Style Wise | Ethical Fashion, Fair Trade, Sustainability


The Leather Debate: Making a Case for the Real Thing, by Evan Streussand

This piece was originally published on EcoCult.
ethical leather conversation fortress of inca

Evan Streusand is the founder of Fortress of Inca, a conscious shoe company that pays its Peruvian workers a fair wage and ensures they have safe working conditions.

When I set out to start Fortress of Inca in 2012, I didn’t pay much attention to environmental issues. I was just focused on trying to sell boots and shoes to retailers. It wasn’t until later that I started grappling with the realization that fashion is second only to the oil industry in terms of negative environmental impact.

In fact, founding a shoe company in Peru was an accident. I was there; I found a pair of boots in Cusco. I liked the boots, I came back to Texas where I live and friends of mine wanted some boots too. I went back to Peru, imported a bunch of them, sold them to friends and friends of friends, went back again to Peru, and decided to manufacture similar boots there.

Most people who want to make shoes and boots start in China. I didn’t and that has – to paraphrase Robert Frost – made all the difference. Peru is a country rich with natural resources, with a history of conflict and struggle that has transformed into prosperity and progress. The labor laws are strict, environmental regulations are for the most part followed, and prices are much higher than competitors who manufactured in China.

ethical leather boots
Instead of fighting it, we embraced it and launched Fortress of Inca as a brand that stood for worker’s rights and sustainable, handmade production. Another bonus is that Peru and its neighboring countries of Argentina and Chile have some of the nicest leather in the world, rubber, and excellent wood that we could use for women’s heels.

A brand that stands for something is bound to get noticed by people who care about the environment and sustainability. And a lot of people ask about whether we can truly call ourselves sustainable if we use leather. The answer is, yes, we can.

Most of our leather is sourced as a meat byproduct. If fashion ceased using leather to make products without people cutting their meat consumption at the same time, waste management centers would be unable to handle hides and meat byproducts, and the environmental impact would be nearly catastrophic. In 2014, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization issued a report called “The Future for Leather”, which stated:

If the approximately nine to ten million tons of raw hides and skins as by-products of the meat industry (generated irrespective of the needs of the leather industry) is not processed into leather and subsequently into consumer goods, then it would remain as organic waste. This would be a significant problem – rotting, odor, volume/mass – to be handled or disposed of somehow. It is even claimed that the carbon footprint of disposal footpath would be greater than processing for the short and long term into leather.

If you want to eliminate organic waste, reasonably priced, well-made shoes that are both comfortable and stylish and therefore worn frequently will accomplish that goal.

The United Nation’s report also says that for specific purposes such as waterproofness, stability and support, sometimes man-made materials are superior to leather. I’ll concede that point. However, when it comes to durability and strength, leather is one of the finest natural materials available to shoemakers.

The shoes’ primary purpose is not to cover or accentuate the body, but carry the body. Of course you want to be stylish, but other than a small minority of people, most need shoes to travel middle to long distances. For this reason, I think of shoes as an intersection of architecture and fashion. And in architecture, the components you build into a structure are as important as the design.

The argument for so called “vegan leather” is problematic. It is often not has high quality or comfortable as leather. Companies like Melissa from Brazil, for example, are heralded by sustainable publications as great for the environment because they use MELFLEX, a trademarked plastic which is essentially the same as PVC and therefore not biodegradable. MELFLEX and similar plastics which claim to be “hypoallergenic and odorless and recyclable” are not, for the most part, comfortable. They do not breathe as leather does, they do not absorb odor, and so despite claiming to be odorless, they make your feet stink.

Time and again I’ve seen people with good intentions make claims that have made me consider whether leather was the best material we could be using in our shoes and boots. And, after carefully considering these other options, the reason we continue to use it is simple – we are not doing anything harmful to the planet in making shoes and boots from meat byproducts, we source our leather nearby to our manufacturing, and it yields the highest quality footwear.

Leather, it turns out, is the best option for us to use – for environmental, quality, and aesthetic reasons.


I know that this is really a question of morality for a lot of people and I respect you all for whatever position you hold. For many years, I have held the position that, if humans are going to kill animals for meat, we should use as much of the animal in as many ways as possible for the sake of respecting the life of the animal and for environmental reasons. In a world where no one eats meat, I absolutely believe that killing an animal for its leather would be uncalled for and cruel, but since leather goods are nearly always a byproduct of the meat industry, demand for leather is unlikely to contribute to more animal deaths. That's why I buy and use leather products (though most of my leather is sourced from the secondhand market).

