Carrying Less

Carrying Less header image with minimalist shelf

Since the beginning of this year I’ve been meditating on the idea of living with less, and for the last few months I’ve been working on what I call “the purge”—a conscious effort to reduce my possessions by donating, giving things to family and friends, and recycling.

Having too much stuff is a first world problem in the extreme, and I still have more possessions than probably 95% of people in the world. But now that I’ve made visible progress, I realize that for me, getting rid of things is less about living with less than it is about carrying less.

There are two kinds of things worth having: things that are truly useful, and things that have personal or emotional significance. I tend to overdo it when assessing both traits in items. I hold onto a lot of things “just in case” they become useful in the future (I kept two burnt-out lightbulbs on my kitchen counter for several months. Why??), and I also like to keep things to document my life. I call the latter category my “archives,” which I half-jokingly maintain for the benefit of my future biographer. I recently realized that every time I add something new to the archives, it diminishes the significance of everything else I’ve kept. There’s no point in keeping an archive of personally meaningful ephemera if the stockpile becomes so large you never peruse any of it.

My strategy now is to keep only the truly useful or meaningful items, take photos of the rest and then discard it by donating or recycling. Going through my stuff is giving me the chance not only to reduce the quantity of physical items I have, but also to reflect, pay those items their emotional due, and move on. As long as I have a record that I once had whatever artifact, it’s less important for me to actually carry it through life.

"How to get rid of stuff" infographic

From an ethical shopping standpoint, reducing your possessions to your most loved and useful items can make you more conscious of your shopping behavior. If every new thing you buy is more conspicuous in your home, you may consider each purchase more carefully. My current possessions are the result of 20-odd years of unconscious accumulation. My goal is to accumulate dramatically less over the rest of my life, and for each item I acquire to have real value.

The purge has been way more time-consuming than I thought it would be, so I still have a long way to go. But I figure it’s definitely easier to go through my stuff now than it would be to do it in another five or ten years. I’m sure my future biographer will thank me.

Are you a minimalist, a hoarder, or somewhere in between? Have you ever conducted your own purge of stuff? How did it go?

Thrift Store Score

A few weeks ago I was running errands in the Glendale area of Indianapolis and saw a billboard for a new store called Vintage Vogue just around the corner. I can rarely resist the urge to explore anything labeled “vintage,” so I immediately went to check it out:

Vintage Vogue exterior sign

Before I went in, I pulled up their website to check that they were open and see if they were truly a vintage store, as opposed to a boutique that sells 90% new stuff (which is an irritating trend I’ve seen lately—boutiques trying to bill themselves as vintage when they’re not). I was surprised to find that this particular shop wasn’t truly vintage, either, but not in a shady way—it’s actually a new concept from Goodwill. You could call it “Goodwill: Just the Good Stuff.”

Sales floor of Vintage Vogue store

The shop sells used clothing such as what you’d find at a regular Goodwill, plus accessories and a handful of home decor items, but it’s filtered to include only the more fashionable and high-quality items. As you can see, the store itself is designed like a boutique, in contrast to the bare-bones look of other Goodwill locations. The items are at a slightly higher price point than regular Goodwill, but that didn’t bother me, since I saved time by not having to sift through a lot of out-of-fashion or poor-quality items.

Sales floor of Vintage Vogue store

Following my thrift store shopping guidelines, I looked for a couple of specific items: versatile shirts I could wear to work and on the weekend, and black skinny pants. I found a White House Black Market shirt for $9 and black Forever 21 jeans for $7.50.

Photos of Julia in thrifted outfit

The top right photo is my “Yesssss I found what I wanted!” victory pose.

One concern that occurred to me as I shopped was whether this kind of store takes good items away from regular Goodwill stores. People who can’t afford the higher prices at Vintage Vogue should still have the opportunity to find high-quality items. My thought was that Goodwill’s donation volume is probably so high that pulling items for these stores wouldn’t make a huge difference in the overall selection. The Vintage Vogue website seems to confirm that assumption:

Vintage Vogue merchandise comes from select central Indiana Goodwill stores. These stores hand-pick a small portion of their upscale and vintage donations to send to Vintage Vogue. Special items and boutique merchandise can still be found at any of the more than 50 Goodwill locations in central Indiana.

It looks like Vintage Vogue is just a central Indiana concept right now, with this store in Indianapolis and another one in Bloomington. If you’re in the area and are looking for a gateway into shopping secondhand, I recommend checking it out!

Have you had any good thrift store finds lately? What are your favorite thrifting spots?

