This year I've made a conscious effort to move away from buying new things to thrifting what I need - everything from electronics to clothing. Sample purchases are: dresses from Goodwill; a new-to-me e-reader after my old one was rendered obsolete; parts for my food processor. My decision to do this is partly based on the fact that I live in an area where "ethically-sourced or -produced goods" are hard to come by. Wal-Mart dominates the scene here and I don't shop there.
But...I am still guilty of buying cheap, mass-produced items. Usually it's when I can't find something used or don't have the time to do the leg-work required to find it used or it's something that just cannot be purchased used. Recently, I decided to retire my favorite house shoe of choice - my knee-high Uggs. I've been wearing them for years. I have a very low tolerance to cold weather, so in the winter these boots are on my feet whenever I'm home. Unfortunately, I've completely worn them out. When you start feeling the cold seeping in through the toes of your shoes you know it's time to replace them. But at this stage in my life I can't justify the price tag for new ones (and used aren't an option). So I went to a local big box store and purchased some inexpensive slippers. Oh and while I was there, I picked up a set of pajamas to replace an old worn-out set. Guilt bore down on my shoulders as I exited the store. Yet I felt I didn't have much choice as those are two items where used isn't really an option and I don't think it's necessary to buy these items at a more expensive store, especially after reading an article about both high-end and budget garments being produced in the same factories.
This article article that Ariana Schwarz mentioned in her lovely blog Paris to Go, made my head spin. Turns out it is nearly impossible to determine whether or not goods that you purchase come from factories where workers are treated humanely and paid a living wage. Fashion brands outsource all of the work on their clothing lines to megasuppliers. These megasuppliers are then responsible for doing all the work to make sure that garments are made and shipped within tight deadlines. None of these megasuppliers owns any of the factories and they are under no obligation to continue using the same factories. Factories that do try to change policies and upgrade facilities for ethics and safety take the risk of losing contracts when their prices rise due to the changes. In addition, as the developing countries rise out of poverty and raise the standard of living, they too want more stuff - and they're not yet ready to start demanding the ethical and environmental standards that we in the global north seek.
Despite the complexities of our globalized world, the bottom line is we just buy too much stuff. We can't change the world through our shopping habits but we should still consider our individual impact on the world. Rather than seeking out fair trade, organic, ethically-sourced thing-a-ma-bobs, we need to first rethink what we actually need. Once we identify our needs, we can then try to make purchasing decisions that align with our ethics. Paris to Go has a great guide to "zero waste buying" here.
By the way, I highly recommend the Paris to Go blog. Ariana proves that being environmentally and ethically conscious need not be boring, drab, or angry. I haven't been able to read it much lately but I'm looking forward to catching up over the winter.