My top 7 ethical beauty and wellness products

ethical beauty and wellness products on
*this post contains affiliate links.

(I'd planned to post this tomorrow, but figure a lot of you on the East Coast are at home today due to the blizzard. I wish you all the best in your snow shoveling efforts - we've still got a lot of shoveling to do here.)

Today I want to talk about my favorite wellness products, the little things that help me take care of both my body and my spirit. I didn't always value ritual, but I'm increasingly grateful for the time I get to spend sipping hot tea or slathering on lotion, especially during the dark, winter months (I have mild seasonal affective disorder). It adds a lot of value to my life.

Though I've made great strides in my ethical clothing journey, I still struggle when it comes to finding beauty and wellness brands that prioritize fair labor, consumer health, and environmental impact. For that reason, much of what I use can be considered better than average, but not perfect.

The fact of the matter is that it's very difficult for skincare companies in particular to track their ingredients to the original source, so even if care is taken to ensure that factory workers are treated well, we have little information on the miners and growers. This is changing - and larger brands have better resources to track their supply chains - but we still have a long way to go.

The other issue is that we expect our skincare and wellness products to work! What use is fair labor if your lotion makes you break out? What good is an "all natural" designation if you have an allergic reaction? This is an area where progress over perfection is a really important thing to remember.


1. Freedom Soap Company Bar Soap

freedom soap company review

Palm oil free, all natural, simple ingredients: these are my priorities when buying soap. Since my skin is sensitive, I need to stay away from synthetic fragrances and anything too heavy (like olive oil) and I've found Freedom Soap Company to be the best soap for my needs.

The scents are refreshing (from what I can tell, I've tried Lemon & Grapefruit and Oatmeal as Odds and Endsand you can purchase Odds and Ends pieces for only $2.00 a piece. That's a great bargain!

2. The Body Shop Tea Tree Oil Skin Clearing Toner

Made with fair trade tea tree oil, this toner has managed to clear up my acne without the side effects brought on by harsher chemicals like benzoyl peroxide. It's a bit drying, but I don't experience redness or pain like I did with other chemical acne products. Plus, I really like the pungent, herbal smell of tea tree oil. I use it after I wash my face in the evenings. Shop it here.

The Body Shop recently re-committed itself to its original focus on providing fair trade and sustainable products, so I'm looking forward to seeing how the company improves its ingredients and process in the next few years.

3. Whole Foods' 365 Gentle Skin Cleanser

Fragrance free and gentler than Cetaphil, Whole Foods' skin cleanser is the only cleanser I've tried that my face will tolerate long term. I use this morning and night. If my face needs a bit of exfoliating, I just apply a bit of the cleanser to my damp face and gently rub a wet washcloth in circular motions over my skin for about a minute. Whole Foods' products must meet their guidelines for personal safety and environmental impact, though not all products they carry are created equal.

Find a local Whole Foods here.

4. Thistle Farms Body Butter in Citrus Vanilla

thistle farms body butter review
I was introduced to Thistle Farms after founder, Becca Stevens, gave a talk at my church last fall (read my article about it here). They set up a booth in our parish hall and we all went wild smelling things and buying gifts. I meant to buy this body butter in a different scent, but I'm glad I ended up with Citrus Vanilla. The essential oils are a mood booster, particularly during this time of year. I apply a generous amount of body butter to my hands and feet every night before bed and I've seen a clear improvement in the health of my skin this winter. Shop it here.

Thistle Farms is an extension of Magdalene House, a long term care facility and resource center for trafficked, abused, and marginalized women in Nashville, TN. They're committed to using natural and fairly sourced ingredients, and proceeds benefit the women of the Magdalene and Thistle Farms communities.

5. Burt's Bees Peppermint Lip Balm

Do you remember when you could only find Burt's Bees in specialty shops? One time in middle school, my uncle gave me - of all things - a Cracker Barrel gift card for my birthday and I bought myself a tin of Burt's Bees Peppermint Lip Balm. I've been hooked on it ever since. The ingredients are all natural and nourishing (beeswax, coconut oil, and peppermint are the primary ingredients) and I hardly ever suffer from chapped lips as a result. Shop it here.

6. Thistle Farms Candle in Tuscan Earth

I smelled this candle at my church's event, but I wasn't quite ready to commit. Fortunately, Latitudes Fair Trade in nearby Staunton, VA has an entire wall dedicated to Thistle Farms' products, so I picked one up about a month ago. Daniel likes this fruity-earthy scent, too, and we burn it often. Shop it here.

