February 6, 2013

By Gabrielle.

In between oohing and ahhing over the Australian and online treasure trove known as Fenton and Fenton, I found my gasps cut short by a phrase in their wanderlusty About section: ethically sourced. Does that mean anything to you? Or does it mean everything to you?

We live in an age where collections — touchable and virtual — tend to be curated without much thought about what belongs to whom. I’ve been a part of many discussions about ethics, and I’ve been lucky enough to participate in campaigns that have bolstered my love for ethical products that spread goodness. But I’ve also seen how an artist’s work can be mass-produced halfway around the world without permission, so many knock-off designer labels that somehow look better than the original, and local crafts from an exotic locale resold for much profit to those on the selling end…not the making end.

So I’m curious: If you love and covet an object enough, does its provenance matter to you? What won’t you buy, just on principle?

Fenton and Fenton found via Honestly WTF.

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{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Carrie Mitchell February 6, 2013 at 9:09 am

Ouch. This post makes me sad, but I needed it. I’d like to say oh sure, it matters to me, but honestly I give very little thought into where things come from. A product being ethically sourced or free trade may bolster my decision to buy but I don’t necessarily NOT buy something if it isn’t ethically sourced. Of course, I oppose people or their work being taken advantage of, but I haven’t been making financial decisions that reflect my ethical beliefs. Thank you for the reminder.


2 allysha February 6, 2013 at 9:50 am

There are stores I don’t shop at on principle. But it’s a tricky thing. I bet that I could disagree with something somewhere along the way from product conception to production to how it’s sold in just about everything I own, if I knew all the details.
But I don’t, and I have to prioritize, and that means I buy things that I need, even though I may not agree 100% in how they got to me.


3 Kristen E February 6, 2013 at 9:56 am

One thing I absolutely WON’T buy is non-Fair Trade coffee. That one is really important to me. I try to buy things that are ethically sourced, but living in the U.S., it’s just not possible to get everything that way. I wish it were.


4 Rebecca Alexis February 6, 2013 at 10:05 am

love that you are bringing this to attention. it is really so very difficult to find sources of things. And some things I purchase because they ARE fair trade and “ethically sourced” (i have two farmers baskets I LOVE). But I also use a cell phone and I have a mac book. Both are NOT ethically sourced at all. Cell phones need a natural resource that is mined in the congo -cell phones have reintroduced was and rape there. Apple has had bad reports of poor factory conditions in China. I also would LOVE to have a diamond. A real diamond, a knock your socks off diamond. Not sure if that is ever going to happen though…my hubby despises them (he calls them blood diamonds) because of the blood shed over them and the young children forced to mine for them in africa. Many children have lost their arms and limbs to the diamond trade. Even “ethical diamonds” usually have very unethical sources. Sigh…..


5 Sara February 6, 2013 at 2:24 pm

I’m can’t say I’m particularly knowledgeable on this subject or anything, but I just read an article that suggested vintage or previously worn diamonds as an alternative. I guess the rationale being that it prevents a new diamond from being mined? Just an idea. They’re so pretty! I want you to have one! :)


6 Design Mom February 6, 2013 at 10:20 am

Loving these thoughtful and honest comments!

As I think about my own shopping choices, they are often far from admirable. If I’m shopping for something in particular and I narrow the choices down to a few that I like, knowing one of them is ethically sourced can definitely tip the scales, but sadly, I don’t use “ethicially sourced” as the starting point for all my shopping.

Most of the time, I have no idea where the products I’m buying come from or how they are made.

A related thought: I’m a big believer in good design for everyone. And that you can happen upon instances of good design anywhere, in any store. So wherever I am — even in places like a drug store chain, or a store full of kitsch from Oriental Trading — I’m keeping my eyes peeled for good design, especially good affordable design, so I can share it. But it’s easy to imagine that those examples of good, inexpensive design are probably made in not-ethical-at-all factories or locations. Big deep sigh.


