Author Kelsey Timmerman shares some thoughts on how to be an engaged consumer

If there’s one person who can shed some light on the idea of being an engaged consumer, it’s my writing pal Kelsey Timmerman.

I met Kelsey at a writers’s conference a few years ago when he was working on his book, “Where Am I Wearing?” Actually, he was talking a lot about his underwear. That’s because he traveled around the world to find out where his clothes were made, from China to Cambodia and right up the Thruway from here to Perry, NY.

Since Kelsey has actually visited the manufacturing plants where some of our clothes are made and spent time with the workers – and not on pre-approved trips; he just showed up and talked to people to get real stories – I asked him to share some thoughts on how to be an engaged consumer.

First, he suggest that we don’t buy without thinking. “I think we should be engaged consumers and not mindlessly buy things on a whim,” Kelsey explains. (That’s part of my reason for avoiding Walmart for 31 day; I spend too much money on stuff I don’t need because I get distracted by shiny stuff.) “We should let our morals and values help guide our purchasing decisions.” That doesn’t mean always buying “Made in the USA”, but if that’s your committment then you should do your best to try and stick to it.

As for buying foreign products?

“[P]ersonally I don’t think buying goods made outside the USA is bad,” he says. “We need to realize that how and how much we shop has major implications around the world.” 

He cites America’s economic woes. “[O]ur economy is in the toilet and we’re buying less stuff. This has had major ramifications on people around the world. Factory orders went down and workers in China, Cambodia, and Bangladesh lost their jobs. Many of these people are just one bad thing – like losing a job – away from a life and death situation. Yes, not all countries are created equals. China has great labor laws but abysmal working conditions. Workers in the factories will work 100+ hours in a week and may be told to clock out and go back to work. Will this change? Doubtful. Cambodia’s factories are inspected much more by the international community, but there is still plenty of unrest and corruption.”

He explains that the issue of buying foreign products isn’t black and white. Not all workers are exploited by the marketplace, and we shouldn’t buy foreign just so foreign workers can keep their jobs. “The truth is somewhere in the muddy gray waters in between. Yes, these people needs this job, but they should be paid and treated better in many circumstances.”

And it’s not as easy as simply reading clothing labels. Not all products are created equal, and neither are company social responsibility pledges.

“If you wait until you’re in the store shopping, it’s too late to distinguish a brand that cares from one that doesn’t,” Kelsey says. Instead, he suggests that you check out the websites for companies to see if they have a social responsibility pledge and determine how legitimate it is.

“If they have a paragraph or two saying they self-monitor the factories and don’t reveal the locations of those factories, they’re just paying lip service to caring,” Kelsey explains. “If they belong to an organization like the Fair Labor Association or the Worker’s Rights Consortium they are making more of an effort. If they are actively discussing the impact their business has on the lives of people who assemble and sew their products and trying to tip that impact to the good side of things, they are leading the way.”

Kelsey says that “studies have shown that a third of consumers would pay more for products made under good working conditions” so consumers ought to encourage companies to give them the option to buy responsibly made products.

And it goes beyond everyday clothes. “Students should ask where their uniforms come from and how the factory does on worker’s rights issues,” Kelsey suggests. “Citizens should do the same when it comes to the government purchasing. Think how many uniforms (police, firefighters, etc) your city buys. What if they were purchased at a factory where the workers made a living wage and could provide a better life for their family because of the job? What if they worked at a factory like the Alta Gracia factory?”

Being an engaged consumer is important, but it’s not going to solve the root problems that lead to worker exploitation and child slavery. Kelsey calls them “symptoms of the extreme poverty that exists in our world.”

“We need to look at solutions that treat the root cause not just the symptoms,” he says. “I believe that industries that outsource like the garment industry could play an important part in fighting poverty if done right. But that’s a big IF.”

One company he says is leading the way is NIKE. “I’m not saying NIKE is perfect, far from it, but they are doing more than most. I recently had the chance to talk with a sourcing-agent with a small up and coming label and she told me that since she’s small and doesn’t have much pull with factories she tries to go where NIKE is because they do the best at holding factories accountable for how their employees are treated.”

That’s a great start!

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