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While we should all do what we can, the key phrase there is "what we can."

Ethical Consumption: How to Pollute the Planet and Exploit Labor Slightly Less

There’s a short story by Ursula K. LeGuin called The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. With apologies to the late, great author, I want to summarize it here:

In the city of Omelas, everyone is deliriously happy. The people eat well, drink well, and party all the time. There’s no sickness, no pain, and the weather’s always perfect. It’s a utopia. Everyone has everything they could possibly want or need.

Well, almost everyone. For deep in the heart of Omelas is a dark, damp, cold room. And in this room is a child: unwashed, starved, uneducated, and treated cruelly. They don’t have a name, a family, clothes, or a clue as to why they’re kept in horrible conditions.

Everyone in Omelas is taken to see the child once in their lifetimes. They’re made to understand that, somehow, all the glorious happiness of Omelas relies on this one person’s suffering. As long as this child suffers, everyone else in Omelas will thrive.

And it’s then that the individuals of Omelas make a choice: to stay in Omelas, content in the knowledge that their comfort and happiness relies on the misery of another; or to leave, to opt out, to go somewhere that might not be as perfect as Omelas, but where they can live without exploiting another for their own gain.

The ethical choice is, of course, to walk away from Omelas. It’s a fable for modern times.

We live in a world where so much of our lifestyles, our wealth, relies on exploitation. Animals live short, brutish lives on factory farms so we can eat meat from the supermarket. Carbon emissions slowly damage the climate to devastating effect so we can drive cars and ride airplanes. Children work twelve-hour work days in sweatshops so we can browse a closet full of fashionable clothes and still say “I have nothing to wear.”

The way we consume—food, clothing, electronics, everything—is, all too often, pretty fucking unethical.

Now here’s a gif of a doggo hanging out with some baby chicks because that shit just got real fucking dark!

When we talk about “ethical consumption,” we’re generally referring to two separate, but related, issues:

  • Pollution: We’re slowly but surely killing the planet with manufacturing and agricultural processes that aren’t good for the environment.
  • Inhumane and exploitative labor practices: Many companies treat their workers poorly, forcing them to work long hours in uncomfortable conditions for little pay, employing children, and limiting their options.

So let’s talk about how to be a (slightly more) ethical consumer. Lets talk about how to walk away from Omelas.

Consume less

Just buy less stuff!

Do you really need certain things? Can you do without others? Can you extend the life of things you already own in order to avoid replacing them more often?

Learning to sew and do basic carpentry has helped me to make do with the things I have for longer. Recycling typically single-use items (yogurt containers, for example) has eliminated my need to buy other items (plastic food storage containers, for example). Borrowing from friends or using the goddamn library has cut way down on the stuff I buy.

The plain and simple fact of the matter is that the most ethical form of consumption is sparing, rare. When you make fewer decisions to buy things, you can be more intentional about those decisions, more deliberate in how and what you buy.

Buying less also has the benefit of being considerably cheaper than buying more. The math is super complicated, so just stay with me here: some dollars > no dollars.

Lessen your consumption! Your wallet will love you, and so will Captain Planet! So consume less stuff…

Buy used

You guys know Aunt Piggy’s all about buying used. I love the idea of answering compliments on my outfits with “$8 at the thrift store, baby!” Gets me rock fucking hard.

I’ve written about buying secondhand goods as a means to live frugally and save the world on multiple occasions:

Here’s the thing: everything we buy or build eventually ends up in a landfill. And buying secondhand stuff simply extends the life of that stuff past its usual expiration date. This keeps it out of the landfill a little longer and lessens demand for the manufacture of new stuff that will eventually wind up in the dump. We’re not filling in Back Bay anymore, children, we don’t need that much trash!

Most of the furniture in my home is either secondhand (kitchen table and chairs, living room lounge chairs, desk, dresser, guest bed, bar cart) or homemade (bed, nightstands, shelves). It looks great, it’s fully functional, and I get to be smug about saving money and adorable sea otters or whatever else happens to be threatened by pollution these days.

Never underestimate the power of a white lady’s smugness to improve the world.

Buy local

Buying locally made food and goods can sometimes be more expensive than buying generic brands or even large national brands with broad distribution. I willingly admit that!