7 Michelle February 6, 2013 at 3:55 pm

I have recently made a commitment to only buying fair trade clothing. It is hard. Some things like children’s shoes for instance are very hard to find fair trade. Things are also more expensive. It is much more limited and I find myself gazing longingly at wonderfully designed pieces that I know have been made in sweatshops.

However, there are great things on etsy, and other handmade sites. And hopefully if our consumer demand switches, it could cause manufacturers to start improving their labor conditions. Hopefully!


8 Jessy February 6, 2013 at 10:25 am

In Canada, our prices for everyday items are significantly higher than those same items in the States, and it can be harder to find ethically sourced items because of the high cost of shipping.
One small change I have made recently is to end my patronage of Walmart. After reading about where their products come from, how they treat their employees, how they ruthlessly undermine small business to drive them out of town, I just can’t support them anymore. It’s not a big thing, but i feel better knowing i am not contributing to their terrible practices.


9 KellliO February 6, 2013 at 2:21 pm

That store gets to me everytime. I avoid it, too.


10 Design Mom February 6, 2013 at 2:58 pm

I haven’t been to a Walmart in at least a decade, maybe 15 years. It would be impressive if it was for ethical reasons, but really, it’s because hey, if there’s a Walmart, there’s usually a Target, and Target always wins for me.

I know Target is fantastic at giving back to local communities, but I imagine their wares have as many ethical issues as the next big box store.


11 Pamela Balabuszko-Reay February 7, 2013 at 8:27 am

Being from Minnesota where Target began usually makes it the go-to choice for us. They give a ton back to our community. BUT they have as many questionable or downright bad (see stone-washed jeans) sourcing as the other big boxes. Their leadership has also recently made some social political choices (gay rights) that led to many people that I know and love discontinuing their patronage. I have actually switched to Costco for a lot of the things I used to get at Target like paper towels etc. They have a good record on worker’s rights and I choose to go there for that reason. Tracing everything back to the sourcing is tough. I try to be aware of it. But anytime I choose to buy a cheap T-shirt from Target I am feeding into something bad that I am choosing to ignore at that moment. Ugh. I am a representative for Silpada Jewelry. Before I signed on I inquired about where the jewelry is being made etc. It is made all over the world. Silpada pays a working wage and makes a point to provide fair and good working conditions (that lead to a better life) for the artisans working on the jewelry. I would not have been able to sign on without that assurance. I can feel good about that.


12 Erin February 7, 2013 at 2:57 pm

Another Minnesotan agreeing with you, Pamela. I like that Target gives–I don’t know where all their wares are gotten, however. Probably the same places Wal Mart’s are–but the employees seem a lot happier at Target than at Wal Mart, and that makes me feel good as a consumer.


13 Rebecca Alexis February 6, 2013 at 10:27 am

I love design and am ever so attracted to things that are visually beautiful, but I have a feeling that many of the big purchases I make for my home is not from a source that i would be happy to know about. deep sigh…However, there is a part of me that remembers that perhaps it is easier in France (I was a nanny there for two years) to find things that are local and artisan. Perhaps? Do you find it is easier to purchase quality food (even meats) that are more local & smaller scaled? I think there was a way in France that they appreciated quality over quantity which is something we often forget here in the states. xxoo


14 Design Mom February 6, 2013 at 3:01 pm

I have noticed the quality in the food, especially. When we ask the butcher for a half kilo of ground beef (steak hache) — and keep in mind, this is in our very big supermarket, as big as any American grocery store — he walks over to the carcass, cuts off a piece of meat, and then grinds it right in front of us. 100% fresh. No “pink slime” anywhere in sight. And our turkey for Thanksgiving was slaughtered the day before actual Thanksgiving.


15 Rebecca Alexis February 6, 2013 at 5:17 pm

that is how I remember it! and the Boulanger bakes his/her own bread that you purchase that day for your evening meal. it helps the heart & soul a bit to know at least HOW the food is produced. It also says loads that all sorts of jobs and careers are valued. It is wonderful to have a trade that is respected. Holding our fellow humans (and creatures) up with love and respect goes such a long way. it is all the small steps we take that helps us to love and live a more “ethical” path. xxoo


16 Erin February 7, 2013 at 3:01 pm

I’m guessing that this contributes to the romantic way everyone talks about their time spent living in Europe! I could get fresh-baked bread (not from frozen dough)…if I made it.


