Say It With Me Now: You Can't Buy Your Way to a Better World

Direct Sales and Social Justice: a Critique

Since I recently reworked my Direct Sales critique from several months ago, I wanted to take the opportunity to answer a particular question I received from a reader:

Why would you use your influence to speak out against a company that is ultimately seeking the greater good?

My first response is that internal critique is necessary if we want to push ourselves to the best solutions. 

Let me present an object lesson.

There are many homeless people in my community, and a certain subset of them are panhandlers. This annoys some people and saddens others. One of my kind-hearted volunteers told me that she always has a couple dollars on hand to give to them when she passes them on the street. This is a lovely, humanizing thing to do, but I think most of us would agree this is a short term solution because it doesn't address the systemic issues behind that homeless person's predicament.

It could be a slew of things: lack of mental health services, lack of career opportunities, lack of education, systemic poverty, etc. It's terribly complicated to fix those big problems, but you could find a middle ground by offering housing, either through a homeless shelter format or by offering Section 8 housing. This isn't a true resolution, but it is undoubtedly good.

In fact, at every small step of this narrative, there is good being done. 

The problem for me is that I'm an idealist to a fault. If I know what the best reality looks like, I believe I have a moral obligation to help realize it. I don't want people to think their job is done if they give money to panhandlers. I want them to want true and lasting equity, which means zooming way out to fight systems of oppression.

In the same way, direct sales models offered through Sseko Designs or Noonday Collection can accomplish some good. But they are not a solution. I have already beat the reasons why into the ground in my original post, complete with a John Oliver feature on Direct Sales models, so I suggest you read it.

But the the gist of it is that fair trade companies have no business associating themselves with legal pyramid schemes that (inadvertently) take advantage of the passion and social networks of hundreds of individuals who may never make more than enough to buy a few extra lattes each month.

It's an inconsistent ethic. 

These brands market themselves around caring for the well being of their artisans, but they don't take the same care when it comes to their direct sales representatives. In the communities where reps do make money, one must assume that they have access to people with lots of disposable income, because fair trade ain't cheap and even I would be hesitant to splurge on an impulse buy at a home party, no matter how lovely the mission.

So, if just the people with prior access to money are profiting, what's the point?

Some believe that direct sales is a particularly good framework for educating people about fair trade.

I can see that. But it's that turn in the conversation that helped me figure out why I feel so viscerally angry about direct sales applied to fair trade.

It is morally problematic to conflate shopping with world change. 

That statement might sound crazy in this context. This is an ethical shopping blog, after all.

But the thing you - and I - need to understand is that this is a niche blog on the internet.

This blog is not me. This blog is not a movement.

StyleWise is meant to be an unobtrusive resource for those interested in making more ethical and sustainable shopping and lifestyle choices. In my "real life," I'm not really fixated on evangelizing fair trade. Sure, I mention my blog from time to time and I'm very interested in engaging with customers at the thrift shop I manage about ethics in the marketplace whenever it comes up, but my orientation toward justice is, at the end of the day, rather inward.

That's because world change in everyday life - at least for me - is not primarily about encouraging better shopping habits. It's about being a listening ear, intuiting people's needs, being present, and offering hospitality. I find that those qualities are surprisingly hard to develop and practice, but I believe that putting in the work does lead us to better community organizing and advocating in the long run, which is what ultimately leads to broader progress. Whatever "ethics" work I do here has been funneled through that frame of reference.

The fact of the matter is...

Shopping in a way that does no harm to people and planet is not a radical act. 

It is baseline. It is the bare minimum. It is basic human decency.

I don't want to sit in a room with people at a home party and celebrate how good we are. I don't want to condone a perspective toward fair trade that sees it as one option in a sea of other options. If I'm going to have this conversation, it is going to be hard. It is going to be uncomfortable because we are going to have to come to terms with the fact that we are colonialists, pretentious, privileged, and ill-informed before we can change (and yes, I mean myself, too). 

