the root collective

How to shop ethically

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About Tsh

Tsh is the founder of this blog and lives in Bend, Oregon with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

Over the past few years, I’ve grown more and more passionate about making sure I know where the stuff I buy originates. And as I’ve done my personal research, I’ve discovered how hard it is to really know for sure.

I also know how hard it can be to choose ethical shopping over conventional: sometimes there’s just not a huge selection, and well, it can get expensive. But as a family, we’ve decided that we would rather spend more to get less in order to contribute positively (or at least neutrally) to the global economy. Because guys, it can get really messed up.

Poor working conditions, low living wages, child labor, negative environmental impact—this stuff is everywhere. Everywhere. And once you learn about it, you can’t unlearn it. I’ve written about the chocolate and coffee industries, and eventually I hope to add the textile and technology sectors.

Ethical shopping made easier on The Art of Simple.
Source: Noonday Collection

But in the meantime, I offer you this: The Art of Simple now has an Ethical Shopping Guide. Fun stuff! Because there’s a lot of companies doing a good job, and we should support them.

But before I get into that, here are a few thoughts about shopping ethically in the real world:

1. Do what you can with what you have.

I get that if you’ve got a gaggle of kids in your car and are pressed for time, or if you just graduated college are starting at an entry-level job, then it’s not easy to make sure every single thing you buy is ethically-made. I really do get it. That doesn’t mean your small choices can’t still make a difference.

Cute sandals from Aurora Shoe Company
Source: Aurora Shoe Co.

You can do simple things, like choose to not shop at WalMart in most circumstances, or to buy your kids’ toys at a locally-run shop instead of a big-box store. It’s not all back and white, I know. Target isn’t perfect (which I hate to say, because I enjoy shopping there), but it has a better track record than its counterpart. And sometimes, it’s just easier to run in there when local shops don’t have what you need.

Amazon isn’t free and clear either, but I’m sometimes willing to buy there if it’s not possible for me to buy something locally, or if the local option is even worse. As a consumer, I do have to gut-check myself for inconvenient truths—if a company I like does something that makes me lose sleep at night, I need to be consistent with my ethics.

Lamon Luther
Source: Lamon Luther

But at the end of the day—do what you can with what you’re able to do. Right?

2. Don’t judge. But do spread news.

This is the other side of the same coin. We all have to make daily decisions, and at the end of the day, the only one we’re responsible for is us. The ethical shopping dilemma isn’t done any favors if you spew and spout judgmental attitudes and guilt-trip people with the choices they make.

Does that mean you stay silent on issues you wish weren’t a reality? No, of course not. Share the press releases and documentaries that reveal the darker side of companies, and be positive by publicly praising awesome companies.

Promote what you love instead of bashing what you hate.
Source: The Burlap Bag

But remember that YOU can choose to shop ethically. Don’t inadvertently twist your passion into judgment. Most of us are doing the best we can.

The list!

Head over to the list, pin it, spread the news wherever you can—and then tell me what you think over here.

Our criteria mostly involves human and earth protection: positive efforts in environmental stewardship, no forced labor in the making of products, and ethical treatment of employees.

Oeuf Toys
Source: Oeuf

We also care about the less objective criteria of quality. Does the website function well, and is it pretty? Are their wares well-made? Does it look like a well-organized company? Do they care about good design? Because we care about those things, too.

These aren’t only charities or non-profits either. We’re okay with companies making a legitimate profit!

Alright, let me know what you think. Any companies we should add?

Top photo source:The Root Collective

Join the Conversation

Comments

  1. Thank you. Just, thank you. I have felt so overwhelmed by the whole ethical shopping thing. I always appreciate so much how you are able to clearly and simply articulate things so that I can wrap my mind around them. I felt myself taking a big breath of relief as I read this. So yes, thank you!

  2. You’re always one step ahead! My husband and I were discussing ethical shopping last week and felt somewhat daunted at the task of trying to find ethical alternatives and work out, which stores we need to say goodbye to. The ethical shopping list is a great resource, so thanks!

  3. Hi Tsh,

    I don’t usually comment when I read (because I read every day, and honestly, I’m a little lazy). However, this post / guide is amazing. Thank you for helping all of US make better choices.

    Allie

  4. I’ve always shopped at Magic Cabin for some of our natural toys and I wonder if you know something about them that I don’t since they are not on the list anywhere. I’m also curious about Melissa and Doug since they seem to present themselves as the affordable answer to natural toys. Are they affordable because they are not made ethically?