But it’s generally much better for the environment, as it cuts down on the pollution of packaging, shipping, and inhumane labor practices. If you’ve got a local farmer’s market, USE IT. It’s great for both food and unique gifts.

Shopping locally is great for the economy too! You’re putting money in the pockets of your neighbors rather than the Walton family or Jeff Bezos. Because let’s face it: your local business owners need it more.

They’ll use it to pay their employees a living wage. They’ll spend it at other local businesses. This means by shopping locally, you’re keeping your economic influence local as well, helping to create jobs for your neighbors and contributing to improved community infrastructure.

Shopping locally basically makes you George Fucking Bailey.

Make your own

Kitty and I are both big gardeners. This is both a privilege and a hobby, but it also means we go to the grocery store less often during the summer. This lessens our carbon footprints and prevents us from purchasing veggies and fruits in plastic packaging. It also encourages us to eat more of the plants we grow, which is good for our health!

The only thing that tastes better than a homegrown tomato on the vine is the sweet, sweet sense of superiority that comes from declaring myself independent from corporate corruption and greed. Also sugar snap peas on the vine.

On top of my gardening, my husband hunts and fishes, and it’s a long-term goal of ours to replace all grocery-store meat with hunted meat (though it would be helpful if certain thousand-pound ungulates would stop hiding during elk season). Eating hunted meat is much better for the environment than eating farmed meat.

But making your own extends beyond the food you eat. You can build your own furniture, sew your own clothes, repair your appliances, trade or borrow with friends for things you don’t have.

And forget smugness: the sheer personal pride of making something with your own two hands provides a much more ethical high than the recreational drug industry. (Unless you happen to be growing your own weed, too.)

A note on privilege

No post on ethical consumption would be complete without a note on privilege.

I just recommended growing your own damn food, learning how the fuck to sew and build things, and spending time scouring secondhand stores and websites for shit. I am painfully aware of how time-consuming all that is. It can be difficult for some people to find the energy and resources to make all that happen.

It takes a lot of time to make your own stuff! Gardening literally takes months and considerable sweat equity, not to mention dollah-dollah-bills to get started. And it can be hard to seek out local brands, stores, and artisans rather than just hitting up Target after a twelve-hour shift.

Our girl Angela over at Tread Lightly, Retire Early is attempting to cut plastic out of her life because of its effects on the environment. In fact, she’s trying to go entirely zero-waste! Holy duckstockings, what a monumental undertaking! And she is devastatingly open about how time-consuming, energy-sapping, and logistically difficult this endeavor is.

The working poor have the fewest Beyoncé Hours of anyone, and they absolutely should not be judged for choosing convenience and expediency over ethical consumption. If your life is too broke and busy to make the above methods work, do what you can. Stick with the generic brands at the national chain store and the clearance rack at the department store. You won’t get any judgment from the Bitches.

Ethical consumption is generally a goal for the privileged among us. And while we should all do what we can when it comes to preserving the environment and shutting down exploitative labor practices, the key phrase there is what we can. Some of us can do more than others.

How ’bout it, Bitch Nation? What are you doing to consume more ethically? Give me all your ethical consumption tips and tricks in a comment below!

32 thoughts to “Ethical Consumption: How to Pollute the Planet and Exploit Labor Slightly Less”

  1. I darned socks last week. SOCKS.
    I regularly look in my closet and feel like I have nothing to wear–that is only because we have been instilled with a sense that other people notice what we wear and may comment if we wear the same thing often. But how do you define “often”?
    I routinely go through our fridge to see what lingers and then try and find a use for it.
    I buy ingredients weekly and use what I buy.
    I regift or give away on Buy Nothing when I can
    I make myself do the exercise of “do we need this/how multipurpose is this item?” before I purchase it.
    I compost what we don’t eat, or what (little) goes bad.
    I make a note of companies that are not labor or environmentally friendly (I’m looking at you, Nestle, thieves of water and not caring about kids working as slaves to make your stupid chocolate chips)

  2. I don’t drive. I live in a huge city with pretty good public transport and mild (if sometimes rather wet) weather, and my walking mobility is pretty good, and I have a bicycle (which got really important a few years ago when my feet were all messed up and walking was painful).