I will not invite you over to sell you a fair trade necklace and then tell you that you just changed someone's life. The truth is, your single purchase did not change a life. And even if it did, this is not about you. (To be fair, this particular marketing angle is not exclusive to direct sales models - it is pervasive in other social enterprise models, as well. But direct sales models are, well, more direct.)

I know I'm being harsh right now, but I'm at my wit's end. Being gracious and flexible with people who are just starting out on this path is incredibly important, but if this is your passion and your vocation, I am asking you to put in the work and ask hard questions about your own intentions. I am asking you to understand the long term repercussions of the marketing and messaging we use to share the beauty of fair trade.

Asking hard questions and coming to un-fun conclusions will not break us. We need them to achieve true justice on this planet.

I want ethical living advocates to be able to educate people in a way that makes them more moderate in their purchases and more radical in their actions.

Direct sales models do the opposite.


To be clear, I do not want fair trade direct sales companies to go out of business. I want them to seriously consider the implicit messaging of the systems they employ and take steps to remedy them. This post kept getting longer and longer so I didn't have time to delve into the colonialist implications of some of the specific fair trade direct sales models, but that reality just fuels the flame.

This isn't the first time I've touched on these points. Here are a couple related posts: 

Three Prayers for Workers in the Global Supply Chain

ethical fashion and christianity

Tonight I had the opportunity to give a talk on ethical fashion and Christianity for the college group associated with my church. It was a good opportunity to hone my sense of why this type of advocacy matters within a Christian context, and how I can best relate it back to traditional Biblical texts and narratives. 

At the end of the discussion, we broke into three groups and wrote prayers inspired by traditional Anglican prayer forms as a way of engaging more deeply with the reality of our inter-connectedness with workers across the supply chain and to provide a starting point for daily meditations on conscious consumerism. I am really inspired by what they came up with, and I want to share these prayers in case they may be useful to you in your personal meditations and reflections. 

As I mentioned on Instagram earlier today, I think there's an unnecessary divide between the "spiritual" folks (read: hippies) and the "religious" folks (read: fundamentalists) in the ethical living space. Instead of making negative assumptions about how people's beliefs inform their ethical practice, or lack thereof, I'd rather jump right in and help inform interpretation so that all of our actions can be grounded in both compassion-oriented belief and our more tangible experiences of injustice in the world.


Three Anglican Prayers for Workers in the Global Supply Chain

God of compassion and creation,

Bless the hands who have made
our jeans, shirts, and jackets,

Help us to remember that these
hands and these people are part of
the Body of Christ.

Be with the men, women, and children
who spend more of their lives
making our clothes than we spend
wearing them.

We lament those whose lives have been taken
For the sake of production.

May we be moved to action.
To spread awareness. To be thoughtful
in our purchases. To have compassion
for neighbors no matter how
far away.



God of justice,

You call us to be a neighbor to all,
Help us to acknowledge the toil that
laborers around the world face.

Watch over those who labor in unsafe
working conditions,
Help us remain aware of the realities
facing people who make our clothes
and be conscious of our consumption.

Be with policymakers as they make
decisions that impact these people’s lives.

We ask that you bless the hands that
come into contact with our clothes – production
to possession. Give us courage to
recognize our privilege and make
change in our own lives.

Remind us that we are all made in
your image.



O God,
Creator of all people and things,

Be with your people in the global supply chain,
who you created in your likeness and
whose work contributes to our comfort.

Give us the courage to fight against
systems of oppression,
and help us raise up the voices of
the oppressed, who already have
the right and the power to
speak for themselves.

Keep us ever mindful of
the inextricable link between us.

We ask these things
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord,
whose first disciples were marginalized
wage workers,


Small Wins: Why We Shouldn't Stop Trying to Shop Ethically

Why We Should Be Ethical Shoppers
This is a response to Michael Hobbes' article, The Myth of the Ethical Shopper, published July 15, 2015.

Michael Hobbes wrote an article for Huffington Post Highline a few weeks ago that shook the conscious consumer community. In The Myth of the Ethical Shopper, Hobbes outlines the myriad ways buying our way to a better world has failed us. It's well researched, and it's true. Imposing regulations on foreign companies without real oversight or local social change has little long term effect on the well being of factory workers.

