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A Raven + Lily artisan in Pakistan.
Photo: Raven + Lily

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What Does It Actually Mean to Shop Ethically?

Ethical-shopping experts explain what to look for in a brand.

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In case you missed the memo: Ethical shopping is hard. Production chains are so complicated that major companies often can’t guarantee what conditions their products were made in, and even alternatives like the Salvation Army aren’t always ideal because of their anti-LGBTQ track records.

That doesn’t mean we should give up hope. A Nielsen report shows an increase in the number of people willing to pay more for products from companies they consider to be socially responsible, with a consumer trend report for 2017 published by NPD forecasting that, “given the highly charged political atmosphere [consumers will be] giving their business to brands and retailers that share their values and shunning those who do not.” These are encouraging steps that show we want to do better, and with reports that brands are embracing transparency, it seems that retailers are starting to listen.

Living Threads artisan Daniela in Nicaragua.
Photo: Living Threads/ Global Shokunin

One popular solution for shoppers hoping to make a difference is breaking away from fast fashion and buying from smaller brands that stock artisanal goods, often from abroad. “Many studies have reported that consumers like the uniqueness [of artisanal products],” says Anupama Pasricha, the executive director of Educators for Socially Responsible Apparel Practices, who explains that “people feel a sense of good” when they buy things made by artisans.

But if something is artisanal, does that automatically make it ethical? Like any industry, there are brands that excel, brands that could do better, and no 100 percent foolproof formula for getting it right.

“Brands are in the business of selling you products,” says Jacinta FitzGerald, the head of research at Project Just, a community that works to “change the way that people shop” by providing impartial research on the impact and practices of different brands. “As consumers, [many of us] want to make the best decision about the way we spend our money,” she says. “It can be difficult to get the true intention of something when you’re reading a brand website.” FitzGerald reminds us of the importance of “looking beyond” marketing in order to understand a brand’s practices.

“Just because something is ‘artisan made’ does not mean that the artisan was paid a livable, fair-trade wage,” says Kirsten Dickerson, founder and CEO of Raven + Lily, a socially responsible fair-trade brand that received Project Just's seal of approval for partywear. This kind of disingenuous marketing that she references can be seen in the case of a fair-trade business owner bullying artisans into discounting their rugs, only to sell them at an 813 percent markup with claims that shoppers would be directly supporting an artisan and her family.

“I’m not opposed to markups, I’m opposed to people negotiating discounts and then making markups,” clarifies Dan Driscoll, the founder of Anou, an artisan-run community in Morocco whose artisans set their own prices, upload photos of their wares, and sell directly to customers across the world.

Fair wages are a vital part of ensuring an ethical supply chain, but what’s “fair”? Pasricha’s standard definition of a fair wage is one that “supports the decent living of an individual and his or her family,” though she’s quick to note that “fair wages vary regionally based on the cost of living.” Since answers vary depending on the people, places, and work arrangements involved, and different organizations define it slightly differently, it unfortunately means there isn’t a tidy number that we can hold up as a gold standard.

One common way to decide if prices are fair is to look at who is setting them, and if artisans are being given a voice. As with other aspects of the artisanal market, there isn’t just one approach, and Driscoll warns that in some cases artisans undervalue their work. That’s one reason why FitzGerald believes NGO partnerships can be valuable, since they provide artisans with third-party advice including information about how much they should be charging.

A Ethiopian artisan for Sabhar.
Photo: Sabhar/Global Shokunin

Anou’s approach to setting prices has been to have artisans, who can be individuals or members of co-ops, decide on a price, often with input from mentors in their community. A 20 percent fee is added to pay the artisans who are running site operations and to cover training expenses. Two years ago Anou committed to making its financial expenditures public, and though Driscoll admits it needs to be updated and will be overhauled soon, this decision still demonstrates an uncommon amount of transparency.

Artisanal marketplace Global Shokunin deals with this issue by dealing exclusively with artisans who belong to co-ops that are transparent about who is working for them and willing to share data on their workers. Founder and former product development director for Eileen Fisher Richa Agarwal explains that, by their nature, co-ops give artisans “more say in how things run,” as well as “more negotiating power, and often profit sharing” opportunities, which is important in giving them a voice.

Raven + Lily’s tactic is to have artisans quote how much designs will cost them to make, with Dickerson stressing that they “never ask [artisans] to compromise on labor costs,” and will instead find different raw materials or simplify the design if the cost is too high. With annual audits to ensure that “artisans are earning livable ‘fair trade’ wages,” it doesn’t matter how much a customer pays for a product: Even if it’s heavily discounted, “artisans always get their full, fair price.”

Raven + Lily artisans in India.
Photo: Raven + Lily

But fair wages are only part of the equation. “Other issues are keeping artisans poor; it’s not just a fair price,” says Driscoll. “You’ve got to tackle other issues [as well, like] governmental policy and regulation.”

FitzGerald agrees that transparency around things like wages is “a step in the right direction… [but] there’s a huge amount of other steps that need to be taken,” in areas such as social and labor practices and environmental impact.

