Ethical Shopping Is Still Shopping (But Ethically)

by Alexandra Mitchell

What I call “ethical shopping,” others might describe — also correctly — as “complete self indulgence.”

My mother took up with the fair trade movement in the mid 1980s, so I’m naturally predisposed to such justifications. Fair trade, at this time, was not the movement it is today; it was far more niche, operating through a system of representatives who would wholesale order the products and sell them in their church halls and community centers. Another part of the job was education, and between the ages of 5 and 15 I heard my mother practise a lot of talks on the parlous working conditions of the people who grew our rice, picked our tea, and made our clothes.

When I first started buying my own things, I didn’t shop ethically because the options I knew of were either ugly or too expensive. Really, when I first started buying my own things, almost everything was too expensive — books, bottles of wine, branded bacon.

But then, after a fairly rapid succession of job moves and pay rises, I found a shop full of clothes that I loved — all ethical, because they are all made on the premises. I can shop there happy in the knowledge that the people making the clothes were working for themselves in conditions free of exploitation. I’ve seen these conditions! It’s the sort of space anyone would choose to work in — an airy, well lit room on a beautful Edinburgh street, with a sewing machine next to the cash register for the quieter times of day.

I was delighted to pay the extra for my clothes — and I could afford to. It was a way out of an exploitative system, but it didn’t involve wearing the batik kaftans that were, in the 80s, the only real clothing option presented by the fair trade movement. I can look great! I can support communities! I can just about afford to do both of these things! Not all, but about three quarters, of the clothes I have bought in the last three years come from this one shop.

But then parts of my jeans — important parts — started fraying and falling apart. I have found no ethical jeans that fit me. (Perhaps because of the intersection between “people who care about the world” and “vegans,” jeans made without exploitation are cut for women with… smaller appetites than mine. Considerably smaller appetites.) I am solving this problem by not wearing them. I have enough clothes to live in. Jeans are not such a big part of my wardrobe that I’m lost without a pair. Because now that I’ve started on this path of thinking about my wardrobe’s supply chain, I don’t want to go back to contemplating the factories where my outfit might have been mass produced. No ethical jeans? No jeans.

But when my Converse fell apart, I had to find new shoes. Going without wasn’t an option. Looking for ethical trainers brought me to a Danish company who talks about all the right things, has a UK stockist, and has shoes that look exactly like Converse. And they’re cheaper! Ethical and affordable, done. But the stockist carries other brands of shoes. Like ethical Vivienne Westwood shoes. Beautiful ethical Vivienne Westwood shoes. Beautiful ethical Vivenne Westwood shoes that will triple the value of my order.

Every time my conscience shuts the door of one purchase, it opens the window of another.

It’s a downward spiral of consumerism into which I’ve thrown myself enthusiastically and guiltily. I know that buying less would be better. That opting out of a cycle of wanting would be better than wanting so much, even in a category that I’m happy with. Can wanton consumerism be ethical? I’m hoping (and trying). The Vivienne Westwood shoes on my feet are trying, too. And I’ve signed up for the shoe stockist’s newsletter, you know, so I always know the latest thoughts and ideas on these and more “ethical issues.”

Alexandra Mitchell’s shoes are vegan.