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Conscious Consumerism: Shopping ethically in the time of COVID-19

By Hannah Nicholas ’20 and Jaimie Franz ’21

The COVID-19 pandemic is a health, economic, and social crisis that has significantly affected healthcare, consumer behavior, and the economy on a global scale. As social distancing progressively becomes the new normal, consumer behavior and purchasing habits are quickly adapting to the current environment. Amid a time where the nation’s discretionary spending is significantly reduced, it is imperative for consumers to utilize their dollars towards demanding companies promote and protect the environment and worker’s rights through their business platforms. By using our purchasing power as a voice for change, consumers can press for equitable and sustainable trading partnerships through transparency, respect for human dignity, and accountability. 

Each day, you buy or consume something. Every time you do this, you have the choice to support sustainable development and fair wages within communities through how you choose to spend and invest your money. By voting with our dollars on a collective level, we as consumers can hold businesses to higher sustainable, ethical, and inclusive standards. To help spark innovation within the world of consumerism at UD, we have designed an Ethical Shopping Guide. The goal is to help students and our community as consumers to readily access ethical and fair trade products produced by companies that value people and the planet in addition to profit.

Here are some of insights and facts you need to know to start your journey of conscious consumerism:

What is Ethical Shopping and Fair Trade?

Ethical consumerism is a type of activism which acknowledges that customers not only consume goods, but also the process used to produce those goods. It is more common than not to discover corporations exploiting their workers or destroying the environment in order to cut costs on a product or service. One way to negate these practices is to buy ethically made products crafted by small businesses and local artisans. By supporting ethically sourced businesses, consumers can help to protect the environment while simultaneously avoiding goods that exploit child workers, slave labor, or natural resources. 

Another way of ensuring that a product or service is produced ethically is through fair trade. Built on the recognition that the goods and services exchanged through commerce are connected to the livelihoods and rights of others, supporting fair trade is one way to make a conscious change for a better world. Fair trade is a global movement designed to attain sustainable development by providing rights for marginalized producers and workers through the production of goods and services in developing countries. 

Sustainable development is defined in the United Nations Agenda 2030 which consists of 17 Goals that all countries, including the US, have committed to achieving. Goal 12, Ensuring Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns, goes in-depth with waste management, carbon footprint, recycling of goods and deals with the people within the supply chain. What makes fair trade sustainable is that it enables the workers to be compensated for their means of work so that they can provide for their families and continue working. Through the promotion of greater transparency and traceability in trading partnerships, fair trade practices can ensure equitable commerce systems at every level of the supply chain. Along with number 12 the SDG number 10, “Reduce Inequalities,” stands hand in hand with fair trade, as fair trade goals are to reduce the economic inequality within and between the poorest and richest countries. 

Fast Fashion

In order to keep up with consumer demand and deliver reasonably priced clothing, fast fashion creates style replication with low-quality materials at rapid production levels. This type of consumerism also plays into the belief that outfit repeating is considered a fashion faux pas and that one must wear the latest look in order to stay on-trend. Based on a toxic system of overconsumption, the fast-fashion business has become one of the biggest polluters of the environment and most wasteful of natural resources globally. 

As new clothing styles drop every week, consumers in wealthy countries or communities come to think they need to buy the latest styles to stay relevant. This overconsumption in the fashion industry leads to an overproduction of clothing waste. When it comes to throwing away clothing, present-day technologies have a hard time transforming unwanted clothing into fibers that could be repurposed to create new goods. Recycling methods, such as chemical digestion or shredding, work inadequately and there are unfortunately not big enough consumer markets to absorb the sheer volume of recycled clothing. 

In simple terms, the following statistics, published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, give us an idea of how negatively fast fashion impacts the world: 

  • Fast fashion ranks second as the world’s largest polluter, oil ranks first.
  • Almost 60% of clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being made.
  • The fast fashion industry emits 1.2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent per year which is more than the emissions created by air travel and international shipping.
  • It takes over 2,700 liters of water to make one t-shirt. This is equal to the amount of water the average person drinks in a three-year period.

So how can a consumer avoid fast fashion? The easiest solution is to buy ethically made goods.

What are Greenwashing and Fairwashing?

