Buying ethically, for most of us, should not be a bonus or an add-on. It should just be how we shop.
With Christmas, Boxing Day sales, and January sales, this tends to be a time of excess consumption for most of us. Particularly this year, with so many of us unable to gift experiences or see our family over the holidays, the pressure is on to spend to make up for lost time. Or maybe we just think we deserve a new Christmas outfit or pair of shoes after the year we have had.
As a society, we are born and bred to become consumers. Before the pandemic, cities across Britain were being turned into shopping centres. There is increasingly less to do other than shop. The convenience of online shopping has created addicts, frittering away their money to get that temporary high from buying something that will be at their door in twelve hours. The boom of the ‘influencer’ industry means every time we look at our phones we are being conditioned to buy more. There has never been a time of greater marketing bombardment than now. It is not our fault that we want more stuff, everything around us tells us that it will make us more satisfied with our lives.
This January, no matter how great a deal you think you have found, someone else is always paying the price. And it’s probably a woman of colour somewhere in the Global South. The rise of fast fashion has meant cheaper garments for us, but it has forced garment producing factories to cut safety and welfare corners so they can continue to compete for business. When Pretty Little Thing sold dresses for literal pennies on Black Friday, we must wonder how much the woman who produced that garment got paid. There continue to be reports that Uighur Muslims in China are being forced to work in factories that produce for brands such as Nike, Apple, and Adidas. Years ago, it was discovered that nets had to be hung around factories where iPhones were being made because of a suicide epidemic among the workers there. Nobody can convincingly argue that this had much of an impact on sales of Apple products.
So many posted that they were ‘always listening, always learning’ this summer. How many of us have turned that into tangible action? If you know you support the oppression of women of colour in the Global South every time you shop, and have decided that’s a price worth paying, what does that say about what you have learned? It says that you, like most of us, have been conditioned to believe that your right to consume is more important than others’ right to live full, dignified lives.
I am not speaking to people who rely on sales and high street prices to buy essentials like underwear and vacuum cleaners. I am speaking to everyone who buys a new outfit for every event. Or who has clothes in their wardrobe they will not wear more than a few times. Or who picks from five different types of trainer when they go out to the shops. Because it is not people in poverty who are propping up the vastness of fast fashion, it’s the upper and middle classes who just want to pay less for more.
For those who fit somewhere in the middle, who know they have more money than most and shouldn’t prop up this exploitation but who also know they couldn’t afford gifts for everyone if they only shopped in ethical, sustainable brands – here’s some suggestions for Christmas gifts that are not exploitative. Give them a second-hand book, either from your own collection or from a charity shop. The book has been well-loved and well-used and makes for great conversation once you have both read it! There is nothing like giving a gift that allows for connection. Buying people smaller, but more ethical gifts like a scarf from Birdsong (sustainable clothes that are ethically made) or coffee from Easy José Coffee (supports Indigenous farming and the protection of the rainforest). There is also something to be said for pushing against the societal norm of showing affection and appreciation for someone through things. Instead, maybe gift them a virtual experience (a Migrateful cooking class that supports refugees and migrants, maybe?) or offer to take them out for a meal once Covid-19 restrictions allow.
We do not have to show our loved ones how much they mean to us this Christmas by supporting the oppression of others. I implore everyone to spend some time researching the horrors of how most of the stuff we buy has been produced. Ask yourself whether you or anyone you love really wants to support that?