Thistle Farms' candles are made of soy with cotton wicks, so they're vegan, earth friendly, and clean burning.

7. Thistle Farms Moringa Blend Tea

thistle farms moringa blend review

I love this stuff! High quality black tea mixed with fairly harvested Moringa leaves and lemongrass, this blend is a great pick-me-up when I get home from work. I prefer to drink it black - no sugar or milk needed. Shop it here.

Moringa is a plant native to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan that has lots of (yet unproven) medicinal benefits. It is vitamin and mineral rich and, as an antioxidant, may help prevent cell damage.

What products and rituals help you care for yourself?

*I purchased all products in this post. My reviews are based on long term use.

the moral wardrobe: it's snow time

krochet kids pocket teekrochet kids pocket teeethical outfit
It's blizzard time! Charlottesville, as I've mentioned before, is obsessed with talking about, photographing, and anticipating weather. The TV is on in the background and the weather man has said the word, "snow," about 20 times in the past 3 minutes. News correspondents are commenting on the presence of children playing and people walking their dogs in the snow. The grocery store lot was packed full this morning with people doing last minute emergency preparedness shopping in case the power goes out (I was buying dish soap - I did my shopping two days ago).

We actually do have a reason to care this time around, though. With 24 inches of snow forecasted for the next 24 hours, this could be the biggest snow storm on record for our area. As the weather man just noted, we have a reason to enjoy it for now, but things could take a turn for the worse this evening, especially if power lines get weighed down and we lose electricity. Crossing my fingers that everyone stays safe and warm.

snow storm outfit Ethical Details: Top - Krochet Kids*; Cardigan (similar at Everlane), Coat, and Boots - thrifted; Hat - locally handmade (similar at Krochet Kids*)

Climate change is going to make all of us talk about the weather more and more. It's something I'm still learning about and trying to process, having grown up in a staunchly "Climate change isn't real, the liberal media is lying to us" household. For now, I'm trying to enjoy the novelty of heavy snow while acknowledging that the severity of this weather is a sign of things to come. Reducing meat consumption and trying to use less gas and plastic are a few ways I'm trying to keep climate change at bay, but it's nowhere near enough. It's important that we vote for initiatives and politicians who make tackling climate change a priority.

*indicates affiliate link

the moral wardrobe: one stop shopping at Ash & Rose

sustainable clothing at ash and rosecasual ethical outfitethical moto jacket by LUR Apparelethical outfit ash and rose Ethical Details: Top - via Ash & Rose; Jacket - LUR Apparel via Ash & Rose; Earrings - Hannah Naomi via Ash & Rose

One of the struggles with shopping ethically is that you can't always find everything you're looking for in one place. You end up hunting around local shops and online boutiques piecing together your wardrobe and suffering the consequences in the form of high travel and shipping expenses.

Single-brand shops are great, but I like to mix things up, so I really like companies like MadeFAIR* and Ash & Rose that do a great job curating cool things with the conscious consumer in mind.

I've reviewed Ash & Rose once before, but this go round was even more successful than the last. I love this top in black and white stripes because it follows the curves of my body without being too tight or too loose, and the fabric is thicker and holds its shape better than most tees on the market. I'd also been looking for a knit moto jacket for awhile and Ash & Rose had put this one by LUR Apparel in their Clearance section, so it was a great time to scoop it up. LUR uses a recycled fabric blend for their apparel and uses remnant fabrics, so both items were both ethically and sustainably sourced.

Have you found any one stop shops for your ethical and sustainable shopping? I'd love to hear what they are!

*I received a discount on items I purchased from Ash & Rose. I was not required to write this post.

On Speaking Out: An MLK Day Reflection

speak out against prejudice and hatred woman on bridge

I don't speak out because I don't know if my voice is strong enough, or right enough, to tackle the rage, ignorance, and misunderstanding.

I don't speak out because hate so often feels undefeatable, snaking its way like smoke around my attempts at reconciliation until the lines between truth and falsehood are obstructed.

I don't speak out because, when I do, my attempts at grace and understanding aren't reciprocated. 

I don't speak out because my privilege falsely tells me this isn't my problem, too. 


It's an election year, a time of frenetic energy and misleading soundbites. The campaign money is flowing and the incessant, unthinking word vomit is flowing, too (sorry for that disgusting visual). Politicians try to encapsulate complicated issues into digestible phrases for an American public largely unwilling to engage with a shades-of-gray reality.