Safe and Ethical Baby Gifts

I am entering a new phase of my life. As the age of Everyone I Know Is Getting Married winds down, the age of Everyone I Know Is Having Babies is picking up. When I realized I knew three super-pregnant women at the same time, as well as three women with young’ns under the age of three, it occurred to me that a post about safe and ethical baby items could be useful!

College of safe and ethical baby gifts

1. Green 3 Apparel Doggies Organic Baby Playsuit – Made of organic cotton in USA (Fair Indigo)

2. Green Toys Twist Teether – Made of recycled food-safe plastic in USA (Made in USA Forever). I love Green Toys—their toys are safe and eco-friendly, and they have toys for older kids too, not just babies. When I have kids I want all of their toys to be Green Toys! Made in USA Forever carries a ton of them.

3. Scrappy Bib – Made of recycled cotton fabric scraps (which I think are organic) in Bali (Greenheart Shop)

4. Green 3 Apparel Recycled USA-Made Monkey Throw (Green) – Made of 75% pre-consumer recycled cotton and 25% acrylic in USA (Fair Indigo)

5. Penguin Booties – Made of sheep’s wool by artisans in Kyrgyzstan (Uncommon Goods)

6. Organic Stuffed Owl – Made of organic fleece in USA (Stuffington Bear Factory)

With products for babies, safety is obviously a top concern. The great thing about many ethical producers is that they focus on the safety of their products as well as the safety of their workers, especially for baby items. No worries about baby gumming on lead-based paint! I would particularly recommend organic cotton products for babies; check out this blog post from Modavanti for information about why organic cotton is so important.

Are you also surrounded by glowing pregnant goddesses? Do you wish they made adult-size penguin booties? (I do!)

Why Fair Trade? No Forced or Child Labor

Over the last few months I’ve been sharing some of the reasons why I support fair trade. One principle of fair trade that is very important to me is the prohibition of forced and child labor.

Millions of people worldwide are forced to work against their will and without proper pay. This is called human trafficking, also known as modern-day slavery. Trafficking is present in a variety of sectors: agriculture, manufacturing, domestic servitude, the sex industry. Some estimates put the number of enslaved people worldwide at 30 million.

One of the first avenues through which I learned about human trafficking was International Justice Mission. Their accounts of entire families being enslaved in brick kilns for years have stuck with me since I first heard them.

It boggles me that any form of slavery still exists today. I think a lot of people are unaware of human trafficking, and if they are aware, they assume that businesses make sure they don’t have slaves working for them. However, most businesses do not do the rigorous monitoring that is required to identify and eliminate forced labor from their supply chains.

Fair trade does what we assume all businesses do.

This is another case where fair trade is doing what we would expect all businesses to do. In fair trade, all workers are working voluntarily and are being paid fairly. Beyond that, fair trade stipulates that workers should be free from physical and verbal abuse, harassment and discrimination. (My reference point for fair trade standards is the Fair Trade Federation’s principles. Other certifications have similar standards that may be phrased differently.)

Fair trade also puts a special emphasis on the rights of children. While many children worldwide work to help support their families, fair trade requires that children’s work not interfere with their safety, education or need to play. Fair trade producers must disclose when children are involved in production and must adhere to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Having been part of an anti-trafficking organization for several years, I’ve heard many accounts from former trafficking victims about the hopelessness they felt while being trafficked. Fair trade offers an alternative of hope—a way to provide for one’s family in an environment of safety and respect. Fair trade doesn’t just prohibit slavery; it provides economic opportunities so people are less at-risk for becoming enslaved.

To learn more about human trafficking, I recommend checking out International Justice Mission and the Not For Sale Campaign.

News Roundup: June 2014

Conestoga wagon with post title

Circle the wagons, it’s roundup time! To be honest, I didn’t spend a ton of time reading this month. I was too busy trying to get outside as much as possible! However, the stuff I did read was top-notch quality. Check out the links below!

You Don’t Have to Feel It —This post blew my face off with truth. It explores our motivations for doing good, and how emotion can’t be the only motivator we have. (Style Wise)

Dov Charney: the man who put the sleaze factor into American Apparel — American Apparel founder and CEO Dov Charney was ousted this month in relation to alleged misconduct (he’s a notorious creeper, to say the least). I love the manufacturing ethics of American Apparel but have always felt weird supporting them because of their over-sexualized photography and Charney’s grossness. Hopefully his removal means the brand can move in a less offensive direction. (The Guardian)

Benefit Corporations Look Beyond The Profit Motive — Basic overview of the concept of “benefit corporations” (commonly known as B Corporations). The quote below addresses what I think is one of the keys for social enterprise to really take off. Profit isn’t everything! (NPR)

