Shop Your Way to a Better World: 6 Steps to Socially Responsible Shopping

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What do you think about when you buy a new sofa? Probably you think about the size, the color, the style, how easy it will be to maintain. Almost certainly you think about the cost — whether or not it's a good value. But what about the human cost? Who makes the stuff that fills our homes? Where do they live? How are they treated? 

Events like the recent disaster at a garment factory in Bangladesh, which killed more than a thousand workers, are a sobering reminder that in a global economy, the purchasing decisions you make can have an impact not just on your wallet, but on the lives of people all over the world. Here are a few suggestions to help you buy things that are not just good for your home, but good for the world we all live in.

Shop Vintage. 
Buying stuff that has been there all along is one of the best choices you can make for the environment and the world. It's also a great way to save money, and pick up a unique piece that you won't see in anyone else's home. Garage sales, estate sales, flea markets, and vintage stores are excellent sources for one-of-a-kind, gently loved or DIY-able items. (And of course (shameless plug) there's also our classifieds.) Before you go, check out the Ten Commandments of Used Furniture, from resident vintage shopping guru Dabney, to help you shop smart.  

Shop Local. 
Supporting local merchants and craftspeople means making an investment in your community. Plus there's the good feeling that comes from knowing the people who made your furniture. That's worth a few extra dollars, right?

Shop the Source. 
Hooray for the internet! Sites like Etsy and BigCartel allow you to buy handmade and one-of-a-kind items directly from the maker, even if they don't happen to live close to you. Since there's no markup, more money goes to the artist, and the extra savings get passed on to you. 

Shop American. 
Look for those three little words: "Made in USA." This is generally a good indicator that the workers who made the items you're filling your home with are being fairly treated. Here's an inexhaustive list of American furniture makers, plus a guide to even more companies making items for your home here in the USA. 

Shop Responsibly.
Check to see if the stores you shop at have policies about social responsibility. Often you can find these on their website. If such a policy is posted, it will usually detail the company's position on things like child labor, forced labor, minimum wages, overtime, and the right of workers to unionize. Read the policy and see if you agree with what's in it. Does the company have a way of ensuring that suppliers comply with the policy? Do they have a procedure for terminating relationships with suppliers who don't comply? If you don't see such a policy posted, you can write to the company to ask if one exists. Transparency is good. Let them know that this is something that's important to you. 

Shop Thoughtfully. 
Do I really need this? Can I make something that I already have work in this space? Should I wait a year and save some money so I can buy something high quality that will really last? These are all things that are worth considering before you buy anything at all. We as Americans have often fallen prey to the idea that more stuff equals more happiness, but as I've started cleaning out my home recently I've realized that the opposite is true. A home with less stuff feels lighter and happier. It's easier to clean. And when you have fewer things, you'll appreciate the stuff you do have more, especially if you limit yourself to things you really love. (For more thoughts in this vein, check out Julia's great tips for spending less and reducing clutter.)

Time to turn it over to you, the readers. Do you have strategies for buying things that have a positive global impact? Favorite sources? Please share. 

(Image: Liz Vidyarthi/Lyndsay and Fitzhugh's Summer Cottage in the City)

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