Appealing to Values and Interests in Consumer Choices by Grace Yia-Hei Kao

“What the report also makes clear is that sweatshop labor is highly gendered. Between 71-85%…are women, the majority of whom are also under the age of 35.”

I was recently drawn into a facebook discussion about the ethics and efficacy of refusing to eat at Chick-Fil-A on account of its president’s public “we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation” opposition to same-sex marriage as well as the chain’s financial support of socially conservative groups.

I noted that consumers who boycott businesses generally do so because they believe that (1) continuing to patronize a place would be at odds with their core values, or that (2) their actions will “make a difference” by exerting financial pressure on the company to amend their ways. These two reasons could be related, though they often are not. People can act in accordance with their conscience without believing that they have accordingly instigated social change (n.b., just think of the earlier 2004 decision by the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. to selectively divest from certain companies in Israel), just as companies can be compelled to alter their policies by other means than by their clientele taking their business elsewhere.

I affirmed these ideas again this weekend when I guest-taught adult Sunday School at Claremont United Methodist Church. The 20+ class of 50-80 year olds had been reading To Do Justice: A Guide for Progressive Christians and had invited me, the author of the chapter “For All Creation,” to join them. I exhorted them to redirect their actions to better reflect their deepest values and identity as Christians (reason #1). But I also encouraged them not to confuse calls for personal discipleship, simple living, or ethical consumerism with what it will take to bring about widespread institutional reform through changes in public policy (reason #2).

We are now at the time of year when many parents are taking their kids “back to school” shopping and when many others with discretionary income are thinking of sprucing up their fall wardrobe.

I’ve blogged previously about the reasons that led me to buy most of my and my kids’ clothes at thrift stores. I want to expand now on a point that I didn’t have the space to develop there—“sweatshop” labor is unfortunately behind much of the clothes sold today.

Consider: what do Abercrombie & Fitch, Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, Billabong, Calvin Klein, DKNY, Esprit, Express, Gap, Land’s End, Levi’s, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Ralph Lauren, The North Face, Tommy Hilfiger, Victoria’s Secret and 66 other well-known brands have in common? [See Annex 1 for  the full list of brands.]

According to an April 2011 International Textile Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF) report, they all source from factories in Asia (specifically in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Indonesia) that routinely violate even the most basic of labor rights.

It’s not just that none of them provide a living wage to their workers, many of them didn’t even pay the legal minimum wage. What’s more, increasing numbers of workers are being placed on temporary contracts and/or are unable to unionize, forced and excessive overtime is becoming normalized, and workers who fail to meet production targets are not uncommonly punished with mental and physical abuse.

What the report also makes clear is that sweatshop labor is highly gendered. Betwen 71-85% of the 100,000+ workers who comprise the 83 factories surveyed are women, the majority of whom are also under the age of 35. Documented forms of gender discrimination at several of these factories include sexual intimidation, the unwillingness to accommodate workers who are up to 7 months pregnant, the denial of paid family leave or single parent leave even when required by law (e.g., the Philippines), and so forth.

Photograph: Mast Irham/EPA

My growing realization that “widespread violations and abuses of worker’s rights continue to be the norm in the industry” was one of the reasons that led me to now buy almost all of my and my kids’ clothes second-hand. I cannot, of course, escape all complicity by going this route, but doing so frees me from contributing to the profits of companies with exploitative labor practices. I could also (or instead) have adopted a strategy of buying new ethically-produced clothes and I commend those who do. What tipped the scales for me the other way, however, was the reality that making new products still almost always uses more of the earth’s resources than does just recycling products that already exist and also doesn’t carry other ancillary benefits I discussed earlier.

Several friends of mine, while impressed with my lifestyle switch, still remain skeptical about the quality of things that one can find second-hand. It’s not that they don’t share my principled concerns about overconsumption, sustainability, and sweatshop labor; it’s that they also want to be drawn in by self-interest.

Since I recognize that most of our actions are over-determined (i.e., we rarely do anything out of pure altruism, we are generally always motivated by both self- and other-regarding reasons), I’ve decided to document my latest thrift store purchase here. I hope to inspire those who don’t regularly thrift to give it a try as well as show those on restricted incomes that an attractive wardrobe is within reach for not very much money.

I’ve included information below on designers and prices. I’ll mention brand names not to gloat, but just to show the surprising range of things that one can purchase second-hand and to appeal directly to those who are label-conscious.

My Latest Thrift Store Haul

1. Jones New York Sport stretch denim miniskirt: $2.99 – 30%

2. Cable & Gauge black knit ¾ sleeve top:  $2.99 – 30%

3. Max Studio Green viscose/rayon dress: $5.99 – 30%

4. Purple paisley oblong silk scarf (designer unknown): $2.99 – 30%

5. Teacup (made in China) – $1.99 – 50%

6. Vintage Jason Bone China Saucer (made in England)- $1.99 – 30%

Store: American Way in Pomona, CA; Total spent = $13.96

My “score” of the day after about 1 hour of shopping at just the one place was the teacup and saucer. I became a fan of afternoon tea while studying abroad for a stint in college at Oxford. About a year ago, my mother-in-law gifted me several family heirloom teacups and saucers. I’ve been slowly adding that collection ever since through thrifting.

