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Ethical Shopping Is Nearly Impossible

Plenty of people boycott restaurants or gas stations they don’t agree with. Why is it so hard to do the same for stores?

Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

Last month marked the four-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse that killed 1,138 garment workers and injured nearly 2,600. The news grabbed headlines, tugged heartstrings, and inspired outrage. Then most of us forgot about it, with the Today show reporting on the tragedy and only a few months later promoting the same brands that had been pulled from the rubble.

In an informal survey, I found few people who could tell me what Rana Plaza was or what happened there, but every American clearly remembered the 2012 Chick-fil-A controversy, when company President Dan Cathy spoke against gay marriage. While it's easy to find people who still boycott Chick-fil-A five years later, or who cut meat out of their diet for ethical reasons, or who recycle religiously, it's harder to meet anyone who has successfully boycotted major clothing retailers because of their manufacturing processes.

Why is that? It’s not like there aren’t enough news stories and investigative reports that unveil the uncomfortable truth about some of our favorite brands. No boycott or lifestyle change is entirely effortless, but how come it’s so easy to find people who boycott companies like Stripes, a gas station that supports the Dakota access pipeline, and Hobby Lobby, a craft store with discriminatory practices, but not H&M for its employment of child laborers?

As it turns out, ethical shopping is even more complicated, and difficult, than you might assume.

The most obvious reason we find it hard to break up with fast fashion is that we’re addicted to, and reliant on, low prices. Recently, I stared myself down in a dressing room mirror, unable to justify spending $270 on an ethically made dress. As much as I wanted to buy it, I couldn’t afford to, so I sulked back to H&M to try to find a consolation prize. The five women who I interviewed about their shopping habits all confirmed that their “loyalty” to brands like The Gap, H&M, and Primark boils down to pricing and the difficulty of finding ethical brands that fit their budget. “I try to buy less of what I already feel guilty for purchasing,” explains Kelsey, a legal researcher whose focus is on illicit trade, “[but] I’m usually not in a position to choose a more expensive, more sustainable option.”

What does shopping sustainably even mean? According to the experts and shoppers I spoke with, ethical shopping begins with knowing where, and how, our clothing was made.

That sounds straightforward enough, except, “there is not a single retailer out there that can definitively claim that they really understand their complete supply chain,” says Richa Agarwal, former product development director for Eileen Fisher and the founder of artisanal marketplace Global Shokunin. Mass subcontracting, which outsources production to other factories, makes it difficult to track how and where our clothing is being made. Each piece of your clothing, from the zipper on your pants to the buttons on your dress, has a different and complex supply chain. According to Chad Autry, the department head of supply chain management at Haslam College of Business, mapping the origins of each piece, and the conditions under which they were assembled, is a necessary next step in improving accountability, but it isn’t a standard practice because it’s difficult and “defeats some of the cost effectiveness of outsourcing.”

Agarwal also warns that shopping at more expensive stores isn’t a shortcut for research, since “even when a company has all the right certifications and they tout best practices, there is still very little guarantee that what consumers are purchasing is actually ethical,” since factories, not companies, receive certifications from third-party auditors that often have incentives to look the other way. These companies can also outsource orders to second-tier producers that haven’t received any certification. “There is a lot of corruption in the system in order to keep up the appearance of certification,” Agarwal says. “At the end of the day, when things go wrong, the retailers can simply wash their hands of the whole thing by saying, ‘we thought we were at a certified facility, what went wrong?’”

In a Last Week Tonight segment on fast fashion, John Oliver demonstrated the lenient regulations on clothing manufacturing, as compared to food manufacturing, by offering suspiciously cheap sushi platters and rotisserie chickens of murky origins to the executives of companies who use sweatshop labor. If we are what we eat, then it’s clearly in our best interest to avoid food made in unhygienic factories. The clothes we wear, and the conditions in which they were made, can be easier to ignore: While you might find sweatshop labor abhorrent, wearing a sweatshirt made in poor conditions is unlikely to make you physically ill. Agarwal believes that “standardized labeling [for clothing], just like there is for food,” is the necessary next step in regulating the fashion industry.