If you've been following the movement for awhile, you've probably heard an outline of his argument before, but I encourage you to read it - it's an impressive amount of research. The primary point of the piece is this:

Listening to consumer advocacy campaigns, you’d think our only influence on the developing world was at the cash register. But our real leverage is with our policies, not our purchases...We are not going to shop ourselves into a better world.

In his followup, published last week on the Huffington Post blog, Hobbes responds to commenters who maintain that they are ethical shoppers - by virtue of buying American made or locally sourced items - regardless of what Hobbes has to say about it:

Let me be super clear about this, in words I might have minced in the piece itself: that is impossible. And pretending it's not is exactly what keeps sweatshops from being solved.

Responding to Hobbes is no easy feat, because he's absolutely right. We're spending too much time making shopping lists and not enough time doing the boring, excruciating work of lobbying for better systems. But it's not enough to write a convincing argument that we all suck at being good people. In fact, that's maybe the worst thing we can do. 

In 1984, psychologist Karl E. Weick published a study entitled Small Wins, which explains why large scale social problems are rarely resolved by simply proliferating social sciences research on relevant topics. The reason we fail to remedy social problems, he discovered, has everything to do with how problems are defined in the first place. He found that:

The massive scale on which social problems are conceived often precludes innovative action because the limits of bounded rationality are exceeded and arousal is raised to dysfunctionally high levels. People often define social problems in ways that overwhelm their ability to do anything about them.

Basically, if you're inundated with information about how terrible everything is, your brain is wired to shut down. This may be the reason The True Cost movie hasn't been as well reviewed as one would hope. There are simply too many reasons to give up hope. There are too many problems.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is low arousal, which can occur if you think too much about an issue until it becomes "depersonalized."

Whether one is too aroused or not aroused enough, Weick concludes that the solution is to break down large problems into small, manageable steps. The "small wins" system works, because:

Small wins often originate as solutions that single out and define as problems those specific, limited conditions for which they can serve as the complete remedy...Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win."

Breaking up a big problem into bite-sized pieces makes it possible to digest the whole thing over time. As we solve one thing, we get the confidence to keep moving forward.

All this to say that Hobbes' failure is not in his research but in his approach. It's one thing for an "insider" like myself to read an article like this, process it, and reorient myself toward a better way of doing ethics. It's another thing entirely to release it into the hands of the general public. If you're teeter-tottering on the edge of making more conscientious choices, even a little poke in the center of your chest can send you backward. The global manufacturing industry is corrupt - it's a Big Social Problem - but it cannot be remedied by just hollering about how big and terrible the problem is. You can't very well gain followers by telling everyone they'll never measure up.

Hobbes probably knows this, but his failure to mention it and his unwillingness to see the negative repercussions of his rhetorical strategy warrants a kind-hearted calling out. It may be true that we will never change the world through shopping, but it's just as true that we will never resolve serious social issues until we can learn how to break them down into smaller problems with concrete solutions.

In his followup blog post, Hobbes briefly mentions his "fair-tradey friends" who respond to his critiques with "it's better than nothing." He scoffs at this, saying that if we're going to do something, we should make it something that really counts, like donating money to pro-union NGOs. He pretends for the sake of argument that buying fair trade and donating to NGOs are mutually exclusive ways of being. But the reality is that there are lots of ways we can do better, and be better. And if I stop buying stuff from Ten Thousand Villages so I can really fix the world by donating money to an organization, I might not be in a better place than where I started. Things are more complicated than that.

Voltaire is credited with popularizing the saying: 
The perfect is the enemy of the good.

It's certainly true for the conscientious consumer movement that waiting for the best keeps us from working toward the good. It's easy to fixate on the huge, giant, impossible problems in the world and decide that they're un-fixable. And, you know, maybe they are. But we have a responsibility to do something and it could very well start with buying something from a fair trade shop instead of the local Wal*Mart. We need some nice gateway drugs into the movement. We need some smooth, solid stones marking the pathway to justice.

