As a country, we buy a ton of stuff each year—the average household spends $1,700 on clothes alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average woman in the U.S. today owns 30 outfits—compared to just nine in 1930.
And most of us aren’t getting our money’s worth out of the stuff we do buy. British nonprofit organization Barnardo’s found that the average piece of women’s clothing is worn only seven times before being pushed to the back of the closet and forgotten.
A lot of that extra stuff ends up in landfills. In the U.S., the average person generates about 82 pounds of textile waste per year. But there’s more to shopping ethically than curtailing your waste.
Many of the items we use every day are produced through slave or child labor. The U.S. Department of Labor maintains a list of products known to be made or harvested using slave or child labor—as of September 2016, it included 136 types of products from 75 different countries.
An estimated 27 million people around the world work in slavery conditions, the Kansas City Star reported. Children and adults work in unsafe situations for little pay to get us the stuff we buy, including our cellphones, shoes and even peel-and-eat shrimp. It’s unlikely you don’t use something daily that was produced unethically somewhere else and sold in the U.S.
You likely already knew that child and slave labor is a pervasive problem in our global marketplace. It’s common knowledge that some of the top brands in the U.S. employ these kinds of labor practices. But when you look at a tag on a piece of clothing and see it was made in a country with poor worker protections, do you put it back on the rack?
Probably not, researchers at The Ohio State University, the University of Texas at Austin and San Diego State University recently discovered. We have an uncanny ability to conveniently forget when we learn that something was made unethically.
Through a series of experiments, the researchers learned that when we’re presented with information about where a product came from—like a desk made with wood from the tropical rainforest versus a sustainable tree farm, or jeans made with child labor versus fair labor—we’re a lot less likely to remember the truth about the product that was produced using questionable practices.
The subjects in one experiment remembered correctly that desks were produced with sustainable wood 60 percent of the time, but only remembered that desks were made with rainforest wood 45 percent of the time. That was only 15 to 20 minutes after learning the information.
We more easily forget these negative details because they make us uncomfortable and we don’t want to think about them, the researchers said in a news release about the research. But it’s not something we’re doing on purpose.
“It’s not necessarily a conscious decision by consumers to forget what they don’t want to know,” said study author Rebecca Reczek, an assistant professor of marketing at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. “It is a learned coping mechanism to tune out uncomfortable information because it makes their lives easier.”
Another experiment showed that people who forget information about forced labor are perceived as more moral than those who straight-up ignore it. So, in a marketplace that’s filled with unethically produced stuff, forgetting feels like the better coping strategy.
You can take steps to overcome this propensity to forget and become a more ethical consumer, the researchers said. If you know something was made unethically, don’t put it in your online shopping cart and give yourself time to think about it, they said. You’ll likely soon forget why you gave pause and end up buying it later.
You can research the brands you buy from. There’s lots of information online about where our stuff comes from, but we must do the legwork to find it. If you don’t agree with how it’s made, don’t buy it. There are many brands centered around ethical labor practices and sustainability.
Yes, ethically made products are often more pricey. The perfect solution if you’re on a tight budget: Buy second-hand. Getting what you need at thrift stores and vintage shops or online at eBay, Depop, thredUP and other second-hand sites is a great way to avoid supporting brands that don’t care for their workers or the environment. It’s also much better for the planet.
What are your tips for ethical shopping? Share in the comments.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for the daily newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she edits and writes the articles that appear on Rewire, and works with its pool of freelance journalists. She has also written episodes of PBS Digital Studios series “Sound Field” and “America From Scratch.” She’s the host of the history webseries “30-Second Minnesota,” which was nominated for an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy Award. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.