    A bicycle is much, much cheaper to run than a car, and of course bikes can also be acquired second-hand. I wouldn’t want to try to use one for hauling home an elk from the woods (I have a trailer but I don’t think it would take an elk… not in one trip, anyway), but most of my journeys don’t involve elk or meese or even deer. When my bicycle breaks, there’s a good chance I can fix it myself.

    1. I miss living in a more walkable city. At this point most of what I need is in my neighborhood, so walking/biking is easy. But I still use a car more than I should. You’ve inspired me to do better!

  3. Shampoo bottles – I am lucky enough to live in an area that has a bottle refill pump station for common folk like myself (ie, not a hair dresser) to refill my bottles. They only refill shampoo and conditioner in bottles for that shampoo and conditioner, which means that I’m still using plastic and can’t just bring in my own bottles to fill.
    While I recognize that I’m still using plastic, I’ve been refilling the same bottles for nearly 10 years now, and I intend to do so until they literally fall apart or I no longer have access to the pump station store.
    I know that they’re not common, but if my little hole-in-the-wall town has one, maybe they exist elsewhere, as well? Added bonus: for my salon-brand shampoo and conditioner, it costs me 45-60 cents per oz to refill my bottles.

  4. Air travel is the biggest per capita pollutant. The greenhouse emissions from an overseas flight far outweigh the emissions from your yearly electricity use.

    1. I am late to the party here (as usual!) – but we just told my in-laws we are forgoing a family trip to Europe in 2021 because of the air travel. My MIL wants the whole family to go together but we are so uncomfortable with the greenhouse emissions for our 5 person family (not to mention the entire larger group that would be 15 people) that we are saying no. My husband’s family isn’t happy with us right now – but we also feel like we need to be the visible people who point out that air travel is killing our planet).

      1. Oh, I’m so torn on this. I’m sure you’ve put a lot of thought into it. And perhaps there are lots of other factors beyond this one…. Cost, comfort, timing. But I just don’t feel ready to accept the solution is “no more once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunities with your family.”

        There are MANY things you can do to offset the emissions of a flight. I encourage you to read this article if you’re open to hearing about them. United, for example, uses a cleaner fuel with 60% less emissions. You could argue that by supporting them with your dollars, you’re supporting a more sustainable industry benchmark the others must copy. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/27/climate/airplane-pollution-global-warming.html

        Both mine and my husband’s family members have had some health challenges recently, so I’m in the frame of mind that life is brief, and the people you love won’t always be here with you. Regardless, I do applaud your strong principals and wish you all the best!

        1. Thank you for sharing that NYT article! I am very interested. Honestly my in-laws are climate denying, MAGA folks who think I’m a horrible human being and raising their grandchildren to be libs that end up in hell (I really am THAT cool 😉 ) – so this is a stand we are taking with them. I am not 100% averse to international travel if it is responsible.

  5. This is my favorite post ever, by far. I think about this all the damn time: how the consumerist culture is destroying our environment AND our personal wealth (at the same time! Neat trick). And because the true cost of natural resources, ethical and sustainable manufacturing and cleanup isn’t reflected in the cost of manufactured goods, some of the cheapest stuff to buy has the worst environmental impact.

    But, not all. Plenty of environmentally sound habits also save money. NOT flying is pretty cheap. Driving a small car to and from your small house – or riding your bike – also cheap. I hear what you are saying about gardening having a barrier to entry but I don’t think it’s as high as you make it out to be. Kitchen gardens are how the common folks stretched their food budgets for generations. Sewing and knitting don’t offer much return on investment but gardening sure does.

    Thanks for the great work.

    1. You’re right in that sewing and knitting can be pretty expensive hobbies, but I also think that sewists and knitters might be more likely to do things like mending/visible mending – so while it can be expensive, especially if you knit/sew in the same ratio as people buy RTW clothes, I think sometimes it can be a gateway to more sustainable practices. At least that’s this knitter/sewist’s experience. 😉

      1. For sure! My mother is a tailor, so I was lucky enough to grow up as her minion learning to sew. I hated it at the time but now I love how easily I can patch a hole in a pair of pants or let out the waist in a skirt rather than going out to buy a larger size as I get older and more… voluptuous.