There are legal protections when a state signs on: A shareholder can’t sue a benefit corporation for valuing the environment as much as profit.
Benefit Corporations Look Beyond The Profit Motive

Greenpeace Reviews Major Food Retailers for Sustainable Seafood Purchasing — One of the best and easiest-to-understand articles I’ve seen about sustainable seafood. (Triple Pundit)

2014 Trafficking in Persons Report — This annual report ranks countries into tiers based on their efforts toward combating human trafficking. (U.S. State Department)

Reader Request: Ethical Jeans — In my post of pants recommendations for Sarah, I noted that ethical high-end jeans being pretty widely available. And what do you know, Jamillah coincidentally just wrote a post with ethical jeans recommendations! (Made to Travel)

Host a Clothing Swap! — Dominique shares helpful step-by-step instructions for organizing a clothing swap with friends—a great way to give old clothes a new home! (Let’s Be Fair)

Top 3 Resale Sites — Elizabeth reviews her favorite apparel resale sites with helpful notes on return policies and how to sell. (The Note Passer)

Did you read the Style Wise link at the top? Go do that now. Then have a great week!

Personal Shopper: Ethical Work Clothes

This is the first of a new kind of post that may become a periodic feature here on the Fair for All blog. It’s a foray into ethical “personal shopping,” meaning I take someone’s real-life need and try to find an ethical solution that works for them. It’s definitely an experiment, so I hope you enjoy the results!

My first personal shopping guinea pig is my friend Sarah. She’s a youth pastor and the mom of a very active toddler, and she is in need of new clothes for work, particularly pants. Her criteria for the pants were that they be a neutral color and have pockets. She also mentioned she could use some new tops.

Here are the recommendations I came up with for Sarah based on her needs:

Collage of recommended ethical work clothes

Pants

In my research I found that there are not a lot of ethically-produced, work-appropriate pants available currently. I found ethical yoga pants, leggings, pants in crazy patterns, and high-end jeans, but very little in the way of conservative-but-flattering slacks. As a result, my first recommendation was…

1. Thrift shopping

I recommended thrift shopping as the best way to purchase pants ethically for a couple of key reasons:

  • You get to try them on! Sarah expressed fit as a concern when we were talking, and with her busy schedule, she doesn’t have time to be shipping pants back and forth from the internet to find the right fit. (Pro tip: Make sure the thrift store you’re shopping at has fitting rooms before you start browsing.)
  • The selection at chain thrift stores like Goodwill is pretty broad, which means your chances of finding something in the right size and style are pretty decent. If you don’t find what you need at a basic thrift store, you can move up to consignment stores, which tend to carry higher-end merchandise.

I also sent Sarah the following online options in case she needed something brand new.

2. Fair Indigo Slim Leg Fair Trade Organic Pant

  • Made fairly in Lima, Peru, out of organic cotton
  • Machine-washable
  • Does not appear to have pockets

3. Halle Pant by prAna

  • Available in four different neutral colors and has pockets
  • Cannot find any ethical information about these pants specifically. (PrAna has a line of Fair Trade Certified clothing, but these pants are not part of that line.)

4. Eco-Couture Audrey Women’s Hemp Slacks from Rawganique

  • Made in a sweatshop-free facility in Europe
  • Have pockets and are machine-washable
  • Come in natural or black

Tops

Compared to pants, finding ethical tops was a breeze—I was able to actually take Sarah’s personal style into account instead of just scrounging for anything. Since her need for tops was secondary, I only sent her two online options:

5. Fair Indigo Circle Neck Organic Fair Trade T-shirt

  • Comes in several colors
  • Made fairly of organic cotton in Lima, Peru
  • Machine-washable
  • Site has several other tops that Sarah might like

6. Ellie Top by prAna

  • Part of prAna’s Fair Trade Certified collection
  • Made of organic cotton
  • Comes in four colors

I also recommended thrift shopping as a great source for tops. If you’re already out getting pants, why not?

The Verdict

I sent my recommendations to Sarah last week and asked for her feedback. Which options sounded like they would actually work? Her response:

“I’ve been wanting to get to Goodwill since you mentioned it! I’m really excited to get there after the mission trip and VBS.”

Thrift shopping was the option that Sarah thought made the most sense for her. I’ll be interested to see if she has success when she goes shopping later this month!

Are you interested in being an ethical personal shopping guinea pig? Leave a comment or send me an email at info@fairforallguide.com! I’m excited to help people find ways for ethical shopping to work in the real world.