But we have pledged to be different. We want to live ethical, thoughtful, conscious lives. We want to do right by people and correct our mistakes. And that means it's time to speak out.


Speak out against black-and-white thinking that boils people and issues down to caricatures.

Speak out against accusations that individuals, due to their race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, or geographic origin, must be bad or lazy or unfit, or unwelcome here.

Speak out against systemic prejudice that runs so deep we don't always see it. 

Speak out against elitism. 

Speak out against the lie of the American Dream. 

Speak out against un-tethered Capitalism that always privileges profit over people. 

Speak out against the urge to blame someone else for your guilt. 


Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned...

- Adapted from the Prayer of St. Francis


Speak out, because you might be able to reach someone no one else can.

Speak out, because your community needs a witness.

Speak out, because your voice is a salve.

Speak out, because you might be the only one who does.


We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

- Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter From Birmingham Jail

Other MLK Day posts from the Ethical Writers Co.

the moral wardrobe: mud

turquoise cashmere sweater personal styleGreenheart Shop Ikat crossbodymonochrome outfit thrifted and ethical
Ethical Details: Tee - Everlane; Plaid Top - thrifted; Cardigan - J. Crew Sample Sale; Boots - thrifted; Purse - c/o Greenheart Shop

Winter sunshine - what a treat! But the downside of an unseasonably mild, sunny winter is a very muddy yard. It rains, then the ground freezes, then the sun turns everything into sludge. As a result, there's mud caked onto all of my boots now. One of the benefits of choosing better quality clothing and accessories is that I don't have to worry as much about how well things will hold up, so I can stomp through the yard as much as I want!

In other news, I'm feeling really good about 2016 so far. Realistic expectations paired with confidence that I can accomplish anything with hard work and the proper resources has changes my perspective. I'm not overwhelmed. I'm excited and I'm ready to take on whatever comes my way.

ethical sale alert: proclaiming my undying love for MadeFAIR

MadeFAIR ethical shop sale

My name is Leah and I'm a MadeFAIR addict. From the time I first heard of Tavie Meier's ethical shop, I haven't been able to get enough. Tavie is a welcome addition to the ethical consumer community, with her wealth of insight and no-nonsense approach to changing the industry for the better. I've featured her essays several times and even reviewed one of MadeFAIR's products, the Sseko Designs' Gold Loafers, when the shop first opened.

MadeFAIR is offering its first big clearance sale, with pages and pages of beautifully crafted, well curated ethical items at the lowest prices on the market.

Here are my picks:

(contains affiliate links)

1. Chanda Boat Neck Crop Top, now $28.79
2. Double Chevron Necklace, now $30.00
3. Blue Mist Nomad Bootie, now $90.99
4. Small Vegan Leather Purse in Marble, now $23.09


Shop the entire sale here. See all of my posts featuring MadeFAIR here

5 Surprising Big Name Brands Promoting Sustainability

5 big name brands promoting sustainability target checkout

The times, they are a'changin', and it's such a wonderful sight to see.

Just a few years ago, you couldn't get a cup of fair trade coffee or cage free eggs at a fast food restaurant. Most big box retailers stocked bath and body products that were full of dangerous and unnecessary ingredients. You were stuck reading every label and hunting around on the internet (often fruitlessly) for something that was produced with people and planet in mind. 

A few years ago, people would tell me that they'd love to shop more ethically if it were easier. Well, starting now, that's no longer an excuse, because national brands are listening to our incessant demands for better transparency and better sourcing. 

5 Big Name Brands that are Going Green & Ethical:

1. McDonald's 

In September, McDonald's announced that they were shifting to cage free eggs in all of their restaurants. This is BIG news, because McDonald's uses 2 billion eggs a year. As most of you know, designating a hen operation as "cage free" doesn't necessarily mean that the hens are given enough space or housed in an ideal environment, but it's a step in the right direction. According to this New York Times article, it could take 10 years for McDonald's to use 100% cage free eggs due to current lack of supply, but this move is likely to encourage more egg producers to go cage free. 

Relevant Articles: 

2. Chik-Fil-A

My mother-in-law gave us a Chik-Fil-A gift card for Christmas, so we stopped in for breakfast on the way home after Christmas break. Imagine my delight when I read my coffee cup and saw that the beans were sourced from an ethical and economically sustainable coop!

thrive farmers at chik-fil-a
Thrive Farmers is a direct trade coffee company (no middle man ensures that farmers get a bigger cut of profits) with a great track record for helping farmers create sustainable businesses. Companies enter into long-term partnerships with the suppliers to ensure economic stability, higher quality beans garner higher profits, and Thrive's central organization ensures consistency throughout processing.

