Is Buying Nothing New Bad for the Economy?

A few months ago I shared that I would not be buying anything new in 2012. It started as a practical and adventurous challenge to myself: could I refrain from buying any new clothing for an entire year? It turns out (with 3 months left to go) that I can. But something has been nagging me lately about this challenge: it penalizes all companies, not just the ones with less than stellar business and supply chain practices that I want to avoid. 

The other night, M asked a hypothetical question about this challenge: “What would happen to the U.S. economy if more people did what you were doing?” I knew the answer right away. “If more people didn’t buy anything new, it would keep our struggling economy stagnant, if not depress it even more.” 

For better or for worse, the American economy heavily depends on consumer spending to jumpstart and keep the economy growing in this competitive global era. Since around 70 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) is based on consumer spending, if everyone began shopping at thrift and second-hand stores, it should signal a dangerous shift in the bedrock of our economic stability. That’s why economists express optimism when there is a statistically significant uptick in consumerism, especially on household goods. It means that things are getting better. But if people aren’t buying necessities like toilet paper, economists know that something is seriously wrong.

There’s plenty to be said about consumer spending as our economy’s bedrock, but for now, I’d like to share about how I plan to modify this year-long challenge of not buying anything new.

Find Out How Many Slaves Work for You

There is a fine line between guilt-tripping and building awareness on the dark side of consumerism. Most people don’t like learning that they are contributing to a global slave trade of men, women, and children around the world when they shop at stores that sell T-shirts harvested by child slaves in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan. Or when they learn that the metals needed for all computers, e-readers, iPads, and the like are mined in countries plagued by war and sexual violence. Or how pornopgrahy is listed on the U.S. Department of Labor’s List of Slave-Made Goods given the prevalence of forced, coerced, or underage women and children in the commercial sex industry. It just doesn't feel good to know you're doing something bad.

It simply doesn’t feel good to know these things. Guilt fades quickly, though. We have a well-exercised ability to gloss over these realities to help us survive the daily grind. And by we, I mean myself included, although I'm trying.

The first step in trading guilt for responsible spending is to understand the supply chains of what you buy. While not meant to be a scientific calculation, the Slavery Footprint app is a helpful, user-friendly tool that estimates how many slaves are working for you. When I took the test last year, it estimated that 44 slaves worked for me. This year, it’s down to 42, but that’s still 42 too many.

Consign or Donate Excess Clothing

The second step is to investigate the reasons why your Slavery Footprint app score is so high, which are included on the final page. For many people, it will be technology and/or clothing. It was definitely clothing* for me. Many of us want to simplify our closets, purchase more ethically-produced clothing, and know more accurately whether our purchases are doing good or harm. But we’re also likely enamored with the latest fashions (“oxblood”-colored items this fall?) and enjoy wearing nice things. 

My friend Kim at the gracious gaze has done a tremendous job in her Simple Closet series of going through the steps you should take to clear out and simplify your closet. It may seem silly, but developing a mission statement of sorts for what you want your style and closet to look like is really helpful in orienting you when tempted with future purchases. For instance, I would like my style to consist ofvintage, ethical, high-quality, and feminine clothing, which basically means I own a lot of vintage A-line dresses and that I’m gradually replacing my wardrobe with vintage or sustainably-created clothing one item at a time.

Now it’s time to sort into piles: definitely keep, maybe keep, consign, and donate. Try to be objective about it. I guarantee that you’ll waver on a few pieces. Take this as a maybe, but also start accepting that it may end up in the consign or donate piles. Also remember that only 15-20% of what you donate is actually sold; the rest is sorted into bins and processed into industrial rags or exported to developing countries.

Research and Reward Good Companies

It can’t be only about not buying anything; it must also include researching and rewarding businesses that are doing well if we are to see a shift in our economy. By not buying anything new at all, I’m not only voting with my dollar against companies with less than stellar business and supply chain practices, but I’m also not voting for companies that are sustainable, eco-friendly, or multiple-bottom-line. 

So each month on this little blog I’d like to highlight a company that is innovative, mission-driven, and socially- and/or environmentally-oriented. I will likely try out their product beforehand, give a summary of their business model and goals, and if possible, include links for discounts or such for you to try the products if interested, as well. For instance, I’ve already profiled Radiant Cosmetics, a for-profit cosmetics company that donates 20% of their profits to local anti-trafficking initiatives and shelters for survivors. 

Plan Ahead for Holiday Gift Giving

Gift-giving for Christmas or other holidays can be difficult, especially if your family and friends appreciate new items more than hand-crafted or second-hand treasures. Personally, I appreciate the thought that goes into creating something from scratch, such as a quilt or piece of art, but I know that’s not everyone’s preference. With the advent of Pinterest, I think the quality and creativity of these handmade gifts have increased, but end-of-year giving may still be expensive and from stores that are not certified as ethically-sourced and produced. 

To recap, let’s consider doing the following:

  • Find out how many slaves are working for you through the Slavery Footprint app

  • Consign or donate excess clothing

  • Research and reward good companies

  • Plan ahead for holiday gift-giving

What other steps would/have you included in your journey to purchasing ethical, sustainable, and/or eco-friendly products? What are your biggest frustrations with this movement for fair trade and ethical style? 

Photo credit: GOOD
* There isn’t an option to include whether clothing was thrifted or second-hand, so I’m guessing that my score would actually be significantly less. Even so, the non-vintage clothing I do thrift was sourced, manufactured, and distributed in ways identical to new clothing.