my two cents

How Do I Shop Ethically?

Photo: Getty Images

Last week, I ordered new pajamas. In no universe were they “essential,” but I’d wanted them for a while, and they were on sale. Before I bought them, I gave money to a food bank, donated to two local restaurants’ GoFundMe pages, and… well, I’m trying too hard to justify this decision, obviously. They arrived yesterday, and I love them — they’re soft, made of sea-green cotton, such a novelty after many weeks of sameness. But they still feel like a frivolous purchase at a time when my money could (and maybe should) have gone someplace more useful.

I’m not the only one. Several think pieces about the merits of shopping vs. not shopping have made the rounds over the past month, and they all seem to hover around the desire to justify treating ourselves despite serious reasons not to.

To cut to the heart of the debate: If we buy non-essential items, are we just generating unnecessary human contact, further endangering the people who make and box and ship and deliver those things? Isn’t this the time to save, or to be charitable instead? Or, as many brands seem eager to convey, does shopping provide much-needed support to crippled businesses that have enacted strict safety protections for their employees? (Adding to the contention: So many discounts! Deals, deals, deals!)

This all gets more confusing as the economy starts creaking back to life, despite some serious concerns about public health (the viral hot spots at pork plants remain the stuff of nightmares). Should we stick to groceries and toilet paper (but not too much)? Or is it finally okay — even good — to buy fun things we want?

When I polled my friends and family about this, there was a clear consensus: go ahead and shop, but “shop small.” The logic seems to be that it’s more ethical to patronize smaller companies because you’ll circumvent large supply and delivery chains where the virus is more likely to be transmitted. Also, those are the businesses hurting the most, since they typically don’t have the cash reserves needed to weather catastrophic downturns like the one we’re experiencing.

Are small businesses owners comfortable operating yet? Of the ones I spoke to, the answer at this point, is yes. “We decided that if we couldn’t ship our products safely, we weren’t going to do it at all,” said Neada Deters, the founder of skincare company Lesse. The distribution center she works with shut down their operations for a few days in March to set new protocols, but they’re now back up and running. Per CDC recommendations, workers have individual workstations more than six feet apart and are provided with masks, gloves, and unlimited breaks for hand-washing and cleaning. Perhaps most importantly, they also have paid sick leave. “We wanted to make sure that no one felt pressured to come into work to keep shipping orders,” said Deters. To date, no one affiliated with her company has contracted the virus.

For Lauren Bucquet, the founder of the footwear label Labucq, instituting safety measures for her three-person team wasn’t much of a stretch, and they fulfill their own orders from a storage unit in Los Angeles. “It’s a one-person job, so there’s very low risk of exposure, and we’re taking extreme precautions in passing things off to shipping services,” she said. “Some customers are concerned about couriers and shipping workers, so they asked us not to send their shoes until early June. Obviously, we’re happy to do that.”

Sales aren’t exactly booming, but they aren’t too bad either. “I was actually surprised by how many people are shopping for shoes,” said Bucquet. “It’s a complicated question, where you should be putting your money right now, and how you support certain people without putting other people at risk. But we do rely on sales to stay alive, so we’re very grateful.”

All of this is nice to hear, but not everyone can afford to shop at small brands, or has the time to research which ones have ethical labor practices. Conversely, big companies aren’t inherently bad for workers. And honestly, it’s impossible to tell the difference sometimes. “Since pretty much all of our shopping happens online these days, consumers don’t see firsthand what workers are going through,” said Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a political scientist who studies labor movements and business at Columbia University. “I was tracking a lot of the worker strikes that happened on May Day, and I noticed that many of my friends didn’t even know about them because there weren’t visible picket lines. If consumers don’t have that information, they can’t make informed decisions to boycott certain brands.”

So, do we just give up and shop blindly, then? “Our individual choices do make a difference, but I don’t think we need to be hard on ourselves about it,” he said. “I think that in an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to weigh those tradeoffs. We would feel confident that when we make a purchase, it’s being fulfilled by workers with the protective equipment they need, adequate pay and sick leave, and access to testing.” The fact that we aren’t sure about this is a policy-level failure, not a personal one.

Plus, people who work under crappy conditions still need paychecks, too. “The issue with only supporting high-road employers is that it still exacerbates the overall inequality between workers who are lucky enough to get jobs at those companies and the workers who aren’t,” says Kate Bahn, an economist and the director of labor market policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

Which brings us to the uncomfortable point that all of these problems existed long before the pandemic. “This crisis is unique, and it is terrible, but it is exacerbating fragilities that were already there, even if they were not as obvious to us beforehand,” says Bahn. “The broader solution is for consumers to recognize that there needs to be some sort of universal level of labor standards. You can do that by voting, calling your representatives, and supporting labor movements. The real key is advocating for structural change so that retail and warehouse jobs are better jobs, more generally.” Which, with the exception of voting, is very doable from home.

Curious for a big-business perspective on how we should shop, I called Brian Dodge, the president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which includes more than 200 of the industry’s biggest retailers that collectively account for millions of American jobs. “I absolutely would encourage people to shop,” he said. “The businesses that we represent have a clear understanding of the threat posed by the virus, and they have adopted practices that are safe for both customers and for employees. They wouldn’t be operating if they didn’t have confidence in that. So, customers should have confidence in shopping as a result, and should buy the things that they want, whether that’s a car, a bracelet, or a gallon of milk.”

I wasn’t totally sure what to make of that advice, but since he brought it up, I mentioned that my mom had planned to buy a car this year. Now she’s having second thoughts, even though the model she wanted is available. Should she wait another year? Is a new car really the best use of her money right now? Should she get something cheaper? “I understand the conflict, but I’d suggest buying the car she wants,” said Dodge. “She’s probably going to get a good deal, and there’s a whole lot of people involved in the sale of that car who would benefit from it.”

And around we go. Spend money, enjoy the thrill of a new thing, support businesses, save jobs, and potentially risk lives — or play it safe and try not to, even though it’s impossible to withdraw from consumption entirely. I can see myself wandering between both camps, anxiously, in the months and years ahead.

Or maybe there’s a middle ground. When I spoke to Jennifer Sey, the chief marketing officer of Levi’s, she said that she hopes this period will teach us to consume more thoughtfully. “Since we’ve been at home, we’ve realized that we don’t need as much,” she said. “Our research shows that consumers want to make better choices coming out of this, because they want to continue the improvements that they’re seeing in the environment, and in the reduction of pollution and waste.” The air in Los Angeles has cleared dramatically, she added, and maybe it will serve as a visual reminder that life can be improved with less stuff.

Looking over Brooklyn from my rooftop, which is my primary leisure activity these days (now in my new pajamas!), I know exactly what she means. The view of Manhattan has never been so sharp, and it feels like a clean slate. What I actually want seems simpler now, and for a ridiculous moment, I fantasize about never buying another thing. But in reality, I know that’s impossible, and even standing still, I’m complicit in the movement of stuff and its baggage. When it comes to consumption, there is no way to do it “right” — just more careful decisions, made one at a time.

How Do I Shop Ethically?