Oh, and the coffee tastes delicious!

Relevant Articles:

3. Target

made to matter at target
Did you know Target now features over 30 all natural and environmentally conscious brands under its Made to Matter collection? They carry Annie's, J. R. Watkins, and even Brooklyn label, S. W. Basics, which creates simple products out of healthy ingredients like coconut oil and olive oil. Target hopes that customers will begin to associate the Made to Matter seal with products that are better for you and the earth.

But that's not all! Target teamed up with TOMS for a winter collaboration in 2014 (I don't love TOMS because the one-for-one model isn't as effective as it should be, but I'm still glad that they're bringing attention to conscious consumerism).

They also pledge to use only sustainable palm oil in all of their Target-branded products by 2018. Plus, they're producing Local Pride tees for various US Cities and the products are made in the USA; local businesses receive a portion of profits from the sale of goods, too.

I've been harping on Target - and its devoted fan base - for years, asking them to consider their sourcing, and I'm overjoyed that they're listening in a big way.

Relevant Articles:

4. H&M

H&M is the largest buyer of organic cotton in the world. Does that surprise you? As a global brand, H&M controls a huge portion of the fast fashion marketplace. The company has committed to promoting environmental sustainability, recycling, climate change awareness, using organic fibers, and providing fashionable options for conscious consumers through its Conscious Collection. While this is a step in the right direction, they're still operating within a system that produces unnecessary goods at a breakneck pace. Still, their good example encourages competitors to improve their own systems.

Relevant Articles:

5. Forever 21

I was extremely surprised (I believe my reaction was shocked silence followed by whoa) when I learned that Forever 21 carries fair trade jewelry by Soko. Soko works under fair trade guidelines with Kenyan artisans and uses upcycled and natural elements to bring their designs to life. For a company as notably corrupt (and poor quality) as Forever 21, this sends a clear message: fast fashion is finding that it must adapt to consumer demand for quality, ethically produced goods if it wants to continue to be successful.

Other notable brands:

What do we do with this information?

For myself, I still prefer to purchase directly from small brands that promote slower, more meaningful ways of doing business. But I recognize that not everyone has the time or the resources to seek out sustainable companies every time they go shopping. Seeing ethical go mainstream is a cause for celebration, then, as long as we don't lose sight of the end goal of creating a world where ethical is more than just a trendy option in a sea of merchandise, but rather the way we all shop, produce, and live.

Additionally, I don't think we can move the Titanic that is the manufacturing industry toward calmer seas without including the big players. If we want the industry to change, we should continue to encourage companies like McDonald's and Forever 21 to engage with the conscious community. If they can source ethical products and still make money, other companies will see that it's just good business to care about people throughout the supply chain and to ensure that the world and its resources can be sustained for future generations.

I'm happy to see that this "you vote with your wallet" theory people like to promote is at least partially true. It's not everything, but it's a step forward, and I'm ok with that.

Image Credit: Creative Commons License by Patrick Hoesly on flickr

Your non stick cookware is poisoning you, and DuPont knew

non stick cookware

But if you are a sentient being reading this article in 2016, you already have PFOA in your blood. It is in your parents’ blood, your children’s blood, your lover’s blood. How did it get there? Through the air, through your diet, through your use of nonstick cookware, through your umbilical cord.

- Nathaniel Rich, New York Times


This piece was written by Elizabeth Stilwell, creator of The Note Passer, which provides inspiration for a better, sustainable future; one that's full of more meaning and less waste.

Two days ago, The New York Times Magazine published a longform article about environmental lawyer Robert Bilott. The piece covers Bilott's 16 year and counting legal battle against chemical company DuPont, detailing the decades of health risks the company has covered up. The findings center around the unregulated chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. Developed in the late 1940s by 3M, DuPont began purchasing PFOA in 1951 for use in its Teflon coating. DuPont has been conducting internal studies and connecting the chemical to health defects in animals and people for over four decades. Never revealing their findings or removing the chemical from their products, DuPont even began dumping waste water tainted with PFOA into the Ohio River on the edge of their Parkersburg, WV facility. People have been drinking this contaminated water and using Teflon products for decades without knowing about the health effects DuPont discovered. The New York Times Magazine reports, "By the ’90s, Bilott discovered, DuPont understood that PFOA caused cancerous testicular, pancreatic and liver tumors in lab animals. One laboratory study suggested possible DNA damage from PFOA exposure, and a study of workers linked exposure with prostate cancer."

