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Francine LeFrak

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Can We Change the World by the Way We Shop?

Posted: 11/11/2011 1:10 pm

Imagine walking into your local department store, picking out a shirt and eyeing its tag, which says "This product was made in Rwanda by Consolee." What if you could then go to the company website, read about Consolee and learn about how your shirt was made and how it might be changing Consolee's life and the economy of her community? You would feel so differently about this product than other ones like it made commercially. This isn't the shirt that would become lost on the floor of your closet.

Then imagine making all your purchases with this sort of transparency and ethical consciousness attached.

With eco-friendly, fair-trade and ethical products trickling into the market, demand is slowly on the rise. But there needs to be more. We, the customers, must be asking retailers and manufacturers who and what is involved in the products we choose to buy: Where was this grown? How was this made? Are workers being paid fairly for producing this? We need to become conscious consumers and not only ask questions of the companies we support but also demand change in the way business is conducted.

In a report from global integrated marketing communications agency Euro RSCG Worldwide, 54 percent of those surveyed said they are paying more attention to the environmental and/or social impact of the products they buy, and 65 percent believe they have a responsibility to censure unethical companies by avoiding their products. In addition, half (49 percent) prefer to do business with companies that have a reputation for a purpose beyond profits.

Same Sky, the trade-not-aid initiative that I founded in 2008 employs women artisans in Zambia and Rwanda and trains them to crochet beautiful jewelry made with handblown glass beads. I have seen firsthand the benefits of a socially conscious business model: The women I work with are HIV-positive widows who would have otherwise been ostracized from society and unable to support their families but who now earn an income 15 to 20 times the average wage in sub-Saharan Africa. With their money, Clementine, Solina, Anastasie and the others are able to buy food, houses, mattresses and clothes for their families and become active members of their community and local economy. When you buy a Same Sky bracelet or necklace, you get a card signed by one of these artisans and even have the opportunity to send her an email, creating a connection between producer and consumer that has rarely existed before.

Relationships are key in making ethical businesses successful, especially in the principle of giving someone a hand up with a job rather than a handout with aid.

And that's the idea behind the fair-trade movement: Provide a sustainable income to the producers of goods. The idea of fair trade was first introduced by Ten Thousand Villages. Its founder, Edna Ruth Byler, was inspired after a trip to Puerto Rico in the 1940s to establish an economically responsible relationship with women artisans living in poverty. The company has been developing such relationships globally ever since. And, following its example, so have innumerable others, from Starbucks and Trader Joe's to small chocolate makers and relief organizations.

The new philanthropy is just this. It's about buying ethical products from companies that engage in ethical practices in order to stimulate economies around the world. Investing in artisan training and products boost economies and empowers people. These products might not cost the same as goods from our American big-box stores, but they contain more joy, more correctness, more beauty and a positive sense of consumption.

Shopping in the United States has turned into a game of buying more for less until there is no space left for all our stuff. We have so much stuff, in fact, that the self-storage industry is one of the fastest-growing in the country. About one in every 10 American families has a storage unit--and the numbers are growing. Why wouldn't we value quality handmade goods over storage spaces filled with stuff that we never even look at and don't know what to do with?

We all love bargains, and that will never change. We will always be looking to stores such as Uniqlo and H&M for affordable, trendy clothes, or Target and Ikea for reasonably priced household items. But I wouldn't be surprised if the cheap goods we're so enamored of start becoming less available as the countries that produce them grow stronger in the global market and begin making quality, handmade goods.

And besides, isn't it time we become socially conscious consumers and break the American addiction to cheap shopping anyway? We can still pepper our wardrobes and homes with a whole lot of meaning by buying items that are handmade, beautiful and life-changing.

So, how can we change the world with the way we shop?

Buy less, but demand higher quality. Insist on goods that are responsibly produced, handmade and first-rate. Turn to ethical companies. Do your research. And imagine how you're changing the world, one purchase at a time.

 

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