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How To Be An Ethical Shopper

Sica Schmitz

Posted on July 14 2017

How To Be An Ethical Shopper

There seems to be a lot of talk in the ethical fashion community about what consumers should or shouldn't buy, and what companies should and shouldn't be doing, but I believe that ethical fashion is an equal relationship between designers, makers, and customers, and a healthy relationship requires respect on all sides.

I've been increasingly surprised at some of the behaviors encouraged by sustainable bloggers or exhibited by sustainable shoppers, and I think part of the problem is that those of us in the selling side of sustainable fashion don't often speak up - I mean, the customer is always right, right? 

But I don't think it's right to remain silent when there's an opportunity to change things, and since some of the core concepts in ethical fashion are transparency and dialogue, I want to have one with you, my customers, about how to create a truly sustainable and ethical fashion industry. 

How to be an ethical shopper


I recently read a post by a sustainable fashion blogger - who I generally really respect - that was having some serious buyer's remorse about a recent sustainable shopping spree. Her conclusion was to return everything, and I get it. It's easy to get caught up in the desire for something until your credit card bill arrives. It's normal to fall in love with new things even when you're trying really really hard to "buy less/buy well." But I couldn't help but instantly feel sorry for the brands she was about send a wave of returns towards.

Whatever you paid for shipping, it likely was less than the company paid. Or maybe it was "free." And regardless of what you paid for return shipping, it likely was less than the company paid. Even if it was "free."

For small, non-Amazon companies like mine, US shipping can cost me anywhere from $3 - $17 for standard delivery, depending on the size and weight and distance. Double that for return shipping. Since at Bead & Reel we offer "free" shipping on orders over $100 (and only $5 for order under $100), that means I usually pay for shipping, or most of shipping, and buyer's remorse can cost me up to $34 - which doesn't yet include packaging.

As an ethical business, I invest in ethical packaging. It's Made in America. It's recycled. It's recyclable. Yes, even my tissue paper. A typical shipment costs me around $2.50 just in boxes, filling, and labels. And while eating up to $36.50 every time someone changes their mind may not sound like a lot to you, add that up and it's really tough on small businesses when consistently taking those kinds of losses on every return. 

This isn't to say that you shouldn't return things - you should absolutely get something that you love the fit and feel, and if it doesn't work for any number of possible reasons, of course you shouldn't be stuck with it. And I definitely know that a lot of returns are simply because online shopping can be challenging, and it's very reasonable to not know how something will look in person or on you until you've tried it on. What I am saying is that ethical shoppers do their due diligence - they make sure to read the product descriptions and check the size chart so they know what to expect, and make sure to buy things they actually really want, and really would like to keep, and really can afford.

How to be an ethical shopper


A lot of retailers work on a few different models, including things like Made to Order (where something is made once you place your order, which many of our most popular styles are) or dropship, which means small businesses - or even very large ones - don't buy things up front but instead pay for it once a customer place an order. You may have noticed that some of our styles ship directly from the designers, and that's because with those styles we're dropshipping. And it's a really great model for when a small company like me wants to test out a new designer or a new style - I can make sure it's a good fit for my customers before committing to buying a bunch of it. However, the downside is that when a customer has something Made to Order, or buys something that is dropshipped, and then returns it, I still have to pay for it. So that return may end up costing me hundreds of dollars (which, happens quite regularly): the customer gets a full refund but I still have to pay the designers for the styles they made or shipped.

While of course I always hope that I can then re-sell the returned item, some of our styles are significantly more popular than others, along with some of our sizes. The returned item may sell right away, or in the next few weeks, or it may be something I sit on for months - or longer. I have shelves full of items that customers bought and returned and I haven't been able to re-sell yet - and they aren't things I would have invested in if the customer hadn't requested it first.

This definitely isn't to talk you out of having something Made to Order, or worrying about returning something you bought from Bead & Reel. You should absolutely feel comfortable buying and returning and exchanging whatever you need, however my hope is that by understanding how small retailers work, you will be inspired to make more conscious choices about your conscious fashion - or check out our new alterations credit to find a way make your order most useful, most beautiful, and most personal to your body.

How to be an ethical shopper


I have some customers - and even friends - who only shop with me when Bead & Reel is having a sale. And I totally get the appeal of sales - it's an instant thrill, and always feels a bit naughty. And that's because it is a bit naughty, at least in how it impacts businesses. Often, stores will only mark things down because we have to - either we need to get more cash flow that month, or we need to move something that simply isn't selling fast enough. It's never something we do "just for fun" - no matter how you see sales marketed on social media. Trust me, we totally appreciate you - but we also appreciate paying our bills.

The issue is that while you pay less, our costs remain the same. Credit card processing fees, website hosting fees, shipping fees, the cost of the product itself - those don't change for us. All that changes in a sale is that we make less money - sometimes, literally losing money, just to move things along.

This isn't to say you shouldn't shop sales - I definitely understand that not everyone can easily afford all of our styles, and I know what a privilege it is to pay full price. But if you do have the means, and the desire to truly support sustainable businesses, paying what something is really worth is really important. Fair wages should apply to every step of the supply chain - not just the garment workers - and often retailers are the ones who are getting left out of the equation. I know of yet another ethical retailer going out of business right now - and have talked to two others who are considering closing up shop by the end of this year. If we want to see the ethical retail space not just grow but also simply continue to exist, we have to make some changes in how we treat the retailers we claim to support.

How to be an ethical shopper

Now that I've had my own retail store for a few years, it's completely changed how I shop at others. I buy much less, I return much much less, I almost never shop sales, and I try extremely hard to spend my money with businesses that I really want to see succeed. It's helped me become an ethical shopper, now that I know what it's like on the other side. 

What does being an ethical shopper mean to you?


  • Kasi: August 17, 2017

    I gained a new perspective reading this. Thanks for sharing, SIca.

  • Frederique My Good Emporium: July 21, 2017

    Good to read this, Sica. You forget about packaging and paying the worth of something. It fits in with the ethos of paying fair trade but we forget about all the other bits involved in fashion retail. Thanks

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