have been drilled from the Niger Delta, third-largest wetland in the world, which has become one of the Earth’s most oil-polluted places thanks to thousands of spills totaling from 9 million to 13 million barrels of oil.

Grim and depressing, isn’t it? Who in their right mind would want to know such information, much less seek it out? Who could possibly change such situations?

The Power to Create Change

But this perception of powerlessness is false! As consumers, and as investors, we have ultimate power over the corporations that are perpetrating these situations. We can help to change world conditions at the grassroots level by making informed decisions about the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the rugs and furniture and appliances we put into our houses.

By choosing to buy consciously, supporting those companies that are committed to fair trade and responsible business practices, and speaking up about those companies that are not, we can have an impact. Just a few examples:

  • In December 2006, Occidental Petroleum decided to cease all operations in a highly-sensitive region of northern Peru, home to the Achuar people. This withdrawal came about thanks to an international protest campaign after the company had wreaked 30 years of environmental destruction in the area.
  • In August 2009, Kimberly-Clark and Greenpeace came to an agreement requiring that the manufacturer of Kleenex-brand products will no longer source its pulp from two old-growth portions of the boreal forest in northern Ontario unless strict ecological criteria are met. It is not a complete victory, but a step forward.
  • In September, 2010, General Mills committed to sourcing 100% of its palm oil from responsible sources by 2015, and pledged “never to knowingly source palm oil produced through palm oil expansion resulting in deforestation or destruction of vulnerable ecosystems.” This was the one victory in a lengthy conservation campaign by Rainforest Action and allied NGOs.

And these are only three of the most prominent campaigns that have been waged by informed consumers and shareholders.

Ask the Tough Questions

So sustainable shopping is about awareness….awareness of the source of the products we buy, and their impact on the People and the Planet…and awareness of our power to demand answers to the tough questions…

  • Is this dishwasher Energy Star rated for efficiency?…See the Department of Energy listing of high-efficiency appliances.
  • What is the gas mileage of this car? Is it the most fuel-efficient vehicle that will meet my needs? See for fuel-efficiency ratings.
  • Where was this designer outfit manufactured? Was it produced under fair labor/fair trade conditions, free of sweatshops and child labor?
  • Where and how were these coffee beans or cacao beans grown – on a corporately-run plantation or a small Fair Trade family farm?

It isn’t always easy to track down this sort of information…or to keep up the energy to continue buying consciously! Here are some resources that I’ve found along the way:

The Fair Trade Federation is the trade association that strengthens and promotes North American organizations fully committed to Fair Trade. Member businesses offer a wide variety of goods, including food, textiles. furniture and housewares, personal care products, toys, and office supplies, from nearly every continent. is dedicated to alerting consumers to the slave labor involved in the products we buy every day. Through their website, you can easily search specific products, learn more about various labor standards and corporate practices, and further their engagement through their consumption decisions. Check out their Smartphone app!

Global Girlfriend was created by Stacey Edgar in 2003 to help women worldwide gain economic security while providing unique products and a simple way to help women in need. Their fair-trade boutique offers a line of trend-setting, women-made, fair-trade products including stylish apparel, accessories and gifts with one purpose — helping women in need help themselves.

TheHunger Site Store includes Shop Green, Fair Trade, and Global Girlfriend departments (not all Hunger Site products are Fair Trade, however). Every purchase fights famine in the Horn of Africa & combats hunger in the U.S.

Green America (formerly Co-op America) is a truly massive information resource and business networking site, offering valuable education and action programs:

  • The National Green Pages – an online and print directory of member businesses in just about every industry
  • Living Green – a newsletter of tips on living more sustainably
  • Climate Action Campaign – brings people, businesses and organizations together to pressure polluters, while offering information to reduce their own personal and professional carbon footprints.
  • Fair Trade – offers information, resources, and opportunities for action in ensuring that farmers and artisans receive a fair price for their products, have direct involvement in the marketplace, and have livable working conditions for themselves and their employees.
  • Sweatshops – provides information and resources to take action against sweatshop labor
  • Better Paper – provides information and resources to reduce the impact of the paper industry on forests worldwide.
  • Boycotts – provides information and resources for organizing an effective boycott
  • Responsible Shopper – gives documented information about companies committing social or environmental abuses
  • Shop & Unshop – gives the information you need to make informed green purchases
  • Green Business – provides networks, information and technical assistance needed to bring green businesses together and put them in touch with the consumers who need their services.
  • Social Investing – gives tips and resources for informed socially responsible investing (also see Invest In Your Values for more info on social investing).
  • Green Festivals – every year Green America offers Green Festivals in cities across the U.S. and (now) in Canada, featuring green business vendors and information booths, entertainment, workshops, and food.

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