17 Erin February 7, 2013 at 3:00 pm

That’s incredible. I don’t think such a sight could even be seen in the U.S., but I that would make a big difference to me. A real-life application to the term “fresh meat”! :) I don’t know the last time I purchased supermarket beef, and I’ve been searching for local sources for other meat (chicken, eggs, etc.) for the reasons (and other reasons) you discuss in your original post.


18 Penelope February 6, 2013 at 10:30 am

I’m really glad that you wrote about this today. Every time that I purchase something (food, clothing, shoes, gasoline), I think about how it was grown, sewn, cobbled, and mined. You can find a more ethically produced brand for everything on your shopping list. Absolutely everything. Including gasoline (e.g., buy Sunoco; don’t buy Exxon/Mobil, Conoco/Phillips, or BP).

It means that I don’t buy things from The Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, J. Peterman, Mini Boden, Bed Bath & Beyond, Pottery Barn, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, etc. etc. etc. I buy thrift-shop clothes, things Made in the USA/Italy/France, wool, organic cotton clothes (sheets and towels too), organic food, and Fair Trade coffee and chocolate. Yes, I often pay more and I miss out on cool-looking stuff. But guess what? The choice to buy conventionally grown strawberries, conventionally grown cotton, and a rug handcrafted by a 12-year old (yes, that happens; it’s not an urban myth!) has a DIRECT IMPACT on a human being on this planet. My wardrobe is not worth that. No shoes are worth that. No cheap strawberries are worth that.

This is a great resource for making more ethical choices for humanity and the planet:

I’m a single mother living paycheck to paycheck and I can do it. So can you.

Thanks again!

- Penelope


19 marie February 6, 2013 at 10:56 am

If I buy a dress directly from a designer’s studio I am so happy because I know who sewed it and I know it pays her directly and it helps her to keep going with her still tiny but promising label. Maybe we don’t miss out – en contraire you get the cool stuff that’s not all over the place yet : ).
And yes, to afford that handmade dress I do skip two or three dresses from cheaper stores. But it’s so worth it.

Thanks for the link !


20 Penelope February 6, 2013 at 11:41 am


That’s a great idea! Do you have a recommendation for a clothing design studio? I’d love to support a woman-run business and have something to wear that is not cookie-cutter to boot.



21 marie February 7, 2013 at 2:17 am

In New York I loved PASS NO. D1. But she moved to the LA area a while ago and I lost contact. In Zurich I really like the label BOBYPERU. The dresses are so chic but with summer slippers I wear them even to the beach. Gives me a Godard feeling…


22 Sara February 6, 2013 at 2:33 pm

Penelope. You are my hero. I work on avoiding the big evil coroporations. I try to buy local. Here’s my shameful secret, though: I’m gay and live in fear of being “outed” as a Hobby Lobby or Urban Outfitters customer. LOL I accidentally donated to the Salvation Army at Christmas, forgetting that they discriminate against gays, too! It’s so much to keep track of! Thank goodness I don’t live near a Chik-fil-A. I have no self respect, apparently. :)


23 Penelope February 6, 2013 at 2:40 pm

That’s pretty funny. I used to LOVE Chik-fil-A and I was pretty P.O.’d when I had to boycott them. But here’s a nice little video that taught me that I can make my own:

Arggggh about the Salvation Army! Geez. I’m going to have to start wearing clothing made from bark from my own damn yard or something!


24 Design Mom February 6, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Oh man! Is there no company that’s completely free and clear? It feels mind-bending-ly complicated.


25 Rachel February 6, 2013 at 4:10 pm

It really does feel so very, very complicated- I mostly (like, say 80%) shop second-hand for goods. We have awesome garage and estate sales here, plus a plethora of thrift stores. I guess I haven’t thought beyond the “if I’m buying it second-hand, I’m treading a bit more lightly on the earth” to consider the ethical implications of shopping at, say, Salvation Army. Ai yai yai.