If you look closely, you’ll see that my “new” teacup and saucer are mismatched – the saucer is from one manufacturer (and it’s of lesser quality) and the teacup is from another. While writing this blog, I found the matching (Jason bone china) teacup on eBay, with a “buy it now” price of $20.00. It’s lovely, but I’ll gladly stick to my thrifted substitute. :)

So there you have it. I’ve made my appeal on principled (feminist/human rights/environmental) grounds. But I’ve also addressed self-interest (i.e., if you liked what you saw) by demonstrating how, at least in my case, switching from retail to second-hand need not require a deep sacrifice in time, variety, or quality.

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is currently working on a second book project on Asian American Christian Ethics. She is also co-editing a volume with Rebecca Todd Peters that is tentatively entitled “Encountering the Sacred: A Theological Exploration of Women’s Lives.”

Grace wrote this blog while wearing thrifted clothes and while contemplating her next dumpster dive. She invites you to read more about her adventures in sustainable living on her website.

Categories: Christianity, consumerism, Ecofeminism, Ethics, General, Human Rights, shopping, Social Justice

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. What you say is majorly scary, but it’s also totally believable. I’m with you at not shopping the big labels. Almost anyone can find wonderful stuff at thrift shops.


    • Thanks for writing, Barbara, and apologies for the late response! The “scary stuff” is not my firsthand observations — just read any consumer watchdog group’s reports and they’ll say the same (unfortunate) thing!


  2. Loved it, living out the words we say so often…


  3. Here’s another tidbit about thrift store shopping that appeals to my self-interest – it’s a great mindless break! Sometimes when I have been spending too much time in front of the computer writing, taking a break and going to a thrift store (there are 3 within a 10-minute walking distance from where I live/work) to leisurely peruse the isles is the perfect relaxing no-guilt, no-stress activity. And sometimes it concludes with a surprisingly fun low-cost find. :) Thanks, Grace, for continuing to encourage and inspire us to make informed principled decisions.


  4. Hi Grace,
    Thank you for this article. I very much appreicate the informaiton you’ve provided– though it is a challenge. I also very much appreciate your thrift store break down. Where I live in Ventura, thirft shopping is quite a thing. You can actaully take a thrift store tour of the city I think!
    Personally, I like to walk to the thrift store down the street from my house. They have a sale almost once a week called “10 for 10,” so literally 10 items of clothing for $10.00. I look there for myself and my family quite often.
    Some of the most fun I had shopping there was for Christmas last year. Feeling very broke, I tried to “10 for 10” people on my list. I also found my sister a rad chess board serving platter that she loved in the brick-a-brack section for a dollar! Not every item I picked out for my family was a winner, but they actually had a lot of fun opening what ended up being lots of silly and fun gifts. They said my gifts felt like an adventure and surprise! :)
    Some items worked and for those that didn’t, we donated them again. Our “buget Christmas” was one of the most fun that we’ve had!


    • 10 for 10 does sound like a deal! And I’m so glad to hear about your budget Christmas. I’m really strange with Christmas – I LOVE all the decorations, but know that most of them are geared to lure consumers into buy, buy, buy. We’ve instituted a “no gifts” policy with family and everyone wins (n.b., it took my in-laws some time to adjust, but they like it more than having to spend all of this unnecessary time at the mall). But I hadn’t yet thought about bringing back the gift-giving tradition, but instituting some sort of rule that items purchased had to come second-hand. Food for thought!


  5. Great posting, Grace! I was particularly interested in your afternoon tea ritual. In NZ, our boys have really taken to tea as a time of day to break from work/play. Thus far with our odd sabbatical flexibility, it has meant wonderful family time for trying new treats. In 2 weeks, our older one starts school (they start after their 5th birthday here, regardless of time of year) and our little one will be in preschool in the mornings, so our ritual will shift a bit. But, it is lovely to have a time of day for reflection while the sun is out.


    • Carlin – no ritual yet, but we’re working on it. We were at the Huntington (Gardens) about a month ago and they kept on wanting to eat the sugar cubes… But good for you and your family! I have dreams of hosting a “little man tea party” for the boys when they get a bit older, so we’ll see (n.b, who says that parents can only introduce tea-drinking culture to little girls?)


  6. I just stumbled across this now, Grace. I love it, as you might have guessed, though I have more success shopping for myself than for teenage boys. If others have tips, please share! I do wonder how ordinary citizens or church groups can better advocate for just wages for those who do work in the factories you name. I want my personal practice connected to big picture change somehow.


  7. I too buy from thrift shops. But they don’t solve the problem of the degree to which dyes and chemicals for blends ( such as no-iron) pollute. Of course buying environmentally safe clothing is expensive.

    Also, as I write in my blog on the subject ( “A look at my wardrobe in light of Bangladesh building collapse” at Nicholas Kristof, a journalist who promotes global women’s concerns, has written of sweatshops as a means of actually improving the lives of impoverished women. He certainly doesn’t ignore the exploitive side and wouldn’t deny that change must occur, but his writing can remind middle-class Western women that we don’ t necessarily know what’s best for women in developing countries. (Not that he does.)

    Since I like clothes, especially anything red (speaking of dye contamination!) this is an issue I must continue to struggle with.


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