dupont non stick cookware vintage ad
The connection between PFOA (in Teflon) and health has been revealed for sometime and, while I knew non-stick wasn't the most healthy option, I wasn't aware of the extent of damage it is doing the world over. Again, from the NYT Magazine piece:

Where scientists have tested for the presence of PFOA in the world, they have found it. PFOA is in the blood or vital organs of Atlantic salmon, swordfish, striped mullet, gray seals, common cormorants, Alaskan polar bears, brown pelicans, sea turtles, sea eagles, Midwestern bald eagles, California sea lions and Laysan albatrosses on Sand Island, a wildlife refuge on Midway Atoll, in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, about halfway between North America and Asia.

To add insult to injury (literally), the E.P.A. has only "set a 'provisional' limit of 0.4 parts per billion for short-term exposure, but has never finalized that figure. This means that local water districts are under no obligation to tell customers whether PFOA is in their water." DuPont, in response to the lawsuits, is transitioning to a similar (but less researched and unregulated) florine-based compound. A separate coalition of 200 scientists have signed The Madrid Statement declaring their concerns over all fluorochemicals and recommending legislation to limit production and develop safer alternatives.

Read the whole NYT Magazine article here.

Now we've established that DuPont is an ethically bankrupt corporation, but what does this have to do with your cookware right now? If you need new cookware, do not add to the demand for non-stick options. If you already own some, I don't believe it's overreacting to suggest you stop using it immediately (I would). While flakes of Teflon from a scratched pan are often treated as toxic, according to the Environmental Group (mentioned in the NYT piece for their research) solid flakes are inert and non-toxic. The toxicity of Teflon comes from the fumes created when a non-stick pan is overheated. Breathing the fumes can cause flu-like symptoms (aptly called "Teflon Flu") while the effects of long term exposure are unknown. From the EWG:

Manufacturers' labels often warn consumers to avoid high heat when cooking on Teflon. But EWG-commissioned tests conducted in 2003 showed that in just two to five minutes on a conventional stove top, cookware coated with Teflon and other non-stick surfaces could exceed temperatures at which the coating breaks apart and emits toxic particles and gases.

What should you do now? DuPont has put the problem in your hands and in your body for you to deal with. The first thing you should do is stop using non-stick cookware and utensils. For cookware, safer alternatives already exist.

Read the rest of this piece at The Note Passer.


Update: As of January 5, the FDA has banned PFOA and other PFCs in food packaging and other products.

What I'm doing: 

I'm rapidly replacing my pots and pans with non-stick options, primarily from thrift shops and ebay, and I'm telling everyone I know to immediately stop use of nonstick pots, pans, and baking wear.

Image Credit: First image, Creative Commons, Gwen on flickr.

the moral wardrobe: valley thrift magic

thrifted winter outfit chunky bootslands end wool toggle coatchunky boots
Every time we visit my parents in Cincinnati, I insist on taking the short trip over to Valley Thrift, a massive secondhand shop just outside the city. It's a must visit because I always (and I mean always) find the thing I'm looking for there.

In August, I found a pair of Sam Edelman Petty booties in nearly new condition for $4.99. This time around I was looking for a wool toggle coat that hit below the butt. I found this one, by Lands' End, for $29.99. It's fully lined, double-lined with wool at the chest, and has a thinsulate layer, too. Plus, it's hooded! Perfection.
  thrifted outfit winter Ethical Details: Sweater - thrifted; Tee (not shown) - Everlane; Boots - thrifted; Necklace - c/o Bought Beautifully; Coat - thrifted

I paired the coat with a thrifted sweater in my favorite color and some groovy 2000s-does-the-1970s Clarks boots, also thrifted. I hesitated buying these boots from the shop where I work for a few months because they're pretty blatantly circa 2002, but then I started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so now I've fully embraced the fashions of the early 2000s. Tacky? Maybe. But that's why fashion is fun.

How ethical is your smart phone? Forced Labor and Exploitation in the Tech Industry

ethical smart phone forced labor and exploitation

I asserted a couple months back that the elephant in the room in the ethical clothing conversation is money. That may be true, but the even bigger elephant in the room in the ethical manufacturing conversation at large is technology. Hashtag campaigns like #fashrev, fair trade blogs, ethical boutiques - they all rely on sophisticated tech devices with access to the internet to promote themselves and build community. Let's face it: we need technology to make movements go global. It's an asset.