So, keep finding ways to shop, and live, ethically; you'll get better over time. Let your ethics trickle through every aspect of your life. Don't stop until the work is done. It isn't easy, but know that each step forward is a small win.

What else can we do about all this?

Brands and Bloggers: Stop pretending that buying stuff will fix anything. As the fair trade movement becomes trendy, we have to make sure that we're being honest about the type of impact a purchase will have, and the limits of the fair trade model.

Conscious Consumers: Try to detach your identity from the Capitalist system and see what you can see. You can't curate your way to joy and wholeness.

Skeptics: Consider that your choices have a domino effect and that, whether or not you have the tools to change the world, you can change something. What else do you have to live for?

And let's all consider donating to NGOs and organizations that empower people to lobby for themselves and improve their communities. Check out The Note Passer's Resources page for links to international labor organizations.

discarding things and people

I became the manager of a church-affiliated thrift shop two months ago. I thought I knew what the challenges would be. I thought I had a grip on the industry. But I've learned a lot: about consumerism, about prejudice, about deeply held, deeply misinformed ideas about poverty and giving. For the sake of clarity (I tend to ramble without a clearly defined topic), I've grouped what I've learned into three categories:
thrift shop ethics blog post,

Lesson 1: People buy too much stuff. 

One full day was spent sorting through Girls' clothing size 7/8 that had been donated by a single family. When we receive toys, we typically receive them three garbage bags at a time. I walked up to the front door this morning to discover 8 full bags of junk and an old TV scattered around the porch (please note that we only accept donations during open hours and we don't accept TVs; thanks, buddy). I ask "WHY?" so many times a day, it's practically a mantra. What the heck are we doing?

Lesson 2: Donating eases consumer guilt to our detriment. 

Though thrift shops are a great resource and a great means of raising funds for charity, they've also become a justification for over-consumption. Judging by the types of things we get in on a regular basis, it's clear that people give things to us so that they don't have to feel bad about throwing them away. But, really, what are we going to do with jeans with a hand sized hole in the crotch? We're forced to throw it away since you weren't willing to.

Lesson 3: People massively undervalue the lives of people less fortunate than them. 

This is the saddest part of my job. At least once a week, someone says something terrible about poor or homeless people. One week, someone was angry that I gave one of our "nice shirts" to a woman using a voucher to get clothes for her son. Today a woman exclaimed, "Homeless people don't care if their clothes look bad!" Maybe this is lost on a lot of people, but it's our responsibility to acknowledge the innate dignity of everyone. Part of that is giving to others as we would have them give to us. 

It pains me to think that we would save the best for ourselves and let the "poor people" have our discards. It bothers me that our thrift shop structure nearly requires us to send the crappy clothing overseas because we hate the thought of throwing it away.

This must stop. It all has to stop: the buying, the discarding of things and people.

Charity shops are wonderful. They're a happy place where goods can be re-used and re-loved. But they simply can't solve issues of character. It's up to us to buy less and care more. It's up to us to carefully consider the repercussions of our actions as consumers and, more importantly, as people.

P.S. The post, Dear World: Let’s Stop Giving Our Crap to the Poor, inspired me to write this post. Give it a read!

You Don't Have to Feel It

Have you ever wondered why nonprofits and fair trade organizations insist on including images of starving children, decimated village landscapes, and communities in tattered clothing in their promotions? 

It's because they know that people make decisions with their feelings. The statistic that 2,500 children in Africa are dying of thirst everyday may not trigger an emotional response, but an image of an emaciated child can release a torrent of tears; it's even better if a sad song is playing in the background. If you see it, you might do something about it. You might sponsor a child or support a co-op that provides a living wage for her mother. You might give an impassioned speech about our calling to help the needy and orphaned in the world at the next dinner party you attend.