Living Your Values at Your Job

Image of tag inside baseball cap that reads "Made in China"
Over the years, I’ve defined a fairly rigorous ethical shopping process for my personal purchases. I do a lot of research into retailers’ labor practices; I look for used, recycled and made-in-USA options; and oftentimes I decide I don’t need what I’m shopping for at all. But I’ve realized that this process does not really carry over when I make purchases at work.

As a graphic designer, paper is one of the most common things I buy, and I do look for recycled and made-in-USA options. However, when it comes to other types of purchases, I tend to go with whatever my company has historically done. For example, my company has an event in May every year where we hand out baseball hats. This year the ordering of the hats fell to me, and I ordered them the same way we we’ve ordered them every year, which means they were custom-sewn in China.

There were many things I could have done to make sure our hat order was as ethical as possible:

  • I could have asked our vendor what she knew about the factory where the hats are produced.
  • I could have found pricing for hats made in the USA (though I had been informed that domestically-produced hats are much more expensive).
  • I could have looked at the hat options on Ethix Merch, a site I’ve known about for years that specializes in ethical promotional items like pens and branded apparel.

Why didn’t I do any of these things? One reason is that it can be scary to challenge the status quo, especially if you are suggesting that your company’s current way of doing things is unethical. It gets even trickier when you can’t prove their practices are unethical, even if in your opinion it’s highly likely that they are. I can’t prove that the hats we order from China are made in a sweatshop. But even investigating it would raise eyebrows.

I’m betting that a lot of individuals care on a personal level about human rights and the environment but don’t take action through their jobs. Raising questions of ethics at work is definitely a risk and, depending on the company culture, could cost someone their job. I’ve seen friends struggle through long-term unemployment, so I find it hard to blame anyone for not speaking up. The question is: how do we start to make it OK for ethics to be part of conversations and decisions in the workplace? What positive change could we realize if it wasn’t a risk for people to ask challenging questions?

We need to shift to a culture where the ethics of a decision or purchase can be weighed equally alongside other factors like cost and quality. Will the most ethical choice always win? Nope. But sometimes it would, and just having that conversation gives people permission to really think about the ethics and values of their decisions.

Have you experienced anything like this at your job? Do you find it difficult to live your values at work?

My Top 3 Thrift Shopping Tips

With all of the fair trade topics I have been covering lately, it’s been a while since I’ve mentioned my other approach to ethical consumerism: thrift shopping. While I tend to go fair trade when purchasing gifts for others, when I need something for myself the first stop is the thrift store. Thrift shopping reduces waste by giving old items a new life, and when you buy from a thrift shop, your money does not go to support the companies who produced the items using potentially exploitative practices.

Thrift shopping can be overwhelming, especially if you’re not used to the structure (or lack of structure) in your local resale shops. Here are my top three tips for finding items you will love and wear!

Infographic of top 3 thrift shopping tips

1. Have a specific item in mind

For several years, I viewed thrift stores as magical wonderlands full of treasures for me to discover, and I would go thrift shopping with no set agenda or list. This approach led to me having a closet full of interesting and eye-catching items that didn’t necessarily work together as outfits and weren’t practical for my everyday life.

Nowadays, when I hit the thrift store I look for one thing. Black pants. Comfortable flats. A tan cardigan. Having a specific item in mind helps me focus in the often overwhelming landscape. The time you save by not aimlessly wandering the aisles is time you can spend really evaluating at every available option that matches what you want.

2. Try things on

For me, one of the major benefits of thrift shopping over buying ethically-produced clothing online is the ability to try things on. I don’t have the patience for the song-and-dance of ordering something, it not fitting, and having to send it back. Thrift shopping is my answer to this problem. The clothes are right there! I can try on 10 pairs of pants immediately!

Before you start gathering things to try on, be sure to confirm that the store you’re at has a fitting room. Of the thrift stores near me, Goodwill has fitting rooms while Value World does not. If you’re at an independently-owned vintage or consignment shop, it could go either way, so be sure to look around or ask a clerk if you don’t immediately see one.

Stores without fitting rooms can still be worthwhile stops depending on what you are looking for. You can try on cardigans, jackets, shoes, and accessories without a fitting room, so if I’m looking for any of those things I include stores without fitting rooms in my lineup.

Rack of clothing at a thrift store

Photo credit: tome213 @ freeimages.com

3. If you don’t love it, don’t buy it

This is perhaps the hardest lesson to learn in thrift shopping. I used to buy anything that fit decently, regardless of whether I needed it or what condition it was in (other than major damage or holes). As a result I had a wardrobe that looked like it had already been through the wringer and again didn’t always cohere into good outfits.