But every single device we rely on to spread the word about our ethical values was produced by exploited laborers, from raw materials sourcing to production. Let's explore a few categories where exploitation occurs:


According to the International Labour Organization, approximately "21 million people are now victims of forced labor." Of that, 68% are caught in forced manufacturing/physical labor jobs not associated with sex trafficking.

Side note: Think about that statistic for a second. Last month, hundreds of women participated in Dressember to raise funds for anti-trafficking efforts focused primarily on women caught in sex slavery and yet 68% of the world's slaves and indentured servants are trapped in the raw goods and manufacturing supply chain, more than half of them men. I think it's easy for us to stand up against injustices from which we can disassociate ourselves. It's easy to see that those evil people over there sexually exploiting women and girls are evil, but it's harder to point the finger back at us. Are we willing to say that we're evil for willfully buying products that were produced by trafficked people?

Academics and anti-trafficking organizations use the term forced labor rather than slavery because the former term captures the range of ways in which people are trapped. Not everyone is stolen away in the night. Many workers leave their countries with work visas in hand on the promise of better work elsewhere. When they arrive on the work site, however, their papers are taken away, leaving them unable to move freely within the country or go home. In effect, they are trapped on the remote work site (source: Freedom Center Modern Slavery Exhibit).

Most forced labor in raw materials occurs in coal mining and pig iron production, industries heavily associated with the automobile industry. In fact, Ford dedicates a whole page to discussing their efforts to extricate themselves from markets known to rely on forced labor. Pig iron, a byproduct of coal and coke (a high-carbon fuel) is used to make steel, an essential ingredient in vehicle production, but not exclusive to it.

Traditional computer cases (or towers) are made out of steel. Laptops contain steel, too. Even your iPhone contains a nickel-steel composite and (on some models) a steel ring around the home button. Not to mention that the assembly machines required to put your phone together are made of steel, at least in part.

TL;DR - Materials sourced from industries known for trafficking helped make your phone.


Chinese worker, 26, making Apple iPhones died after enduring 12 hour shifts, seven days a week, family claim (Daily Mail)

Tracing raw materials sourcing was the hard part. Finding human rights abuses in the tech industry is as easy as breathing. The family of Tian Fulei assert that their son died after working 84 hours per week at an Apple factory near Shanghai. Findings from a China Labor Watch investigation conducted at Pegatron, the factory where he worked, concluded that workers, on average, took 95 overtime hours per month, over double the legal recommendation.

In 2010, Foxconn, a factory that makes tech products for Apple, Sony, Dell, and others, attracted global media attention when it was discovered that there had been 15 attempted suicides among workers in that year alone. The attempted suicide rate now numbers over 20, with 17 resulting in death.

In Dongguan, workers at a poorly ventilated factory that produces cell phones were asked to clean each screen with something described as "banana oil," a compound now known to contain n-hexane, an industrial solvent that causes neurological damage. They discovered this when several of the young workers became paralyzed, unable to lift themselves out of bed.

In 2014, a China Labor Watch investigation found children under 16 making cell phone covers for Samsung at one of their Chinese factories. Children are paid less and subject to the same conditions as adults, and many of them were working 12 hour night shifts 6 to 7 days a week.

It's easy to say this is China's problem, that if China cared for its people they would implement more rigorous factory reforms. But Kate Cacciatore, former corporate responsibility director at STMicroelectronics gets to the heart of the problem:

A huge issue is how companies walk the line between trying to get the best financial performance and also achieving high safety standards. There is a constant pressure on companies to cut costs, and that pressure works itself down the supply chain.

The companies we support - like Apple and Dell - demand lower costs from the factories they contract with to pad their own profit margins. Factory managers competing for big contracts cut costs in the only places they can: labor and safety upgrades. We aren't the only ones to blame, but we can't put this all on China.

TL;DR - Tech factory workers endure long hours and unsafe conditions to make your phone.


Take heart. You can do something about all of this...

1. Boycott tech companies and let them know why you're doing it. 
  • Tell them that you demand better conditions for workers.
2. Buy refurbished or used technology. 
  • Use sites like Newegg and B&H Photo to purchase high quality, used or refurbished goods the next time you're in the market for an upgrade.
3. Buy a Fairphone.
  • An ethically produced smartphone exists! It runs on Android technology, comes in 4 colors, and can be yours for around $575.00 (that's only $125.00 over a new iPhone).
  • This phone is not yet available outside of Europe, but they're working on it! Sign up here to let them know you're interested!

