We often assume that the only ways to support the causes we care about are to volunteer our time or donate our money. But Jane Mosbacher Morris ’12 has another method: conscious consumerism. In her new book, Buy the Change You Want to See, Morris offers actionable steps that everyday people can take to realize their buying power and use the money they are already spending to change the world for the better. Morris argues that with US retail sales set to hit $3.8 trillion in 2019, patronizing companies that align with your values—whether that means supporting small artisan craftsmanship in developing countries or protecting the environment—is an effective way to make a difference.
What led you to write this book?
I started my career at the US Department of State where I focused on counterterrorism and women’s rights. I left that position to be the director of humanitarian action at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, where I worked on combating human trafficking and labor exploitation. I was traveling all over the world and was able to see what was happening on the ground. I saw that the agriculture sector in the developing world had a lot of engagement from large American corporations, but that same inclusion in the supply chain was not happening in the retail sector. I was coming across facilities and organizations that were building a way to counter the traditionally exploitative environments in the fashion industry and found an untapped production capacity for ethically made products. That’s when I started my company, To the Market, which connects ethical suppliers of apparel, accessories, and home goods to brands, retailers, and corporations that are hungry for interesting and ethically made products from alternative manufacturers. Once I started connecting ethical suppliers to large corporations, I saw how huge the shift in quality of life could be for these suppliers in developing countries even from a small order, so I wanted to share this concept of harnessing your purchasing power for good.
What do you think is responsible for increased consumer awareness about where products come from and how they are made?
I think it started with the food industry and the farm-to-table movement. I think as human beings, we naturally prioritize the things we engage with based on how closely they touch us. So we’ve focused on food and beverage the most because it literally goes inside our bodies. Now we are seeing some really exciting movements like clean beauty, because those products go directly on our bodies. The next logical step is the things we drape on our bodies. And then it is a progression where consumers begin to say, “Tell me how this is made.”
How do you recommend someone get started with harnessing their purchasing power?
It can be really overwhelming at first. I recommend starting with one product category that you care about. For me, that was fashion. Two helpful tools are knowthechain.org, which rates a number of large companies across product categories, and sourcemap.com, which is available to corporations and allows them to see the journey a product takes from raw materials to the brand or retailer. For other categories, like coffee or chocolate, there are robust third-party certifications that consumers have access to. If you are a coffee drinker and you care about making sure farmers are compensated fairly, you can look for terms like Fair Trade Certified or Direct Trade when purchasing. Pick the thing you care about, do some research, and then commit to buying at least partly from companies that are operating in a way that aligns with your values.
What are the challenges stopping consumers from only buying from companies that align with their values?
I think there are many misconceptions. I’m a proud capitalist and believe in market forces, and I think that some people think that conscious consumerism is a concept only for the hyper-progressive—but that’s not true. A second misconception is the idea that being a conscious consumer is more expensive, but that’s also not true. There are so many ways you can be a conscious consumer that have nothing to do with money. One example we give in the book is that you can simply say “no” to things you don’t need, like a plastic bag or extra packets of soy sauce in a takeout order that get thrown away.
Will we ever reach a point where the consumer doesn’t need to do any research because all companies will abide by ethical standards?
I think we will. It will just take pressure from not only consumers but also from employees and investors. More and more, employees only want to work for companies that align with their values. And individual investors all the way up to massive hedge funds are saying “If you don’t meet certain environmental and social criteria, we can’t give you money.” The pressure is there, and change acceleration happens so quickly. It just takes one person to take a stance on something publicly—look how quickly companies got rid of plastic straws!
How does consciously consuming compare to writing a check to a charity you support?
I think it’s even more powerful. Of course charitable giving is so important, and there are so many causes that are purely humanitarian and don’t involve the supply chain at all. But the average American family earns nearly $75,000 a year and spends nearly $57,000 of that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Half of the amount spent goes toward necessities like housing or healthcare, but the other half is left over for food and non-necessities. So that’s almost $30,000 a year that the average American family has discretion over, and regardless of budget constraints, they are ultimately in a position to decide how they spend it. And the average American family definitely doesn’t have nearly $30,000 to donate to charity.