The Engaged Consumer

I’m Kelsey and I’m an engaged consumer.  At least I try to be.

There are a lot of adjectives that get thrown around to describe consumers.  Mindless comes to mind.  But there are others too, such as conscious and ethical.  In my book Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes I make the argument that we should strive to be “engaged” consumers.

I usually don’t get hung up on semantics, but I have a problem with the term “conscious consumer.”  I’ve met plenty of folks who are aware of the social and environmental impacts that their shopping has on the world and its people.  In fact, before I left to research my book pretty much everyone I met was conscious of the issues surrounding the garment industry.

“When you tell a normal person with a normal job, rent, or a mortgage, and a car payment, that you are spending thousands of dollars to go to a country because that was where your T-shirt was made, first they’ll think you’re crazy and then they’ll say something about sweatshops.”

The thing is, no one applied this knowledge to how they shopped.  There is a disconnect between knowledge and habit. So few of us are engaged.

We love the ocean and know that trawling for shrimp does irreparable damage, but we don’t ask our server how the shrimp on the menu was caught.

We hear about a brand’s product being made in a “sweatshop” (I hate this term; expect this to be addressed in a future post) so we swear off the brand without telling a soul.

For a second or two we wonder why catalogs list a product’s country of origin as only one of two things: “Made in USA” or “Imported”.  When we get the T-shirt, table, or toy, it will say right on the tag or packaging, but for some reason the info is kept from us in catalogs.  This bugs us a little, but not enough to make a phone call or send an email.

Awareness and consciousness are passive.

Since my global quest to meet the folks who made my clothes I’ve been converted to being an engaged consumer, but I’m still a work in progress.  I’m still deciding what to buy or not buy and what brands to support. How to interact with the global systems such as the ones that feed us, clothe us, and put fuel in our cars so we can drive to work.

If you’re wondering what lengths I’ll go to investigate a product, all you need to know is one thing: I went to Bangladesh because my underwear was made there.

This blog will document my adventures as an engaged consumer.  I’d be happy to hear yours.

19 Comments

Kelsey Timmerman

14

Kelsey Timmerman commented…

James, in the 90s the Made in Bangladesh label was boycotted after accusations of child labor. The really sad part was that many families in Bangladesh rely on their children to bring in some sort of income. The workers protested our boycott. Kids flooded the streets doing far worse things than making underwear in a factory. Unmentionable things. For better or worse there are fewer children working in Bangladesh today.

The Bangladeshi workers want you to buy their underwear. My argument is that there are responsible companies that source from Bangladesh and there are those that are less responsible. There are good factories in Bangladesh and there are bad ones. The more responsible and engaged the brand, the more likely their products come from one of the good ones.

I think instead of boycotting, we buycott (support them) the brands we feel comfortable with. But the most important thing is for us to communicate with the brands what is important to us. That's the best way to help the workers in my opinion.

Joel Torrens

16

Joel Torrens commented…

This is a subject that I've been thinking a lot about recently, even to the point that I wrote an article for my school magazine called 'T-shirts as a Window to the Soul'
I think that as consumers, and citizens of the world we are responsible to know more about what we are supporting. I typically go to www.knowmore.org to gather information on the various companies I choose to support.
I think something useful that I've been confronted with recently is that, even though I make my personal choices known to those around me, I have yet to communicate with the companies who I choose not to support. The thought had never crossed my mind, but like this thread has discussed, companies need to be made aware, and we can't choose to boycott something and then not tell anybody.
I look forward to reading this column as it expands.

Ben-Peter

53

Ben-Peter commented…

I dont have time to knit my own jeans and I dont have the strength to wear crappy fair trade gear. But Im still engaged. I like to wear a 24 T-shirt to physically intimidate hippies.

Ben-Peter

53

Ben-Peter commented…

I dont have time to knit my own jeans and I dont have the strength to wear crappy fair trade gear. But Im still engaged. I like to wear a 24 T-shirt to physically intimidate hippies.

laura

2

laura commented…

Someone mentioned knowmore.org. I love what it says at the top of their website: Vote with your wallet. People really don't realize that choosing an underwear brand to support is a choice as powerful as choosing a presidential candidate!

I have been struggling with how to present this idea to very conservative friends. Often the far right is so good at making (or talking about making) fiscal responsibility/long term investing a priority. You would think this mindset would translate easily into social responsibility/engaged consumerism... but it doesn't, always. Saving money tends to trump other important factors...

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