Nicholas HollowsComment

This is me on a typical day.  I'm wearing pretty expensive clothing made in the US and Japan, as well as at least 6 small things that I made for myself.  It's expensive partly because it's nice quality stuff, but also because it's made by companies that pay their workers and supply chain reasonable wages, and those are things that I've chosen to prioritize. 

I try to practice what I preach, and be the kind of business that I like to buy from.  Recently I've been listening to the Why Do We Have Things? podcast over at The American Edit.  It's been very interesting for me to hear the perspectives of so many female makers and entrepreneurs, especially as a dude who makes what I consider to be gender-neutral stuff, but still with an almost exclusively male customer base (but perhaps that's another blog post entirely).  It was the episode with Marc Bain and his accompanying article Your next item of clothing should be so expensive it hurts that got me thinking about the roots of why I buy and make and sell the way I do.

The phrase "vote with your dollars"  [1] [2] [3] has become a popular way to describe making carefully considered purchases that intentionally support the kinds of businesses and manufacturing practices you'd like to see flourish.  Every purchase sends a cash signal that says "I like what you've done here, keep it up".  As a young lad, this idea influenced me greatly, and since becoming a maker it has also effected the way I source and sell things.  It's a nice way to bumper-stickerize a complex proposition, but the reality is not that simple, so here are three footnotes that I would like to add:

[1] First is that we have to work within our means.  Very few people have the resources to feel warm and fuzzy about every single purchase, it takes serious wealth to buy local, handcrafted, organic everything.  There are real economic barriers which can't be ignored.

There are also some categories, such as electronics, where there are simply no good options.  Cynics like to point at economic activists and say that their efforts and arguments are invalidated if they own an iPhone.  Those people are just excusing their own inaction.  Doing an imperfect job--at anything--shouldn't discourage you from doing as much as you can within your means.  Accept that you can't win 'em all and then keep on trying.

Buying second-hand goods can play a huge role in doing this well.  Someone, somewhere is trying to get rid of everything you've ever wanted.

[2] The second is that voting with your dollars is only a partial solution.  Money is not our only source of power.  It's important to seek out ways to express your values that have nothing to do with money.  Do things.  Make things instead of buying them.  Step back and enjoy what you already have.  Take the time to ensure that each purchase is really necessary and say no as often as you can, because it feels great.  We can't buy our way to a better life, so avoid inventing needs, and prioritize experiences over purchases.  Most purchases are only good for enhancing experiences anyway, so make sure you're getting both sides of the equation.

Accepting conscientious shopping as the singular answer to the world's problems grants far too much power to money, and it emboldens businesses to take advantage of your conscience...which they're already doing.

[3] Thus, the third is that you have to educate yourself.  Every major agribusiness has now collected a handful of organic subsidiaries.  They've done a good job of training us, myself included, to reach for the foods with the earth-toned packaging automatically.  

On a similar note, many companies--especially clothing companies that formerly made everything domestically--have recently revived a small, US-made line. They will wave their arms and shout into their marketing megaphone about it, evoking their storied American past, while discreetly making the lion's share of their profits on other products made in the lowest-wage factories in the least-regulated countries on Earth.  That token US-made line might still be the best option, but it's worthwhile to evaluate these disproportionate boasts before deciding.

We can combat these strategies with research.  Learn everything you can about businesses, makers, and brands.  Consider what their goals and priorities are, how they treat their workers (or themselves in the case of makers; self-abuse among the self-employed is real, rampant, and often glorified), how they treat the environment, where they source their materials and components, and on and on.  Learn what they intend to use your money for, and ask yourself if you approve.  There are a lot of companies using the illusion of ethical pedigree as a marketing device these days, and they're very good at it.  If you take things at face value, your dollars will rarely be going where you think they're going.

So although the axiom has at least these three flaws and likely more, it's still true that our aggregate use of capital is what shapes our economy.  Sweatshop jeans exist because buyers keep telling manufacturers that bargain pricing is their top priority.  Nothing changes until our priority shifts away from what's cheapest, and towards what's best--for ourselves, for makers and designers, for the workers in the supply chain, and for our collective future.