26 Janette Crawford February 6, 2013 at 5:55 pm

To go ahead and further complicate the topic ;) . . .

I would love to hear thoughts from you guys on the “upsides” of sweatshop labor. I know this sounds crazy, but Nicholas Kristof wrote in the NY Times a few years ago that in some places, the alternatives to sweatshop jobs are much, much worse.

I used to avoid big brands like the plague. (I’ve been writing a blog about ethical fashion since 2007.) But after hearing perspectives like this, plus not feeling great about “lusting” at things I didn’t allow myself to buy, I’ve loosened up. I will always buy as thoughtfully as possible. I pay attention to labor studies, and I support advancements that big brands like Gap, Nike and Levi’s are making. I still avoid fast-fashion like Forever 21… there are just no redeeming qualities there.

Kristof wrote, “Talk to these families in the dump, and a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty, the kind of gauzy if probably unrealistic ambition that parents everywhere often have for their children.” Check out the full piece here:

I know this is heavy — but what do you guys think?

(Gabby, one of the best companies ever is Nau. Check them out and you’ll be refreshed, I promise!)

27 Michelle February 7, 2013 at 9:17 am

It’s a complicated issue. And while I agree that working in a sweatshop may be preferable to some other form of subsistance living, it doesn’t make it right for manufacturers to essentially take advantage of their workers. It wouldn’t cost so much more to provide health insurance or ensure that the workers get at least a day off a week, or to offer them a wage that wouldn’t cause them to want to work 16-20 hours days doing a repetitive task that may cripple their hands. Not saying that I have any solutions, just arguing that we shouldn’t just make ourselves feel better saying that these workers have a better life now that they are getting paid to make this stuff for us.

28 Sara February 7, 2013 at 1:50 pm

It does! I read an article once about being vegan. It said that a lot of people who are interested in being vegan don’t commit to the diet because there is one non-vegan food they can’t live without. Mozzarella, for example. The article pointed out that a vegan who occasionally indulges in mozzarella is still making a huge impact, versus someone who tosses the whole idea because they’re stuck in the “all or nothing” mentality.

I’m not vegan. (haha) But that article made me think about other areas of my life. I think it applies here. I used to think I just didn’t have time to think about shopping locally/ethically, because it is so overwhelming and “mind-bendingly complicated.” It does help to realize that every small change helps. So even if you can’t commit to never stepping into another big-box store, you can make a big impact by spending 10% or 50% or whatever of your money at local stores or farmers markets. :)

As an added bonus, more people will be encouraged to try local and ethical shopping if their friends who do it can say that it’s fun and easy, than if it appears to be a huge headache that’s full of sacrifices.

29 Sheri February 7, 2013 at 4:52 am

Chik-fil-A might not be as bad as you think.

…which just underscores the point, there’s so much research to do to know what business/causes you’re REALLY supporting. It’s tough to do.


30 Sara February 7, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Thanks for the link, Penelope! Super helpful. :)


31 Rebecca Alexis February 6, 2013 at 10:30 am

It is interesting to see how we approach these issues on an individual level, as a well as a community and as a culture. It is important to raise these issues, even if not every purchase we make is an ethical one, it is good to step outside our comfort zone from time to time.xx


32 Sara February 6, 2013 at 12:04 pm

I think about this all the time. That’s one reason I love shopping on Etsy and I try not to buy anything made in China (sooo hard!)


33 Janette Crawford February 6, 2013 at 12:16 pm

Wonderful post! Thanks, Gabby. This is a topic that I surround myself with constantly. I love beautiful things, but I don’t want to be consumeristic about it. So for me, that means always finding an “inner beauty” as well — like a vintage item with a past life, or that one-of-a-kind dress from an independent designer. I buy everything through the lens of the dollar vote — that each dollar I spend is a vote cast for the kind of world I want to live in. I vote for more integrity and more goodness.