But the image will soon fade and you'll become preoccupied once again with daily annoyances, financial uncertainties, facebook arguments, or injustices at your workplace. Maybe, on a quiet evening at home, you'll wonder why you can't keep that fire alive to help the hopeless. You'll do a little research. You'll seek out pictures of starving families in an effort to get the tears flowing again.

A social justice model that relies on emotion to inform action isn't sustainable. Though we may initially rely on feelings to spur us to moral action, we don't need them to keep going. Once we realize that people are struggling and that we're a part of the problem, we don't have to feel it to know that we have to make a change. If you need to summon that post-cry, hollow feeling in your chest in order to help someone, you're going to get burnt out rather quickly.

This subject is something I can't overemphasize. It's the most difficult thing for people to grasp because our feelings are wired to max out at a certain number of individuals. People in Bangladesh or Uganda or Ukraine are dim shadows on the far borders of our social circles. We simply don't have the capacity to care about them as much as the people we see everyday. The great thing is that you don't have to care about them with your heart to care about them in general.

At some point, our feelings of guilt, distress, and empathy need to tiptoe their way to habit building. We need to employ the ever practical, cognitive part of our brain that helps us make the moral choice because it's essential, not because it's sad. When you make it your duty to do right, you free yourself up to move forward - to make an even greater impact - because you're no longer crippled by feeling.

Nonprofits don't need to change the way they promote their programs; it's essential that they pull on people's heartstrings to win them over. But they, and we, should work to teach our communities that charity works better when it's more than a feeling. We must emphasize over and over that moral habits are much more effective and much more sustainable when we don't feel an obligation to cry about it everyday.

You don't have to feel it. You just have to do it.

12 months, 12 goals february wrap up

shop local

Phew! I'm a little behind on the 12 Months, 12 Goals posts.

Last month was all about shopping local to save resources and support ethical retailers in my community. Since I stopped most unnecessary spending, it was pretty easy to meet my goal on accident! I purchased products at or perused:

  • Java Java, a fair trade, organic coffee shop, for coffee and house made treats

  • Paradox Pastry, a local patisserie, for a yummy chocolate croissant

  • Low Vintage, my favorite vintage shop in town

  • Ike's Undergound, another local vintage shop

  • Trade, a local consignment store

  • Cafe Cubano, a downtown coffee shop that serves fair trade coffee

  • Aromas, a Mediterranean restaurant, for a delicious falafel wrap

And Daniel and I purchased two six packs of local cider to bring to various dinner engagements.

So, even though I failed to keep up with things here, it was a month of local love.

How did your month go? What goals were you trying to meet?

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12 months, 12 goals: shop secondhand

secondhand shopping

It dawned on me, as I flipped and flipped through endless blouses at a local Goodwill on Monday, that thrift shops will never run out of items for me to add to my closet. Sure, there are a few items (like underwear) that I'd rather not purchase at the thrift store, but really, there's a lot to be found if you take the time to look.

A few of my prized thrift finds include LL Bean Duck boots, a BCBG Max Azria Flapper-style dress, and several items in pristine condition that I wear so much I forgot I bought them on the secondhand market.

And if that's not enough, internet marketplaces and local vintage shops allow me to shop curated collections when I'm not in the mood to spend 2 hours searching through crowded racks. I buy most of my shoes secondhand on ebay; I've purchased like-new Minnetonka moccasins and several pairs of sneakers for a third of their original price. I found my favorite vintage dresses on etsy and ebay.

The marketplace is flooded with piles of discarded clothing with plenty of wear left, so why do we insist on buying new? Secondhand shopping is easier than it's ever been - we can do it from our couches - so we really have no reason not to try it.

People are often confused about the ethical value of secondhand shopping, noting that many donated goods were likely produced in sweatshops. What they aren't connecting is that the thrift market doesn't operate according to traditional supply-and-demand principles; if you buy cast-offs, you aren't participating in the traditional market at all. Instead, you're opting out; you're boycotting; you impact it only because you're avoiding it. We're nowhere near operating in a market in which demand for secondhand items exceeds supply, so we can rest assured that we do no harm (to others, at least) when we make it rain at the thrift store.

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