About once a week, I set aside my readings for an hour and succumb to one of my favorite pastimes: online shopping. It helps that Charlotte Russe, for example, has sent me at least one email a day for the past few months, every time in recognition of a commercial holiday. (LUNAR LUCK, one subject line reads, complete with dog and cash emojis. Be our Galentine? Another asks, offering discounted jewelry in a glamorous bid for my heart.)
Indulging in consumerism as procrastination—or “digital retail therapy,” the less guilt-inducing phrase—is a near-sacred pastime for the modern, impulse-driven shopper. Most people have experienced the strange, slimy feeling that comes after: another uncomely dent in your bank account for a top that somehow looked a lot better online.
Recently, following a conversation with my best friend, a sustainable development major‚ I began to feel a different kind of guilt. After divulging my consumerist secret, she admitted that she, too, once frequented fast fashion retailers, or stores that mass-produce and sell fashionable items at relatively affordable prices. After learning about the disastrous environmental consequences of this practice, however, she immediately vowed to shop elsewhere, even if that meant higher price tags. She encouraged me to do the same because, taking all factors into account, being ethical—whatever that means—should always be my priority.
Immediately, I was taken aback. The speed at which she sidestepped the affordability conversation astounded me—should leading an ethical consumerist lifestyle really be a universal expectation?
It’s true that fast fashion holds massive ramifications for workers and the environment. Retailers like Forever 21 and Zara appeal to millennial shoppers by paying attention to trendy runway items and churning out near-identical versions at lightning-fast speeds. They know that many young people are on a budget, a fact that’s reflected in their prices (and sales for virtually every monetizable holiday in existence). Fast fashion is a significant driver of the textile dyeing industry, the second largest polluter of clean water in the world. It is a major contributor to the planet’s carbon dioxide emissions and its frequently subpar quality makes it a top contender for landfills. This industry certainly isn’t kind to its workers, either—at one Zara factory, workers reportedly tucked notes into clothing complaining about exploitation and inadequate pay.
The push for more ethical consumption has made its way onto campus, too. Last semester, Student-Worker Solidarity, an economic justice advocacy group, requested that Barnard join the Workers Rights Consortium, a labor rights organization dedicated to protecting workers who make university apparel and other clothing items. WRC conducts factory investigations, interviews workers, and releases detailed reports to the public. Since its inception, more than 190 colleges have become affiliates, meaning they pay annual fees, abide by a code of conduct, and release information on factories that produce their apparel. After months of advocacy by the SWS, Sian Beilock announced in December that Barnard would join the WRC. (Columbia has been an affiliate since 2001.)
This is undoubtedly a good thing. After all, most garment workers are women who are poorly paid and experience abysmal workplace conditions. Columbia and Barnard, both progressive institutions, should champion ethical production and consumption. But what about the more informal—and at times condescending—conversations we have surrounding our consumption habits?
Consider this: One of my friends is, in every sense of the word, ethical. She shops exclusively at sweatshop-free retailers, recycles and composts, and follows a plant-based diet. After I revealed that one of my favorite jackets is from H&M, a leading fast fashion retailer, she offered me a look that suggested I had committed a rather unholy transgression: choosing convenience and affordability over morality. After lecturing me for several minutes on the harmful consequences of fast fashion consumption, many of which I had already been aware of, she informed me that the only thing worse than my choice of clothing retailers is my diet. (You see, I am a vegetarian, not a vegan.) After this conversation, I began to notice that my friend’s holier-than-thou attitude is more common than I thought—in a city obsessed with trends and refined living, “ethical” consumption can be more performative than anything else.
On the other end, there are those who live ethically out of necessity. Although one might think of those who bike to work as urban trend-followers, it turns out that most cyclists are low-income individuals. Many who frequent thrift stores aren’t, in fact, in search of the latest vintage statement piece, but do so for affordability reasons. And in general, poor people are able to buy fewer things than rich people—that’s just a fact.
So how do we reconcile the real consequences of convenient consumption and the classism of enforced lifestyle politics? Personally, I don’t know. I appreciate that my peers take the time to inform me that my choices carry weight, that we can be kinder to the world we live in. I do agree with them. But living “kindly” comes at a cost—one that excludes consumers who can’t afford to prove their own morality. Until we work toward a more socioeconomically inclusive conversation, maybe we should remove the price tag from the word “ethical.”
Melissa Ho is a junior in Columbia College studying economics and art history. She still online-shops in Butler and knows you do, too. Have any recommendations? Send them to email@example.com. Your Worst American Girl runs alternate Fridays.
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