I don’t know about you, but I grew up loving a good deal.
50% off? Awesome! Extra 10% off coupon? Even better!
Whether it’s groceries, clothing, or simply a pack of sticky notes, I navigated college and came into my twenties with one solid opinion: cheaper = better. To pay more than the lowest price out there was to get ripped off, to be foolish with my money.
I’ve done this. We do this. Why else would Walmart be so popular? We’re constantly on the hunt for a “steal,” a bargain, really any kind of discount or clearance rack. I find it humorous that we often respond to a compliment with our “bargain”–oh, you like my shirt? $5 on sale at Target! We wear it like a badge of honor.
Never once did it occur to me to question why certain items were cheaper than others. Or who made them. Or why I can buy a dress at H&M for exactly the same price a dress would have cost someone one hundred years ago, without accounting for inflation.
Not until I read a book called Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline, as well as a few other books about labor trafficking, and began a journey into discovering one new simple truth about life:
Someone always pays.
My “bargain” on a cute new outfit may have saved me money, but someone else had to pay for it. My rock-bottom “steal” on shrimp at Safeway might have stocked up my freezer–but someone else is paying.
The trouble is, we don’t usually see this immediate kick-back, as those who pay are thousands of miles removed from us. When I buy that $5 tshirt or $3 bag of shrimp, I don’t see the woman working in unbearable conditions for 14+ hr days, making barely enough to get by. I don’t see the children coerced into working on shrimp farms, the forests that are clear-cut and the cities destroyed as a result of our ever-increasing appetite for seafood.
And here is where things get tricky. Because in order to protect these vulnerable people and communities, we have to be willing to make one major change:
Pay for it.
It’s a hard thought to stomach after years of telling myself that more expensive = more ripped off. It’s also a hard change to make because it means my money won’t go as far as it used to. And this is exactly where it’s also good for me, as well as for those on the other side of the world.
You see, I got on board really fast with the idea of paying more so others could live lives of dignity and comfort. It’s worth getting excited about, especially when there’s so many great organizations out there who are using fashion, food, and many other avenues to empower vulnerable communities. But I’m so used to this constant rhythm of shopping, of consuming, and there’s no way we can keep that up when buying items that are fairly priced.
So what’s happened? I find myself having to say no to my desires a lot more often.
And this is the best thing that could have happened to me. It’s woken me up from my consumerism, made me realize how much I’m used to having for so cheap. It’s also made me appreciate items that are made with quality, that will be durable and multi-purpose. I’ve learned to savor well-produced tea or chocolate, to eat less meat but enjoy it more.
At the same time, I’ve come to recognize that every purchase I make has a ripple effect in my community or in the world. I want to invest as much as I can in giving people jobs that pay fairly and give hope. I want to invest as much as I can in treating the earth well, in farming and fishing and growing sustainably, which is healthier for everyone. Yes, I still love a good deal at a thrift store. Yes, I still have certain weaknesses (like peppermint patties, which are not fair trade sadly!) and am learning to give myself grace. But it’s seriously awesome getting to respond to “hey, cute shirt” with “Thanks, it provided a job for a survivor of sex trafficking in Nepal!”
Obviously, the issues of labor trafficking, exploitation, and environmental harm require a multi-pronged approach and should never place entire responsibility on the consumer. But, we as the consumer DO have enormous responsibility–and enormous power. As Kevin Bales put it, “It seems improbable, even impossible, that we could actually effect change at the global level, but no one can seriously doubt the influence of American consumers on the rest of the world.”