    2. Thank you so much! This means a lot to me.
      I think I’m a little sensitive about gardening just because my garden is HUGE (seriously I turned my front yard into a corn patch) and a lot of people have told me it’s too much for them to consider starting. Shrug! But I agree with you: between composting and planting veggies I use frequently, it’s a big savings for me every year.

      1. Love all of these! I knit but not enough to actually clothe the family, so not a money-saver. Of course knitting can be more expensive (shi-shi yarns, the nicest needles) or less (yarn from the thrift store, the salvage store or someone else’s stash). I agree that sewing and patching is a huge money saver, and gardening saves tons of money in the long run – and saves time too, when you start to factor in the time you would have to work to pay for food that someone else grew. Even start-up costs (both time and money) are manageable : Every gardener I know is happy to lend expertise and tools, there’s the free ag extension in every state, many communities have gardens with free plots. And turning your front yard into a garden – think of all that time you won’t spend mowing…..

  6. I have some odd and small ways that I try to reduce waste. I’m one of those poor folks (hello 12k/yr) and for me tea is a luxury that I stretch by using one tea bag to boil several pots of tea (think 8-10 cups).
    We use one of the suggestions up top- reusing plastic containers as storage containers. We pack lunches that way!
    I turn off my battery powered computer mouse whenever its not in use to stretch the battery life so that we dump less toxic electronics and also save money.
    I’ve sewn patches and fixed bags and backpacks.
    I don’t own a car- I walk everywhere I go, and I’m thankful that I’m young and able-bodied enough to endure several-hour trips per day.
    I havent bought new clothes or shoes in years. My shoes I wear every day I’ve had now for 7 years and they only just broke today.
    I look forward to when I can do more!

  7. In addition to buying local, you can also sign up for your city’s/area’s local currency. Many of the local businesses I support use our local/alternative currency. It means that the money stays in the community rather than flowing out of it. Also, it keeps circulating – this currency doesn’t sit around in banks, it flows all the time. You go to a local grocery shop or restaurant, pay in the alternative currency, then the owner spends that currency with a local farmer or local brewer etc to get their wares to sell you. And on it goes. Where we are, it’s not just food that’s covered by this currency but also services – I went to a hairdresser who accepts it the other day. There are even business services who take it, like accountants.

    1. I HAD NO IDEA THIS WAS A THING!!! Now I need to find out if there’s an alternative currency in my city. Is this like a cryptocurrency? Or wooden tokens??? I already barter for so many services, this would be ideal.

      1. It’s an actual paper currency – the notes are very pretty! I think I told Kitty about it when I asked my question to you on Patreon. If there isn’t one, you could always set one up!

  8. How timely! I am eyeing a new chair for my living room (after giving away two chairs I got for free 23 and 10 years ago!) and have something very very specific in mind. Buuuuut I checked Craigslist and something very similar or perhaps even better is listed, for 25% the price of new, and a good brand at that.

    Chances of it coming together aren’t high, and it’ll be a pain in the neck to go get this thing if it does work out, but thank you for reminding me to at least TRY.

    I’ve been successful with this before: I’ve twice identified what furniture I want to buy, and both times have found them in very good condition and significantly discounted on Craigslist. So maybe third time will also work!

  9. My house looks like the home of a 90 year old because it is almost completely furnished with vintage furniture. Vintage house, vintage furniture , vintage clothes – also you get bonus points in that if your house catches on fire, an old home full of old things will burn a bit slower with fewer toxic gasses giving you precious time to escape the fire with your family and furry friends.

    In addition to limiting consumption, buying used, local, and repairing things (#visiblemending), I also switched to homemade deodorant and tooth powder.

    Working cooperatively with your community and friends can help us manage the dearth of time that we have to do. all. the. things. I have extra land so I let others grow food on it in exchange for some of their produce, maybe trade your homemade kombucha for a friend’s homemade yogurt, or your bread for their canned peaches.

    hot tip: For more on growing/cooking/fermenting your own food (and your own weed) check out Homestead & Chill

  10. It’s a small and very specific work in progress, but: almost everyone in my office building winds up getting lunch from the same small, independent cafe on the first floor pretty frequently. (Not cheap. But very convenient.) So some of us are working on getting him to let us bring our own plates/bowls if we’re regular customers, and trying to get him to tell his other regulars that he’ll do that.

