Conscious consumerism may be a fairly recent phenomenon, but it certainly has caught on in a big way. In the midst of the information age, transparency has become an increasingly prevalent issue for many consumers, who, more and more, want to know where the products they buy and use in their daily life are coming from, and how those products are made. Consumers, in many ways, are beginning to use the process of buying goods as a way of demonstrating their values, and their commitment to those values. Further, consumers increasingly believe that they can make a difference by choosing carefully where they spend their hard-earned dollars.
So what exactly is conscious consumerism? Change.org defines it as seeking to “increase awareness of the impact of buying decisions on our health, happiness, and the environment. Through education and discussion we encourage people to live in line with their values by better prioritizing time, money, and material things.”
For some, conscious consumerism may seem like a bit of a contradiction in terms. Consumerism, after all is a part of a larger economic system (capitalism) that often seems to run in opposition to consciousness. Tony Schwartz, CEO of the Energy Project, a consulting firm that works with businesses to build a happier workplace, wrote about conscious capitalism for the Harvard Business Review, and explains “both [consciousness and capitalism] are freighted words that have come to stand for fundamentally different worldviews. Capitalism is associated with individualism, personal ambition, the accumulation of wealth and power, and an identity grounded in external accomplishment. The word conscious, or more specifically consciousness, is associated with self-awareness, personal development, the greater good, and a worldview that eschews competition, hierarchy, and materialism.” Yet many companies are proving that it’s possible to run a business with both social and environmental responsibility in mind. In fact, Schwartz found that such businesses tend to out-perform their competitors.
Among those businesses which seem to prove that it is in fact possible to be both successful and ethically conscious is Whole Foods, whose CEO, John Mackey described conscious capitalism in an interview with Forbes as “a way of thinking about business to ensure that it is grounded in a higher purpose to enhance its positive impact on the world. When reinvented in this way, capitalism is an extraordinarily powerful system of value creation mutually benefiting all stakeholders.”
Mackey added, “when businesses operate with higher purpose beyond profits and create value for all stakeholders, tradeoffs are largely eliminated, performance is elevated, and the entire system flourishes. Everyone wins. Remember business is not a zero-sum game.”
Conscious consumerism, and the companies with which consumers tend to associate the term, have certainly had their failures and setbacks, and not all companies with a commitment to a cause do as much good as their customers might like to think. Still, though, the shift toward a more knowledgeable consumer is a heartening one, and there are many companies out there to which conscious consumers can feel good about purchasing from. Finding these kinds of companies might take a little extra effort, but as consumers, we can rest a little easier knowing that we don’t always have to compromise ethics for quality or style.
We’ve broken down a list of 10 companies, each of which falls into the broader consumer goods category, that uphold a social mission that you can feel good about as a customer. We’ve chosen to focus on consumer goods because these are most people’s everyday purchases and the items most people seek out as gifts. There are countless diatribes regarding ethical eating, and so instead we wanted to focus on what you can do to shop ethically.
Jewelry: Brilliant Earth
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, right? Well, as beautiful as a diamond might look resting elegantly on your ring finger, the stone is a player in one of the most controversial industries out there, and conflict-free jewelry is actually much hard to find than you might expect.
Conflict free jewelry is actually harder to find than you might expect. While the Gemological Institute of America claims that the vast majority of diamonds in today’s market are conflict-free, in reality the odds are closer to a one in four chance that any given mined diamond is from a conflict zone. According to Salon and the Foreign Policy Group, nowadays there is essentially no such thing as a conflict-free diamond.
Those that argue that most diamonds on the American market are conflict-free are largely referring to Kimberley Process certified diamonds. In 2003 the United Nations General Assembly Resolution established the Kimberley Process as a way for consumers to be sure that the diamonds they purchased were ethical, but because there is no real way of distinguishing a conflict-free diamond from any other kind of diamond, and because most of the world’s diamonds (conflict-free or not) must travel through just a few cities, retailers have largely stopped asking questions of their suppliers. If you want to be sure of purchasing ethical jewelry, the safest route is to purchase a synthetic stone. And, as an added bonus, synthetic diamonds, which are grown in a laboratory, aren’t just more ethical than mined diamonds, they’re generally quite a bit cheaper, too.