There’s one power-combo that sometimes trumps provenance for me: an item that won’t go out of style AND won’t wear out. If I’ll have it forever, it was likely a good purchase.



34 Alyssa February 6, 2013 at 1:05 pm

I think about this a lot. I have a couple of stores that I boycott because of what I know about the way they treat their employees. I try to buy second hand as often as possible, mostly because I don’t have to feel guilty for supporting brands with bad reputations.

My family owns a small handmade leather shoe company (Aurora Shoe Co.) and knowing what I do about materials, production, and fair pricing, I can’t bring myself to buy shoes, bags, etc. whose value is so grossly hidden by their low pricing. I’ve come to understand that the less you pay for something, the more someone else has probably paid in the form of poor wages, or lousy working conditions. Buying American (or from any other country with healthy labor laws) at least guarantees a certain ethical standard.

I think it’s so important to think about these kinds of things, and I’m so glad you brought the topic up, Gabrielle!


35 mandi@herbanhomestead February 6, 2013 at 1:45 pm

Well this is interesting. I haven’t paid much mind to items being ethically sourced in the sense that the creative integrity is there. Not knowing if things are a knock-off or not…I’m not that savvy! However, as far as the ethical treatment of humans, I am very savvy! I do not buy chocolate that is not fair trade. My sugar, vanilla, soap and coffee are fair trade as well. I try to avoid items that I can tell just by looking at them that someone was mistreated so I can get a good deal.
After reading this, I will pay more attention to the ethics behind creative integrity as well.


36 Karyl February 6, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Thanks for such a thoughtful post. When we were poor students, all I cared about was the cost to me, so Walmart was a favorite. However, now that we’re not so tight budget wise anymore, I try to be an ethical consumer when I get a chance. No more Walmarts if I can help it, more Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods (their house brands are also well priced), Clean Well line of handsoaps and sanitizers (No Triclosan) and if I am at a craft or artisan market overseas, I try to buy from women vendors. I am also a fan or thrift stores and Freecycle when available.


37 Design Mom February 6, 2013 at 3:05 pm

When our oldest 3 kids were very young, we were also poor students, but maybe even more challenging for me then our budget, was running any errands at all with those 3 little ones. So big stores like Target seemed a 100% necessity because I just couldn’t manage to spend lots of time shopping. I guess I was time poor as much as money poor.


38 Sara February 7, 2013 at 1:59 pm

Our busy lifestyles make convenient shopping at a big store practically a necessity!


39 KellliO February 6, 2013 at 2:28 pm

I’m still in the poor student days. :)
I think there is a strong cultural pull in the wrong direction. As Rebecca Alexis said, “I think there was a way in France that they appreciated quality over quantity which is something we often forget here in the states.” Wouldn’t the entire world be a better place if we all appreciated quality over quantity? Being a poor student has it’s advantages, as I can talk myself out of quantity more easily. We learn to live with less. I grew up in a home that was packed with quantity, and am trying hard to make a lifestyle and perspective switch to quality. I dream of the day when I can spend more money to support good resourcs AND avoid the bad ones.


40 Sara February 7, 2013 at 2:05 pm

I’ve been trying to live more simply (has anyone heard of the 100 Things Challenge?) and the quality over quantity aspect is so encouraging! It’s easier to get rid of ten water bottles that I don’t need if I treat myself to just one that I truly love. Same with clothes. Rather than purchasing 4-6 pairs of “okay” jeans, I will splurge for one PERFECT pair. It seems to be working.


41 Susan February 6, 2013 at 7:51 pm

I believe there is a human labor and environmental cost to everything made, and I TRY to keep that in mind when I make purchases. My main thing is buying the best I can afford so that it will last a long time and get plenty of use. It means I don’t have much and have to wait a long time to save up, but I feel it’s worth it. And of course I love supporting local and small independent businesses.