Many brands market artisanal clothes as eco-friendly because artisanal products draw from local craft traditions, so in many cases “artisans are sourcing from other local artisans,” says FitzGerald. “Cotton might be grown in a neighboring village, hand-woven by an artisan, and then embroidered by another artisan.”

Agarwal points out that in these situations, since materials don’t need to be shipped across the world and production typically involves manual labor instead of machinery, “artisan goods are low carbon, as opposed to mass-produced carbon-intensive products.”

Tracing the origin of an artisanal brand’s materials reveals more than their ecological impact, offering insight into their involvement at different levels of the supply chain and their treatment of artisans. “Maybe the workshop where the clothing was sewn was fair trade and the workers were treated well, but what about the place where the fabric was woven? Or the farm where the cotton was harvested?” asks Dickerson when explaining why Raven + Lily is so concerned with understanding where its materials come from. The scarcity and uncertainty of quality material in Morocco, as evident in the practice of dying wool with formaldehyde to cut costs, resulted in Anou founding Atlas Wool Supply to provide artisans with safe material, demonstrating why nonprofits and brands working with artisans need to look beyond labor to also address material issues, which can impact the health of individual artisans and their local economies.

If you need help thinking of other questions to ask that go beyond fair pay and the ethical treatment of workers, take a look at the eight categories Project Just uses to appraise brands and the World Fair Trade Organization's 10 principles of fair trade.

Guatemalan artisans share a laugh.
Photo: Raven + Lily

If you don’t have the time, or ability, to deeply research each brand, certifications can offer a shortcut — but “there are a number of certifications, and a consumer’s understanding of [each kind] could be murky,” says FitzGerald. Having “a fair-trade certification is different from being a fair-trade federation member, and that’s different from being a world fair-trade organization member.” Because each category has slightly different standards and requires different levels of independent oversight, when you’re shopping, it’s important to look up what they actually mean.

When shopping for themselves, FitzGerald, Pasricha, and Agarwal all mention the comfort that a fair-trade certification gives them. FitzGerald says that third-party nonprofit involvement from organizations like NEST and the Ethical Fashion Initiative give her “a degree of faith.”

That being said, “I don’t think being fair-trade certified is the be-all and end-all, and there are definitely other factors involved,” says FitzGerald. Certification can be an expensive process, and many businesses choose to invest their limited capital in other ways. So while certification can provide a level of assurance that certain standards are being met, a lack of certification doesn’t automatically make a brand unethical.

Kenza of Association Tithrite, with a rug she sketched and designed on her own.
Photo: Anou

“The challenge of working in a socially conscious area is that everyone has an opinion of what’s socially good,” Driscoll explains. In many cases, he sees organizations who he thinks are “really shitty… but from their perspective they’re doing really good work.”

That’s because many times brands aren’t working maliciously, just inefficiently. In Driscoll’s opinion, many repeat the same mistakes by visiting a country for a week, thinking they understand how the industry functions there, and “unwittingly working with [exploitative] middlemen despite marketing their work as fair trade.”

Agarwal agrees that issues in the supply chain are usually caused not by a company’s desire to cheat artisans, but by “the way the system is set up.” Since the logistics of setting up production and on-the-ground support for artisans abroad can be expensive, many brands outsource these tasks to other companies who hire national agents, regional agents, local agents, and master artisans, who in some cases contract work from locals trying to supplement their incomes.

At each step people need to be paid, and the longer the supply chain is the less money there is to pay artisans for their work. That means one of the easiest first steps companies can make in order to pass on a larger cut of the profit to the artisan is to minimize the number of middlemen. They can do this by working directly with co-ops and artisans themselves, remembering that middle men can take on many forms — whether as a co-op president leveraging his or her position or a tour guide collecting referral fees from artisans they visit with their tour groups.

There are different ways that organizations can set out to monitor their supply chain — Anou’s solution has been to cycle artisans through its office, making it so that one single person can’t monopolize operations, with Driscoll himself having no legal authority in the organization, meaning that the artisans have the power to fire him. Raven + Lily’s answer has been to secure B Corp certification and work directly with artisan partners and suppliers, staying involved “every step of the way” in order to monitor how materials and labor are being sourced. Global Shokunin’s approach has been to work with nonprofits and be "highly selective" when determining if co-ops are upholding fair-trade practices, drawing on Agarwal’s experience working with co-ops on projects funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for BRAC social enterprise Aarong.

Kenyan artisans line up for a photo.
Photo: Raven + Lily

Agarwal, who encourages customers to call organizations with questions about their supply chains and methods of sourcing labor, says, “There is no substitute for due diligence.”

So again, there’s no shortcut for research. Research to see if, like Raven + Lily, brands are building up communities — even if by strengthening supply chains and offering microloans they are giving artisans the opportunity to become independent and work with other organizations. Research to see if a brand, like Anou, is training artisans to become businesspeople who receive the bulk of the profits for their work. Research to see how organizations, like Global Shokunin, work directly with co-ops, and are doing their due diligence in making sure fair-trade standards are carried out across the board.

An ethical shopper is an educated shopper, and with more online resources and a growing interest in conscious consumerism, we can start to rebuild our wardrobes, piece by piece.

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