Brilliant Earth is a company selling engagement rings, wedding rings, and other jewelry whose wares are entirely conflict-free. The company sells only synthetic jewels and uses recycled gold for all of its jewelry. In this way, jewelry from a company like Brilliant Earth is both more ethical and more environmentally friendly than jewelry from conventional retailers.
Looking for more casual jewelry? Try Rebel Nell, an ethical jewelry company based in Detroit which started with the sole purpose of employing disadvantaged women in the community and providing fair wage job opportunities.
Men’s and women’s basics: Everlane
Everlane has been getting a lot of press recently, and rightly so. The company, which emphasizes transparency, is the brainchild of Michael Preysman, who left a job in venture capital to start the company in 2010, when he was just 25 years old. Since then, its modern-classic pieces have been seen on the likes of Angelina Jolie, Jessica Alba, and Olivia Munn. Despite being a new favorite among celebrities, Everlane offers a variety of reasonably priced basics in a chic color palette, such as the women’s box cut tee, which you can buy online for $15, or the short sleeve denim shirt, which retails for $48. Feeling extra spendy? You can also grab a luxurious cashmere tunic for $155, or the infamous (and ever-popular) Petra Market Tote for $365. Want to know more about Everlane’s unique business model and commitment to social responsibility? Check out profiles of each of their factories on their website, and read about their philosophy here.
Looking for something more casual than casual chic? Try Alternative Apparel for more ethically made basics.
Women’s shirts: Tradlands
Tradlands is a women’s-only shirting company started by husband and wife team Sadie and Jeremy Roberts in 2013. The company, which is headquartered in Maine, with shirts sewn in San Francisco, designs shirts that are a perfect choice for the stylish tomboy in your life. The company makes shirts which, in the founders’ own words, are “menswear-inspired” but tailored perfectly to fit a woman’s figure. While pricier than many offerings you’ll find at Everlane, Tradlands prides itself on offering incredibly durable, practical and perfectly tailored women’s shirts in a variety of beautiful (and timeless) prints and fabrics, all of which should last you a lifetime. And, as always, buying American-made is a great way of insuring that your clothes are sweatshop-free.
Tradlands notes on their website that “the intention is to create garments that last, clothing that a mother can pass down to her daughter…or that her daughter will borrow from her closet. We are committed to designing and constructing items you love today and value for years to come.” You can read more about the Tradland’s story and philosophy on their website.
The company is currently between its fall and spring collections, but should have spring and summer prints available soon. Favorites from past collections include the Arapahoe and Brunswick flannels, as well as a variety of classic chambrays and oxfords in muted colors.
Men and women’s denim: Imogene & Willie
A denim company that manufactures men’s and women’s jeans, with a heavy dose of Americana thrown in, Imogene & Willie jeans are something special. Carrie and Matt Eddmenson are both Tennessee natives, and their Nashville-based company reflects both their passion for denim and their family’s history in the business (Carrie’s family owns a denim factory). Imogene & Willie itself is named for two of Carrie and Matt’s grandparents, and according to the pair, the name represents their families ethos and philosophy. In his own words, Matt says “our grandparents came from a time when no corners were cut and things were done right. They believed doing it right the first time was the only way. We wanted to honor them by doing the same thing. Our concept is simple: to make a quality product here in the USA.”
Imogene & Willie sews jeans with fabrics that are made in the U.S., and the jeans are then designed and sewn in the U.S. as well, in either the Nashville retail store or in Portland, Ore., where the company has recently expanded. The company’s jeans are decidedly different from many on the market today; 100% denim with no or little stretch, they are made with an emphasis on quality and durability and should last you a lifetime with proper care. Find out more on the company’s website.