    • Hi Erika,

      Honestly, I just forgot about Magic Cabin. I’ll look into them, but from my past interactions with them, I think they’d fit the bill! I just need to make sure. :)

      And I can look into Melissa & Doug, but again, it slipped my mind. I do know they make some of their stuff in China, but that doesn’t always equal horrible. I’ll dig into it and let you know!

  5. Our friends run a project in Haiti that provides work for struggling families. They make beautiful jewelry and gifts out of recycled cardboard, paper and steel oil drums. It’s called the ApParent Project (apparentproject.org) and you can host a home party or order online at http://www.markethaiti.com/. I buy from them every year for myself and others.

  6. You know Tsh,
    I have so many other ways in my life that I strive to be ethical (and believe me there are many) that I so cannot get bogged down with something that is not concrete. If I was in a situation where I knew the item I wanted to buy directly came from an unethical source, then maybe, but its not worth the angst for me. (and I’m real cheap so I love inexpensive things as well)

    • Thanks for commenting, Faigie. And well, I can’t change anyone’s mind; they can only do that for themselves, so that’s okay. :) Maybe look into it when you have time? Look into some of the research about the REAL higher prices of cheaper goods?

      Either way, I’m so glad you felt free to say how you really feel here. That’s important to me.

  7. Thank you for all of this helpful info!

  8. Thank you for this.

    My only concern in what you posted is that the links regarding Walmart and Amazon are to Wikipedia, not at all a reputable source of information. I was a little surprised you relied on this source of information as to why we shouldn’t shop at Walmart or Amazon. Just curious why you didn’t link to more reputable sources?

  9. The people at North Star Toys (http://www.northstartoys.com) make lovely wooden toys here in the USA! My daughter loved the Happy Hybrid with Rainbow People. Check them out.

  10. Thank you for this. A friend and I just took some of our kids to the Museum of Tolerance where we saw a video about child slave labor and were challenged to shop more wisely and we were thinking it would be nice to have a list! It’s hard to think such a little thing can make a difference but I think it can. Spend a little more on less stuff and hopefully we can make a difference. It’s a lot about how it changes us even if we can’t see it having an impact.

  11. I would love to know what you think of Real Purity. I don’t use much makeup but I do like their mascara and foundation. I use the skin deep database but that doesn’t cover ethical production. I also sew my daughter’s clothes and LOVE Harmony Art Fabrics. Harmony also makes an effort to educate on cotton production and fabric making, encouraging both ethical and planet friendly approaches.

    • I haven’t heard of Real Purity, but I can certainly look into them! Please let me know here if you find any good info about their ethics.

  12. Thanks SO much Tsh (and Katie!) for putting the time in to research this topic! It’s a big one and this will be a great resource. It’s a little mind-boggling to dig deeper into the real cost of things but it is so worth it for others and for ourselves.

  13. I’ve been told that even though working conditions, etc. may not be ethical in other countries, it’s still many people’s main or only source of income. So interfering is really hurting them more than helping them. What do you say about that? Is that true? Or do you feel that doing what’s ethical, even if more people go hungry or starve or whatever, is still the right thing to do?

    I don’t know a lot about this issue, so I’m trying to understand. However, it does seem like sometimes Americans act without knowing all the very complicated circumstances and details. But then that may be just the media slant, too. I’d love to hear your thoughts so that I can understand better! :-)

    • It’s definitely a complicated issue, and yes, sometimes that’s the only job they have, and we definitely don’t want to leave anyone high and dry. But if we all keep thinking that way—”it’s the only job they have”—then we’re only perpetuating this huge problem and it’ll only get worse.

      There are plenty of larger companies that are doing good things, and plenty of factory jobs that are perfectly okay. We can support those with our money, too! Gap, who owns Old Navy, Banana Republic, and a few other lines, actually tends to get around a “B” rating. Not bad. But I didn’t include them here because I only wanted A-rated companies. At least until they clear up the situation with their Bangladeshi factory. If that works itself out, then I may include them.

      Same with Ikea—they are actually pretty good, and have consistently been rated one of the more ethical large companies in the world, but they’ve recently had some kerfuffling with some of their employees, so once they sort that out, I may include them here.

      So… all this to say that it’s not black and white, and I’m not at all, saying factory jobs are bad, or that we should pull the rug out from those who really need the work. But I just can’t, in good conscience, support a brand or company that blatantly treats people or the earth with a magnitude of disrespect.