Because of FDA regulations, we’re getting way more information when we pick up a box of cereal than when we pick up a pair of jeans. Food labeling comes with an ingredient list, allergen information, and an address of where it was manufactured, licensed, or distributed from. Though kosher certification standards vary between groups, and we might not know where the spinach in our frozen pizza comes from — or if it’s really organic — getting some basic information up front lightens the burden of research.

The Rana Plaza building collapse on April 24th, 2013.
Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

This isn’t to say ethical eating is always easy. Food deserts restrict access to fresh foods and provide lower-income areas with limited options. Factory farming has negative environmental impacts and is subject to allegations of animal abuse. Organic food typically costs more, restaurant menus aren’t always inclusive of different diets, and companies like Chick-fil-A might donate to groups that go against your personal beliefs. Despite all this, thanks to regulations that enforce transparency, the food industry, and its manufacturing methods, are still more regulated than the factories that make the clothing we wear.

The traditional call to action against clothing brands has been a boycott. But according to Autry, boycotts “can harm workers if the company decides to shift production away from the region as a response.” This PR move, with companies distancing themselves from the factories and countries that caused public outcry, doesn’t mean that their new factories are any better, and Autry believes that major corporations have other economic incentives, unrelated to consumer boycotts, to eventually fix production chain issues.

While it can be hard to imagine that your Zara purchase is supporting workers, Katilyn, an expat in Bangkok, points to a TEDx talk given by Leslie Chang as having shifted her understanding of factory labor. “Chinese workers are not forced into factories,” Chang says, suggesting that factories offer some an opportunity for upward mobility. “The factory conditions are really tough, and it's nothing you or I would want to do, but from their perspective, where they're coming from is much worse, and where they're going is hopefully much better.”

Determining what counts at ethical shopping gets even more complicated when you start thinking about who is selling you clothing and how. “It is extremely rare to find a place to shop that 100 percent matches your code of ethics 100 percent of the time, [so you have to choose]: which hypocrisies can you live with?” says masters student Amanda, echoing the sentiments of everyone I spoke with. It turns out that while many of us can endure the hypocrisy of mourning factory tragedies while still buying the clothing made in them, a retailer’s politics and brand identity are often where we draw the line.

Though their clothing was made in the U.S. and they paid their workers a fair wage, I always steered clear of American Apparel because of their culture of sexual harassment, and most recently my friends stopped shopping at “fempowerment” brands Thinx and Nasty Gal after allegations of discrimination and harassment by the company founders surfaced. Though a Project Just report turned up a troubling lack of information about where, and in what conditions, Ivanka Trump’s fashion line was made, her political involvement was the reason the brand was boycotted and dropped from retailers like Nordstrom. Even thrift stores, a popular option for people looking to break the fast-fashion cycle, aren’t always innocent. The Salvation Army has a history of discrimination against the LGBTQ community, and Goodwill pays its disabled employees less than minimum wage.

Otti, who confesses that she makes an effort not to think about how her clothing is made, points to social desirability as one motivation for why people feel more empowered to challenge social issues rather than industry regulation. “I appreciate this is ludicrous,” she says when explaining how she would immediately boycott an anti-LGBTQ brand. “Why are gay rights more important than kids suffering in a sweatshop?”

Taking on unethical fashion can seem like a Herculean task, especially when guilt makes it easier to look the other way. Shopping ethically takes time, energy, and the ability to compromise and consciously decide which practices are deal breakers. Even then, we can never be totally sure that our favorite brands don’t have skeletons in their closets.

The appearance of more online tools and resources to help shoppers make educated decisions is slowly making informed shopping easier, with sites like Project Just seeking to increase transparency in the fashion industry, and fashion sites creating roundups of brands that sell social messages along with ethical products. Improving awareness of these brands is important, says Morgan Davis, the founder of black artist marketplace BLK GOLD, since she believes that with a bit of searching “you can find affordable, fashion-forward pieces that [are] just as convenient, if not better, than big-box retailers.”

So even though ethical shopping can be hard, really hard, there’s hope. We’ve just got to keep reading, keep researching, and keep paying attention.

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