Now I ask myself a series of questions before I buy something. Is it in like-new condition, or does it already look worn-out? (Cheap knit fabrics can wear out and pill easily, so check for wear even on current styles.) Do I feel good wearing it? Is it flattering on me? Would I buy this item new if I saw it in a regular store?

Those are my top three tips for successful thrift shopping. I’d love to hear yours—post ‘em in the comments!

News Roundup: May 2014

Happy Wednesday! Another month has gone by, which means it’s time for another roundup of articles and links that caught my interest recently. Check out the links below for some great resources and thought-provoking insights!

Creating a Fair Wardrobe – A four-part blog series from For the Love of Justice

Rendering of solar roadways

Rendering of solar roadways

Solar Roadways: The Most Groundbreaking Innovation since the Internet (Modavanti)

Why Textile Waste Should be Banned From Landfills (Triple Pundit)

Modavanti has teamed up with Green Tree Textiles for our Modacycle Campaign! – Details on Modavanti’s new textile recycling initiative (Modavanti)

Shopping for shoes is a minefield – This article points out how athletic shoes lag behind other apparel sectors in transparency/sustainability. (Dynamic Business)

The Rise of Conscious Business Needs the Support of Conscious Consumerism — Who should lead the way in ethical consumerism: business or consumers? (Pro Bono Australia)

Free2Work Electronics Industry Trends 2014 – Report on efforts being made by electronics companies to address exploitation and forced labor in their supply chains (Free2Work)

10 Biggest Excuses For Not Paying a Living Wage (And Why They Suck) (Ecouterre)

Fashionably Informed: 5 Ethical Fashion Companies (College Fashion)

Can fair trade clothing prevent the next factory tragedy? (Humanosphere)

Fabric generated from bacteria from The Next Black documentary

Fabric generated from bacteria from The Next Black documentary

The Next Black – Review of a documentary about technology in the future of fashion (The Note Passer)

Youths Sue U.S. Government Over Climate Inaction (Al Jazeera America)

Ifixit – Website that provides resources for repairing items instead of replacing them, which helps reduce waste and unnecessary consumption

I’ll leave you with this excellent pin from Let’s Be Fair:




What have you been reading lately? Let us know in the comments!

The Two Approaches to Fair Trade

One thing you may have noticed if you are just getting familiar with the fair trade universe is the abundance of logos, certifications, memberships and other marks that can appear on fair trade products and websites. (We’ve provided a short description of some of the most commonly-seen fair trade and ethical shopping labels on our Certifications page.)

Each organization or certifying body comes at fair trade with a slightly different approach, but according to Jonathan Rosenthal, one of the founders of Equal Exchange and the keynote speaker at the recent Fair Trade Federation conference, these approaches generally fall into one of two camps.

Two Approaches to Fair Trade infographic

Approach #1: Small is beautiful

One approach to fair trade focuses primarily on small businesses working closely with small producer groups. The size isn’t what matters here, but rather the high standards that their small size allows them to uphold. This is the approach embraced by the Fair Trade Federation (FTF), the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), and Fairtrade International (FLO).

Approach #2: Volume creates impact

The other approach to fair trade follows the belief that a greater volume of producers and products will create a greater positive impact. In this model, large corporations and plantations can participate in fair trade. However, to allow these large players to participate, they are sometimes held to standards that are not as high as are found elsewhere in the fair trade movement. The most notable certifier following this approach is Fair Trade USA.

What is the definition of fair trade?

The difference between these two approaches begs the question, “What is fair trade, then?” Is it the high standards upheld by the smaller organizations, or is it the lower standards that allow bigger companies to enter the fair trade landscape? In his keynote, Rosenthal challenged that that’s the question the fair trade movement has to answer. It is our task to figure out what that future of collaboration looks like and, potentially, what it means to reinvent ourselves.

Not being deeply entrenched in the business side of fair trade, I personally haven’t made a hard-and-fast decision about which camp I support. In theory, I lean toward the higher standards followed by the majority of fair trade organizations. In practice, products certified by Fair Trade USA are becoming more and more abundant in stores, and I still buy these products with the assumption that they are ethically superior to their conventional counterparts. The two approaches have become more divided over the several years that I’ve been following fair trade, and to be honest I need to do more research on what specific standards are different between them, in order to make sure my purchases are doing what I think they’re doing. I’ll be sure to share what I learn with you!

What are your thoughts on the two approaches to fair trade? Do you have any helpful resources or articles explaining the differences between fair trade organizations?