    Plus, a herb garden. If you get into cooking, having the fresh herbs can be a great way to make cheaper meals taste luxurious — but buying fresh herbs on an as-needed basis usually means paying a lot for herbs that have been packaged in plastic and shipped in in bulky, awkwardly-sized packages. One package costs about as much as a single live plant if you buy it in the spring, and about as much as 20-50 plants if you buy them as seeds. I can’t stick them outside year-round, but I can grow rosemary or thyme in a $2 pot from the dollar store and keep that single live plant going for over a year. For fertilizer I basically just pour in the slightly-used water from cooking vegetables once it’s cooled, which is water that would otherwise be used only once. A lot of kitchen herbs have been bred for centuries to grow well in small plots or pots, and are nowhere near as finicky as that fern someone gave you because they said it would clean your air.

    Except for basil. Basil is an evil, deceptive, traitor of a herb that will suddenly rot itself to death if over-watered, and we as a race would have abandoned it as animal fodder if it weren’t so damn delicious.

  11. I was sitting here feeling all oh-I-am-surrounded-by-awesome, and I realized that I might actually have something to contribute!

    I quit using shampoo and conditioner about 2 months ago. My hair is clean and smells fine, fyi. And, I dont have to buy shampoo and conditioner any more. Caveat: my hair is long and curly – might not work well for you gorgeous straight hair folks. It doesn’t look any better, but it doesn’t look any worse either.

    1. I hear you—but I do not think it’s helpful to sneer at people for doing their part.

      Companies are staffed by individuals, making products purchased by individuals. We are not powerless or uninvolved. Agricultural waste is an enormous polluter—and 50% of the food they ship around the world gets thrown away. Fast fashion is a notorious labor exploiter, and it isn’t companies who wear the clothing. In a capitalist society, markets drive change, which means consumer behavior has incredible power.

      We welcome your perspective and agree with your point, but you can talk about it without belittling the efforts of our other commenters.

  12. I have a problem to understand the meanings of the tale. I think walk away from Omela isn’t the ethical choice. The ethical choice is taking care of the neglected child or bring it with you if you leave the town.

  13. Love my chickens. They are the ultimate recycler. They turn any food scraps into a eggs instantly. Their manure also turns into my garden fertilizer. They eat ticks and other pests, And if you want, you can also eat them.

    I still buy a lot of my big things used. Most recent purchases are a bicycle and a lift chair for my mom.

    But I live an hour’s drive from the closest mall, so I struggle with my packaging consumption as I still use amazon or other mail order a ton. Even when I try to go to my local stores to buy stuff, they often don’t have the stock or my size but can “mail it to me”.

    I actually work for a big chemical company that makes plastic. One of the most exciting things they are doing is building a chemical plant that can just scoop up ocean waste and use it to make key raw materials for new plastics. Chemical engineer here…this is no easy task to use a slurry of all different chemicals to make something new In a consistent way. It’s sold out and isn’t even built yet.

    Just a little inside info here. Times are a changing for the better. You millennials care, thank god. Paying more for ethical choices is key because it’s a lot more expensive to collect, clean, sort and reuse plastic materials than it is to just pump more oil out of the ground. We’ve had recycled product options for at least 10 years but it’s just now people are willing to pay more for them. In fact, at first companies only wanted them because they thought they would be cheaper, not for any greater good reason. If companies lose market share to more ethical choices, or greener products are legislated (like SEER ratings on Ac units or the phase out of incandescents) then they act.

    I also would love companies to design products to last longer. Designing for obsolescence is one of my biggest pet peeves about greedy corporate America. The science is there people. so also try to buy products that have the longest warranty period you can find. (I work with product designers, so I know this is also true).

  14. I’m trying to make the switch from plastic food storage containers to glass ones. Plastic ones seem to crack easily, get warped, etc. As long as you take care of the glass containers (avoid extreme temperature changes, no scratchy utensils, don’t drop them), they’ll last WAY longer!

    I also started my own garden this year! A few containers in the backyard with tomatoes, jalapenos, onions, and carrots. The plan is to process the majority of the crop (mainly the tomatoes and jalapenos), making my own tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, and pickled jalapenos like you find in the grocery stores. Been reading up on how to safely can your own veggies, so I’m ready for the harvest!

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