What steps are you taking to ensure that your technology was ethically sourced?


Photo Credit: Creative Commons license by Johan Larrsen on flickr. Text and overlay added by me.

Sticks and Stones: Fight-or-Flight Rhetoric Prevents Reconciliation

social media wars and angry rhetoric

I read a post on Medium last week about Millennial Identity Politics. The author, a white male, was complaining that he was being left out of conversations because of this newfangled notion of privilege. His relative privilege meant that he could no longer voice his opinion and expect to be respected for it. That was hard for him.

He went on to say that the real problem with the new activist rhetoric was that it encouraged thinking in terms of a false dichotomy.

Though the world and its problems exist in murky shades of gray, the "social justice warriors" aggressively insisted on making everything about right and wrong.

The writer wouldn't stand for this - you see, he insisted that he was right and the social justice warriors were wrong. If that last sentence didn't make sense to you, good. Despite his best efforts (really, they were sort of middling efforts), he couldn't extricate himself from the very problem he was critiquing.

But he did make one thing abundantly clear: we're all falling prey to a conversation style that privileges our rightness over reconciliation. 

And if we're not prepared for an all out fight, we're prone to saying nothing at all. It's dysfunctional and it has to stop.


If you forgive, he would say, you may indeed still not understand, but you will be ready to understand, and that is the posture of grace. - Marilynne Robinson, Home

The author of the article felt that he was being silenced, and maybe he was right. On topics of inequality and prejudice, it's just a fact that some voices matter more than others. Namely, the ones who have directly experienced it. And it's awfully difficult to tolerate incessant interruptions from people who have very little to contribute to the conversation. After all, how could this young white man's experiences contribute to a conversation on racism or sexism?

But if we don't let them in at all, we'll never change their minds. 

Social justice activism is never fair. It always falls on the activists to reach out to the stragglers and to tolerate the haters. And it's understandable that the activists lose their cool every once in awhile. All the trauma and responsibility falls on them. But silencing, shaming, and blaming individuals for systemic issues is not only ineffective, but damaging. We halt the conversation before it's even begun. We reinforce prejudice. We feed the beast.

On the flip side, we've got to realize that activists are human, too, and if we feel that we're being silenced, it's our responsibility to change the tone of the conversation so that our partner doesn't feel that they're being attacked. It's important that we seek to understand, even if we find we ultimately disagree. We don't always have to say the thing we wanted to say - sometimes the moment passes; sometimes we change our minds.


A brave man acknowledges the strength of others. - Veronica Roth, Divergent

Brave is the buzzword of nice, middle class women right now. It seems that it most often applies to tasks such as overcoming fear and being kind, and I admire the desire to do both of those things. But we have really low expectations for ourselves - not to mention the word, brave - if we think that merely being kind or achieving minor goals counts as bravery.

I believe that the rise of vanilla bravery is directly correlated to the new rhetorical climate.

I recently spoke with a friend who teachers undergraduates at an Ivy League university about the increasing difficulty of getting students to speak up in the classroom. My friend surmised that it has everything to do with the smug, self-righteous rhetoric that dominates social media culture. Students are afraid to speak up because they know that anyone who disagrees with them can shame them on twitter, potentially even ruining their job prospects.

We're so bad at hearing people out that it has become an act of bravery to voice an opinion, even in a controlled setting like a classroom!

The worst part of all of this is that it's difficult to even have a conversation if you refuse to subscribe to fight-or-flight rhetoric. People don't understand nuance. People don't want an "I don't know." But it's ok to weigh the options and it's ok not to know. It's even ok not to have an opinion.

To be clear, I'm not advocating that we "be nice." Too often - and particularly for women - being nice means getting bulldozed over, not speaking up when you need to, and missing your opportunity to expose injustice. This is about empathy, humility, and understanding. Hold fast to your beliefs and assert them well, but leave space for others. Listen well and learn from what you hear. Life is about re-calibrating our beliefs in light of new information.

Pay attention to the dynamics of your next conversation. Do you see an unwillingness to understand, or give grace? Try stepping back and asking yourself what's at stake if you don't fight it out.

Because my hunch is that there's far more at stake - for you and for the world - if you allow a conversation worth having stagnate or die over mere disagreement. 

Image source: Creative Commons License by Ray_LAC on flickr