faith, family

Erin’s First Three Months of Ethical Shopping (and a list of other [some hilarious] experiments you may or may not want to try)

Ethical Shopping Experiment:  The First Three Months.

Our family’s foray into ethical shopping came about as most things do: through friends of friends who gave us just enough spark to dive in the deep end. Ben and I were part of a team launching a new nonprofit, which is how we were introduced to the names behind Parative. (I had met Carolyn once before when she expertly cut my hair a year or so before.) We were immediately intrigued. Per usual when I meet someone with a mutual interest, I monopolized their time at the launch party, asking them all sorts of questions about ethical shopping and how it was working out for them. I am impulsive and spontaneous, which, depending on the circumstance, can be both a blessing and a curse. I’ve done (and written about) lots of other experiments: multiple Whole30s. An ill-advised colon cleanse. Two bouts of vegetarianism. Slowly chipping away at one more item that we only buy organic after watching those horrific food documentaries. So, mostly experiments dealing with food. And mostly ones that, I hope, make me feel good or benefit my health. We want to know what’s in the meat. As much as we can, we want to eat our food with a clean conscience.


Deciding to purchase only clothing that is ethically sourced or secondhand was both exciting (another challenge! And one I can impose upon my whole family!) and daunting (what about when I feel the need??). The Need is what I refer to whenever I enter an Anthropologie or a TJMaxx. I know, the two aren’t exactly synonymous, but I love them both equally. I never really need anything inside of either store, but I always walk out with a candle or shirt or (God help me) a piece of pottery.

Here are a couple of takeaways after immersing ourselves in three months of ethical shopping.

Success #1: God always provides, and sometimes with hyperbole.

My sister recently moved to Costa Rica and unloaded her entire wardrobe on me. I can’t wear all of it, but there are heaps of items I love, and receiving an entire secondhand wardrobe means I basically doubled my clothing. (Small downside: I’ve aspired–experiment alert–to cultivate a capsule wardrobe, and doubling my closet isn’t helping any.)

Success #2: I made my first ethical clothing purchase. In bulk.

My English department (I’m a high school teacher) put me and a coworker in charge of designing and ordering department shirts this year. In no way do I want to push my experiment on anyone else, but I decided it couldn’t hurt to at least ask if my peers were interested in buying an ethically sourced shirt over any other shirt, even if it meant spending more money. We put it to a vote, and an ethically sourced shirt won. (Moral: English teachers are awesome.)


Visual evidence to back up my claim that English teachers are awesome.


Success #3: We survived Christmas.

I envy Mary.  When Jesus finally came, she needn’t fret about where his swaddled clothes came from.  Everything, I imagine, was local, everything homemade.  That’s not the case here.  When our own Christmas came, my husband and I had to think past our normal gift exchange. Usually it involves something experiential–a climbing gym membership or a massage, and always it involves a couple of items from Gap that also double as workwear. We had to get creative. We took getting creative with our gifting literally. I got my husband a weekend away at a Young Adult writer’s retreat at the Rivendell Writers’ Colony in Sewanee, TN; he purchased art supplies for me.

My husband is a beautiful writer–I fell in love with his long-distance letters to me long before I really fell for him–and he’s been working on and long dreamed of writing a book of his own. The weekend, he said, was perfect. The hosts, two published young adult authors, one we count as a long-lost friend from our Nashville days, were personable, encouraging, and relaxed. He came back from the conference inspired, refreshed, and energized, ready to get serious about writing. A dream awakened. It was and is beautiful to witness.

While he was gone, I cleared out our guest room closet, put the desk made by my great-grandpa Otis in it with a few writing accoutrements, and declared it Ben’s Writing Closet. It’s awesome.

I thought about the painting supplies for about six days before taking a crack at them. When we lived in Nashville and were first married, creative writing and painting were just part of our lives, as natural as binge-watching “30 Rock” became to me once it aired (Tina Fey as Liz Lemon as Princess Leia?  Fuhgettaboutit). When I started grad school and we moved to Cincinnati in 2006, the painting shut down altogether. I loved to paint, but the more the years ticked away, the less it seemed likely it would ever happen again. It seemed childish, a thing of the past.

But I cracked open that first canvas, had a picture in my head of what I wanted to paint, and went for it. I fell in love. It became a nightly endeavor, an obsession. Ever the Google Calendar evangelist, I created a separate shared calendar called “Create” so we can make a record of every night we spend at least some time writing or painting, even if it’s a puny twenty minutes. It’s exciting to add yet another notch in that belt. It’s awakened something new that feels urgent and important for us. And it’s so much better than khakis or flannel!

Even more amazing, we’re realizing the baloney that is the idea that there’s just not enough time to do something. There’s always time. We’re learning to say no to the right things, even things we love like re-binge-watching “30 Rock” for the fourth time because we need humor in our winters. We’re still having quality family time (we paint and write after the boys go to bed), haven’t slacked one bit on our schoolwork (if anything, we’re more efficient at work so we can “play” at home), and we’re finding it’s life giving. God provides.

We’ll take creation over clothing any day, any gift.

Success #4: The mall just isn’t that appealing right now.

I’ve never been a mall lover. I get dizzy easily and mall-type crowds make me feel anxious. But. There are those times I just want to buy, you know? And Gap has been my go-to place for cheap, stylish, functional clothing for FOREVER. I can even remember those first few Gap items my parents bought for me when we visited the Gap outlet in Hebron, KY, for the first time in the late ‘80s. Have mercy.

Like Bill Murray in What About Bob?, I’m taking baby steps in this experiment. When Ben and I went to kill time at the mall during Christmas season, I thought we might be playing with fire, like when I tell people I’m gluten-free BUT THERE’S A FUNFETTI CUPCAKE STARING AT ME on the counter. The amazing thing? We felt ho-hum in our desire to go into any store. I geek out over Christmas decor, so I love the overdone lights and bling. But I wasn’t tempted to buy a thing. Plus it was strange for me to think first about the hands that made all of the clothing–and there’s a lot of clothing–in each of the store windows. We want to know what’s in the meat.

It feels weird to flip the switch from somewhat-aware-but-still-part-of-the-system consumer to but-not-at-the-expense-of-others consumer.  It’s becoming less strange as time goes on.

This post originally appeared on The Parative Project’s blog. You should check out their site.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s