42 Heidi February 7, 2013 at 12:05 am

I have a (aprox) 90 – 10 rule. 90 percent of the time, I am extremely careful, check things out, and make decision based on ethics. 10 percent of the time, I’ll buy something at Walmart, or regular chocolate, etc. Living this way means that price is not the most important thing (well, for the 90%) but it gives me peace.


43 Sara February 7, 2013 at 2:00 pm

This is going to be my goal, Heidi. I think I can handle that.


44 Ester February 7, 2013 at 7:32 am

Buying only ethically sourced products is hard, isn’t it?
For a couple years, I’ve been trying not to buy anything made in developing countries unless I can be sure it’s been sourced ethically, especially not from countries like China as, apart from the question of working conditions, the profits from such products directly support a regime I disagree with strongly. Which limits your choices significantly – and saves a lot of money :)


45 Shazia February 7, 2013 at 8:53 am

I am in tears, kristoff said correctly that for people in impoverished areas those sweatshops are life changing because they provide steady income. I have seen that first hand to be true.
My personal decision has been to buy quality which makes it a lot easier to buy. I avoid Walmart, and forever 21 for instance, I think every little bit counts.
Overall the pendulum seems to be shifting back to local and natural and maybe in 10 years this will be the mindset for 90% of the American populace. And not just the early adopters right now :)


46 Moitreyee Chowdhury February 8, 2013 at 8:09 pm

Coming from a third world country, I wonder about one thing. I understand that sweat shops in bad conditions are evil, and we should not buy from them. I understand that these companies take advantage of the worker’s plight. But, I also know for sure, that some of these workers would rather work for pittance, under awful conditions rather than have no work at all, and die of hunger.
Because these companies sell their stuff for cheap, there is more demand. Because there is more demand, there is more production. Because there is more production, more workers are needed. Because these workers work for cheap, the products are cheap.
So, the question is how can we keep the demand going, even when materials are expensive? A family in USA, who lives on $1000 per month, and has several mouths to feed, would rather buy cheap than ethical. And, there the cycle continues. This to me is the dilemma.


47 Linda White February 11, 2013 at 3:24 pm

I know no one ever thinks about this product because it is so incredibly popular and traditional, but diamonds are something I will not purchase. I’ve felt this way for years. Yes, I received a diamond as an engagement ring, but when I had it stolen, I was perfectly happy not having one. On our 10th anniversary my hubby insisted on purchasing another one, I tried to talk him into a different type of stone, but he insisted. But- we didn’t purchase it from a jewelry store, but from a friend who is a lapidrist (stone cutter), so I wasn’t supporting the South African diamond cartel, or any other kind of diamond cartel. The diamond market is totally artificial and historically a horrible product to produce, to the environment and local peoples. Too many people have died in mining diamonds, but the only bright spot is the fact that in the last 30 years the market was opened to Russian and other diamonds. But still, I recently lost my 2nd diamond and I’ve made it very clear to my hubby, DO NOT buy me another! It won’t make me happy or complete. The mark-up on diamonds is over 1000%+ from start to finish, with local jewelry stores taking a 400-500% mark-up themselves. It’s a racket as far as I’m concerned. Call me strange but I don’t buy the DeBeers hype at all.


48 Sarah York February 16, 2013 at 4:01 pm

Wow, this is something that I have really been thinking about and struggling with lately. I have made the decision to not shop at stores that have questionably made clothing, such as Forever 21, Target, etc. But then, I find myself shopping at Anthropologie, where most labels also read “made in China”. I don’t know how those things are made, but it definitely makes me nervous. This is a very important discussion to have and issue to think about, and I think that is how change is started. I’m not perfect and find that sometimes because of convenience and/or price I still make bad decisions, but it is a start. Great post, and great discussion. So many things to think about…


49 Whispah July 20, 2013 at 7:22 am

I’m kind of late to the conversation, but some of you may find this book helpful in making better decisions on your purchases. I carry it with me almost always, and if I forget it, I can often at least get a company’s “grade” from the website. It doesn’t give 100% of details about why each company/brand gets its grade, but at the very least, it helps me know which companies I definitely want to avoid completely, and which companies I want to support more.


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