      And I certainly don’t think every American acts without thinking, though like every place in the world, there are plenty of people here that act without knowing all the details. Don’t believe everything you read about Americans. ;)

      • Dear Tsh

        If you want only A rated companies, you simply cannot include Zara. I sent you a message with all the links explaining why (slave and child labor reported in Portugal (2006), Brazil (2011) and Argentina (2013)).

    • Brenda, my friend Lindsay and I were discussing this on Facebook just now, and she has some excellent thoughts (shared with permission):

      “That’s a very excellent question – and that’s why I don’t promote boycotts of products. A straight boycott never hurts a company’s bottom line, but it always hurts those at the end of the supply chain.

      Here’s the thing: The only reason we have unethically produced goods is because consumers demand lots of cheap things. Our demand encourages producers to cut corners and costs, and if we don’t demand that these goods are produced ethically, they don’t have financial incentive to do it. They create shell corporations, or use third party sources, to legally distance themselves from the source of the goods they sell (check out the supply chain connections from the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, for instance – many American retailers had plausible deniability, despite the fact that their products came from that factory).

      These companies only do that because they know consumers value good deals more than an ethical supply chain. That’s what our behavior tells them.

      So what we need to do is remind companies that we care about an ethical supply chain. We do that in two ways:

      First, direct communication with the company (this worked with GAP, for instance, which is leading the way in trying to investigate its supply chain and committing to ethically-sourced materials and labor). If we boycott those goods, those companies have no need to listen to us. If we are loyal customers who raise these concerns, they have a vested interest in keeping us as loyal customers, and that provides financial incentive to investigate and alter their supply chains.

      Second, we put our money where our mouth is and buy ethically-produced goods. When consumers started buying organic produce, major food producers started making organic versions of their products to lure those consumers back. The same trend can happen with fair trade goods, but it’s up to us to provide the demand.

      There’s a lot more to it – not all things labeled fair trade are necessarily fair trade (it depends on the types of inspections, how much of the supply chain is investigated, etc.), but it’s like my friend Julie Goss Clawson says in her book Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices: we do what we can with what we know. The point is, however, it starts with us. That’s the beauty and the burden of a consumer-based society.”

      • Also I would say that is the same argument a lot of people used when slavery was legal here. “The slaves are better off than they would be free but poor. They have food, shelter, many have kind masters…” etc.

        Eventually we just have to say wrong is wrong, and aim for an ideal…even if it comes with its own challenges.

        Thanks for putting this together, Tsh!

  14. Claro Candles (http://clarocandles.com/) is a good company owned by Jeff Bethke and his wife Alyssa!

  15. Yes! Thank you! I’ve been wanting to find more ethical/healthy/natural products, but had no idea where to start looking. Off to find some new shampoo!

  16. Thank you so much much for including The Root Collective in your shopping guide (and for using one of our images in your post!). We really believe that ethics should be at the forefront when people are purchasing and this is such a great resource for people who want to do the right thing but are daunted by where to start. We’re honored to be a part of this!

  17. One of the best in Canada Mountain Equipment Coop… great for clothing and outdoor gear!

  18. Thank you so much for this list. I prefer to buy second hand, handcrafted and fair trade and appreciate the reminder to do our best, share information but not get judgmental. I remember feeling super critical one year then saw this man emerge from our local dollar store. He appeared to be poor, kind of downtrodden. And as I watched him I wondered about how he’d survive without super inexpensive (but not ethically sourced) products such as those from the dollarama. As you said, the issue IS complicated.

    • Yes. That’s exactly why the approach should be, “Do what you can with what you have.” So many of us are in the tippy-top percentage of the world’s wealth. We CAN change things by directing our dollars where they can support good things.

  19. I would love to know how you do your research. I live in Sweden and so I am interested in which companies here in Europe have a good ethic foundation. Can you help?

    • Honestly? It was mostly reading. We’d read a company’s code of ethics, then google around and see if they seemed to be holding up to their own standards. This list has been worked on for about 6 months. :)

      Resources like Free 2 Work and SkinDeep are helpful, but they’re not enough. It still takes your own research to make sure you agree personally,you know? So I guess I’d recommend starting there.

      Also, a number of these stores listed are British and Australian, so it’s not a purely American focus! If you find more in Europe, I’d love to know so I can include them here. Thanks, Nina!