Consumers must also be wary of companies who partake in greenwashing. The terms ‘greenwashing’ or ‘fairwashing’ describes communicating deceitful or ambiguous information on the ethical nature of a company's products. For instance, companies involved in greenwashing could attest that their products are made from recycled or compostable materials that are beneficial to the environment. While some of the claims could be partly true, businesses occupied in greenwashing regularly overemphasize their claims in an aim to misguide consumers. Therefore, consumers are often deceived, relying solely on what the company is portraying on the brand’s package. There are, however, ways to avoid falling into the trap of greenwashing or fairwashing:

  1. Read the fine print and examine the product and packaging. For example, the product may be packaged in 100% recycled material, but what about the components that make up the actual product?
  2. Look for minimal/recycled packaging wherever possible.
  3. Look for justification and context behind the following buzzwords: Organic, green, eco-friendly, low-impact, low emissions, etc.

Online Shopping 

While online shopping may serve as a convenient and safe way to purchase goods during the global pandemic, it is important to keep in mind labor and workers’ rights when browsing through online stores. Labor rights are human rights related to working conditions connected to employment. While workers’ rights are crucially important in maintaining a safe work environment, many nations do not employ or enforce adequate labor laws. As a result of overlooking these rights, laborers are put into dangerous working conditions in order to cut costs on the product or service. For example, the poor treatment of laborers in the fast fashion industry was recently highlighted after the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh fatally collapsed in May 2013. This catastrophe killed more than 1,100 garment workers and injured at least 2,000 workers.

Child labor exploitation also occurs when labor laws are insufficient or loosely forced. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor uncovered 152 million children, between the ages of 5-17, working as child laborers globally. Of the 152 million, an astonishing 73 million children are engaged in hazardous and life-threatening conditions. While the agriculture industry is the largest employer of child labor, another well-known child labor industry is mining. Children in Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are known to work in perilous conditions to mine cobalt, a key mineral within rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. These same lithium-ion batteries are embedded in Apple and Microsoft products and sold in big box stores and throughout Amazon. 

This is not Amazon’s first offense to the exploitation of workers’ rights. While Amazon continues to expand in popularity for its cheap prices and rapid delivery, warehouse workers behind the scenes are paying for it with grueling work and bottom-level salaries. The nonstop pressure to meet increasing fulfillment metrics and quotas has generated a culture in Amazon where stressed and fatigued employees are treated more like machines than humans.

One way to navigate the online space and avoid big box and online stores like Amazon is through using the DoneGood browser plugin. While shopping online, the DoneGood plugin will automatically search the internet for ethical, sustainable brands and products that match your search. By supporting ethically sourced shops, consumers can demand ethical sourcing and garment transparency within fast fashion companies.

What is a self-audit? 

So how does one know for certain that the products found in everyday stores are produced ethically according to fair trade standards? One way to find out is by conducting a food waste audit. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, food waste is the single largest component of waste sent for disposal, where it generates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. By orchestrating a food waste audit on your daily eating habits,  households will have a better idea of how and where to reduce food waste.

Another way to discover if products are produced ethically according to fair trade standards is through utilizing the University of Dayton's Ethical Shopping Guide as an educational auditing tool. Also, use the “Low Impact Living Checklist,” below, for some simple swap-outs to make your daily routine more sustainable. By listing out all the areas in your life that could use conscious consumerism improvements and setting goals to slowly replace them with ethical alternatives, consumers can choose to support responsible businesses, empower farmers and workers, and protect the environment. 

So we encourage you to get started! With the Covid-19 pandemic, it is now more important than ever to take action and challenge corporate malpractice that hurts our environment, animal welfare, and the rights of everyone.

Hannah Nicholas ’20 is pursuing a B.S. in Finance and Operations and Supply Chain Management, graduating in December of 2020. Through her involvement with the Human Rights Center and other experiential learning opportunities, Hannah has grown her passion for corporate social responsibility, sustainability, and social justice. 

Jaimie Franz '21 is currently a senior at the University of Dayton studying International Business Management with a concentration in Global Studies. She hopes to work one day with international law and through her work at the Human Rights Center and her professional fraternity on campus, Epsilon Nu Tau  

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