Men’s and women’s underwear and socks: PACT
It’s safe to say that most people probably don’t particularly enjoy the process of shopping for socks or underwear, but at the very least, if you’re shopping at PACT, you know that they’re made fairly. According to the company’s website, PACT is “obsessed with a big idea: super soft organic cotton that makes the world a better place. Socks with soul, altruistic underwear, and other everyday essentials manufactured with fabrics that feel good and go easy on the environment.”
Perhaps the only company making organic, fair trade underwear, PACT is pretty unique. That being said, Commando is another alternative (manufactured in the U.S.), if you’re looking for slightly racier (and lacier) options.
Men’s shirts: Taylor Stitch
Taylor Stitch has a pretty unique business model: It releases new collections every week (every Wednesday to be precise) that are designed in San Francisco and manufactured in California. According to its website, the three founders “set out to make the best custom shirt possible.”
How is Taylor Stitch socially responsible? Well, in its founders’ words, “we partnered with a family business that has been manufacturing custom shirts in the U.S. for over 85 years.”
Taylor Stitch focuses on tailored, slim-fitting, on-trend styles, and it tends to sell out quickly, so if you see a shirt that you love, be sure to act fast. You can read more about the company on its website.
Men’s denim: Noble Denim
Like many of the other retailers on our list, Noble Denim’s line-up is made entirely in the U.S. Indeed, the company even offers up a list of its current suppliers, so you know exactly where each component of your jeans is coming from.
The company started initially when one man (Chris Sutton) decided he wanted to make himself a pair of jeans. Eventually, what started out as a personal project grew into a business that has partnered with a family-owned manufacturer in Cincinnati to make some seriously durable raw denim, breathing life into an area where American manufacturing has long been considered doomed.
Bags and backpacks: Edike Ayiti
Edike Ayiti is a backpack manufacturer based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which is built on the idea that the best way to rejuvenate a devastated area is to give people jobs. Christian Elliot, one of the company’s founders told Thread Magazine that the business was born “out of a sense of frustration at not being able to participate in the reconstruction process [after the 2010 earthquake]. We felt hopeless and thought we could offer something more than the passive fundraising everyone else was doing.”
Edike Ayiti translates to “Educate Haiti,” and the company’s name stems from their partnership with a neighborhood school in Port-au-Prince. The company hires craftsmen to manufacture waxed cotton and leather backpacks which are then sold in U.S. In return, the company pays its workers fair wages and reinvests 20% of their profits back into Haiti through their partnerships both with NGO’s and with sponsorships they’ve undertaken of schoolchildren at primary schools around the city. See the bags and read more about Edike Ayiti’s mission on their website.
Teysha manufactures flats and boots in Antigua, Guatemala, using colorful, Mayan-woven fabrics in a variety of bright patterns. The company sources all of its materials locally, often from women-owned businesses right in Guatemala. According to the company’s website, their mission is to “create a happy, safe, and empowering environment where the talented local artists can share their gifts, be treated well, and have opportunities to grow.”
Additionally, Teysha utilizes what they call a “Grassroots Manufacturing” system, in which boot-makers are all allowed to have their own specialty, and work right from their homes, amid their families. “That means that your boots travel from house to house through many stages of production,” the Teysha website reads.
Looking for more colorful, ethically-made shoes? Try SoleRebels, a fair trade, Ethiopian-owned company based in Addis Ababa, which employs local women and sources all of its inputs fairly and locally.
Personal care products: Lush
Lush may be a larger company than many of the businesses on our list, but it’s also an admirable example of a company which has managed to expand while maintaining its commitment to ethical practices. The company prides itself on only sourcing ingredients from companies that don’t test on animals and has strict environmental and social standards of business as well.
According to the company’s website, “At Lush, we believe in protecting people, animals and the planet. We take our commitment to this seriously. Since LUSH began, our founders have been conscious about how our products interact with the environment…the core of our philosophy is based on the highest levels of ethical standards with the lowest possible impact on the environment. Sustainability is a company-wide priority that flows through our products, from our hands to yours…environmental and social stewardship are critical elements in the business decisions that we make on a daily basis.”