  20. How about Freezer? http://freesetglobal.com. The employ women rescued from trafficking in India.

  21. avatar
    Christine C says:

    I have been considering shoes from soleRebels. They seem pretty awesome on their ethics.
    http://www.solerebels.com/

    • You know, I remember seeing that store ages ago, when I was looking for shoes. Totally forgot! Thanks for the reminder. Lvoe how crowd-sourced this is going to be.

  22. You should check out
    Krochet Kids (http://www.krochetkids.org) &
    DOMA coffee (http://domacoffee.com) – so good!
    Also, shameless plug, check out my etsy store, Kind Forest, for lovely cards, art prints and ceramic wonders: https://www.etsy.com/shop/KindForest
    My items are handcrafted & made in the USA, and I also donate 10% to supporting families affected by HIV and AIDS in Rwanda.

  23. I love the idea of ethical shopping, but I run into practical issues. E.g. I need grout-imitating caulk, hydrogen peroxide, bread, and milk (and from fruits and veggies), and I have a child who can’t handle getting in and out of the car more than 2 (maybe 3) stops in a day. Add that we only have one car, so I (and child) take hubby to work on the day we need to run errands, then pick him up at the end.

    And how do I check out stores I normally use … e.g. HEB? Joanns? Hobby Lobby? Lowes? Home Depot?

    Still figuring out how to make this work in our lives. Yes, I think its worth it, but its going to take thought and intentionality.

    • Similar questions here. I live in a small town, about an hour from most shopping. Walmart is about the only option and, sadly, a major employer in my community. I struggle with the balance of using my time and money wisely.

  24. Just wanting to check, I did not see Lisa Leonard Designs under jewelry?

  25. Thanks so much for this resource!

  26. avatar
    Emilie Adams says:

    I echo everyone’s sincere THANK-YOU for this resource. It honestly made me cry…in a good way…to see this. It takes SO MUCH TIME to research companies and figure out what materials are being made ethically and not….THANK-YOU TSH!!!

  27. THANK YOU for the great resource!!

  28. Thank you, Tsh! This is a wonderful resource! I was surprised to see Zara on the list. Have they cleaned up their practices of late? Again–thank you. Very helpful!!

  29. What an amazing list you’ve put together. Thank you for the resource! We love http://fullcirclecoffeeproject.org/. 100% of the proceeds go to Lemonade International that the Root Collective also works with. I also like http://site.starfish-project.com/ for jewelry.

  30. For shoes that are ethical AND stylish AND oh so comfortable, El Naturalista http://www.elnaturalista.com/en/

  31. ohhh my.. we should always shop wisely. I really enjoyed reading this post and you me ideas in shopping.

  32. John Fluevog shoes also seem to be an ethical choice. They use vegetable tanned leather or vegan options in making their shoes. They also make sure their factories are following international standards.

  33. Dignify, which is an awesome shop in Canada. I know my Canadian friends have a hard time getting good shipping deals with stores in teh states, but this store is based in Canada, and ships to all over, too. They have BEAUTIFUL items, especially their bags and blankets.

    I even wrote a post about it using an infographic they made (see below)

    http://www.dignify.ca/

    Sarah M

  34. Here’s one you can add: GlobalGirlfriend.com!

  35. First off, thanks for including Aurora Shoe Co.! I received my first pair of Aurora\’s last fall and just received my fourth pair again this fall. They are BY FAR the most comfortable shoes I have ever had, the craftsmanship is stellar, and they are CUTE. I quit buying cheapo shoes a couple of years ago, and while these are a little expensive, they are worth twice what they charge for them. Plus, if you add up what you spend in cheapo throw away shoes (made who knows where, you could buy yourself a nice pair from Aurora Shoe Co.).

    Shopping ethically is something that is important to our household. Do we really need things instantly? In my opinion, instant gratification is what keeps these companies with unethical practices in business. If we took our time, saved our money, researched and bought quality items, there might not be fires in Bangladesh, killing our fellow brothers and sisters. Someone\’s mom, dad, sister, brother, daughter DIED a horrible death making clothes for US in horrid conditions because we demand rock bottom prices. To me, it\’s kind of like shopping on Thanksgiving. The stores are open because we show up. If we didn\’t show up, it wouldn\’t be worth it for them to open. It\’s about $. So, put your money where your mouth is. Change starts with us.

  36. You should consider Threads 4 Thought and Be Good Clothes. http://www.threadsforthought.com
    http://begoodclothes.com

  37. Zometools – made in the USA. The bubble kit is fantastic.

    Liberty Bottleworks – made in the USA. GREAT water bottles. My kids can actually use the flip tops by themselves, and they have unique designs. I got my kids these for my kids’ stockings last Christmas, but I bought them through Amazon, which sent one of the wrong bottles. I called the company and they overnighted me the correct bottle for free even though it was amazon’s error.

  38. Thanks so much for this list — and for adding to it from the crowd sourcing! (Love crowd sourcing.)

    Here’s an addition: Mindo Chocolate http://mindochocolate.com/

  39. Tsh, this is great. Love your list, love your balanced and grace-full approach. For clothing, I was surprised not to see Hanna Andersson on your list — they’re your neighbors (Portland HQ). I love buying from them for my kids and occasionally for myself, because they make clothes of very high quality that lasts and lasts, and they either use organic cotton or cotton that’s not officially organic but meets a rigorous certification process. Also, they give back to charity in various ways. I hope there’s not a dark side that I’m just unaware of, but as far as I know, they have a very good reputation and often appear on lists such as this. Check ‘em out. :-)
    http://www.hannaandersson.com

  40. This is great! Thank you so much for sharing such a great, well-researched resource! I am linking to this from my blog!

    I recently purchased from Elegantees and wonder if they might be a good one to include in your guide. http://elegantees.com/

  41. I’m trying so hard to educate myself on the ethical shopping issue, and I want so badly to do the right thing. My main frustration – which I never see addressed in articles like this – is the amount of contradictory information out there. For example, the Hanes company, which is rated high at freetowork, popped up in a labor rights “hall of shame” website I found today (along with Ikea, which is also one I thought was at least ok!) I don’t know how accurate that info is, and I don’t really know how to find out. And llbean seems dubious, I’m wondering what it’s inclusion is based on (it’s not listed on freetowork) Also I was surprised by the number of shoe companies on freetowork that seem ok – and here I’ve been wearing the same old, broken down tennis shoes for ages because I’ve felt like practically all the athletic shoe companies were “bad” and I felt guilty buying new ones! Another confusing issue to me – Target and Walmart sell many identical products, so is buying from Target more ethical when there is no difference in that item’s production? (Domestic labor issues aside.)

    I hope this comment doesn’t seem critical (if anyone is still reading the comments!) – I love this blog and really respect what Tsh is doing here. I just wish this was an easier issue to research. It seems like no sooner do I find a company that I think is ok, I find contradictory information elsewhere. My solution for now has been thrift store shopping, but it would be nice to buy new stuff occasionally.

  42. Where you spend your money is your vote on what exists in the world.

  43. You should add Nena & Co. http://nenaandco.com/
    Cute bags and accessories, made from recycled materials, handwoven by women in Mayan villages, using traditional techniques. Bam.

  44. This is my favorite bath & body store http://savvyboheme.com/.

  45. Tsh! This was SO helpful! I have been making my own, but this is more complete-I’m grateful!
    Would love you to look at ImagineGoods.com
    The clothes are all purchased locally in Cambodia form women in the market, and then made by women in a safehouse in Cambodia. All the proceeds go back to the women, empowering them! Imagine Goods also partners with Love146
    anyway, thank you so much for this!

  46. Thank you so much for compiling this list! This is most certainly a tough issue to navigate. I’ve already been able to find new products thanks to your list! I love The Body Shop now.

    I’m a youngin’ so I try to do what I can with what I have. That being said, I try and thrift for clothing as much as humanly possible (it’s my extra way yo recycle too :)!).

    Ethisphere has a list of the 100 most ethical companies, it’s a list of companies of all categories. Target made this list, it’s nice to have a general retailer that’s making an effort. http://ethisphere.com/worlds-most-ethical/wme-honorees/

    I also try to shop brands that are apart of the Fair Labor Association, some are already on your list! http://www.fairlabor.org/affiliates/participating-companies

    Thank you again for compiling this list and encouraging the conversation.

  47. Do you know anything about kids clothing companies such as Tea Collection or Babysoy? Babysoy I know supports Half the Sky foundation in China (girl\’s education). I\’ve been trying to mostly buy ethically sourced kids clothes, but most of the links seem to be for adults. I was also wondering about Klean Kanteen. I have several of their bottles that I use daily so that I don\’t have to pay for water (3 actually, a small one that stays by the bed, and two that I alternate throughout the day.) Also for cleaning, any thoughts about Seventh Generation?

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