Register Tuesday | August 20 | 2019

The Price of Being Good

It Takes a Lot of Cash to Be an Ethical Shopper

I don't like to feel guilty about what I buy. In our crazy, capitalist world, isn't shopping supposed to make you feel good? When we lay down our hard-earned money, aren't we supposed to feel as though we've made a quality investment? Even the little things should give us that satisfaction-like coffee. There is a "treat yourself" feeling to buying a gourmet latte, and yet part of me would rather not hold that signature green and white cup (with its handsome cardboard hand-protector) as I walk down the street. It just feels wrong.

Starbucks is a mega-chain, and it's growing rapidly: it's already taken over Vancouver and most of the United States. Here in Montreal, though, there are only eight franchises. We don't need them; we have Little Italy and a series of bustling independent cafés that make mean macchiatos. For the most part, we'd rather not have our coffee (or our culture) homogenized. Here, it's almost treasonous to pop into the old green and white when there's a Brûlerie St. Denis right next door.

When I was in high school, there was a cachet to showing off name brands: Jacob socks, Roots sweatpants, Gap turtlenecks. Nowadays, it is much cooler and more ethical to buy independent designs, or at least clothes that you know aren't coming from some exploited child's hands.

I will admit, however, that I have a weak spot for Starbucks' soy latte. Montreal cafés-though excellent-do not usually cater to the lactose intolerant, and the Starbucks brew is delicious. At a potluck last week, I was drunk or giddy enough to admit my unpopular weakness for this unethical brew. An anti-Starbucks gal told me that she believed Starbucks does well because of its expensive prices: the chain operates on the marketing principle that customers associate high prices with high quality. It's true, I thought, I do savour a skinny latte more if I've broken a $10 bill on it. And I'd better, because it often costs more than my entire lunch.

Price as an indication of quality is not just for empires like Starbucks. Maisonneuve's own Jonathan Montpetit recently wrote an excellent article on the rise of ethical businesses. He points out that most of us have budgets we must adhere to; what marketers want to know is how we choose to splurge. As a result, entrepreneurial types have learned to capitalize on conscience. Ever since the Gap's reputation was tarnished by allegations that it used sweatshop labour, its white T-shirts have never been quite the same. Sure, most of us still shop at the Gap from time to time-it has excellent basics and its sale prices are unbelievable-but there's something a bit secretive about such purchases. I personally love Gap pyjamas and think their bras are some of the best available. But while I may get my lingerie from the Gap, I am not going to buy a sweatshirt with "GAP" sprawled across the front. Nor will I don a splashy dress displayed in the company's windows nationwide. I don't really want people to know I shop there. It's just not something to advertise (though Sarah Jessica Parker is doing a good job).

When I was in high school, there was a cachet to showing off name brands: Jacob socks, Roots sweatpants, Gap turtlenecks. Nowadays, it is much cooler and more ethical to buy independent designs, or at least clothes that you know aren't coming from some exploited child's hands. Companies like American Apparel (owned and started by a Montrealer) exemplify this trend.

A clear conscience comes with a price tag, though. I was slightly shocked last week while browsing through the racks at American Apparel's St. Laurent location. Amid the bright white lights and the colourful array of cotton gear, the most glaring thing was the prices. The "permanent collection" items are still reasonably priced (I thoroughly recommend every girl own one of the scarf shirts/skirts that go for $12), but there are now "limited edition" items as well. A standard paper-thin T-shirt with a couple of extra stitches at the bust to make it ballerina-style goes for forty bucks. Without tax.

The pricey T-shirts, the guilt-free eggs: do they merely represent the price of being good? Or are we being snookered into paying more simply for the idea of being good?

When I first bought an American Apparel T-shirt, I was happy with the price (around the $20 mark). I felt good about my choice, both morally and otherwise. No one can deny the hotness factor of their basic T-shirts, and I loved the colour and the fit. But then, after a couple of washes, the sexy T started to unravel around the seams. It wasn't long before the shirt was relegated to "home wear." A friend of mine bought the AA hooded sweatshirt and had the same problem. I know clothes aren't meant to last forever, just as I know that I will (and should) be charged more for items that are not exploitative or are ethical in origin. I have no problem paying a little extra for detailed attention, either-I've paid $200 for jeans, and I'll do it again. But even I, a girl who can justify buying Juicy Tubes lip gloss for $26, find $40 for a T-shirt a little steep, especially when it's going to fall apart in the wash.

The grocery store is another place where conscience and wallet clash. If you want to eat well, you have to buy fresh food or choose organic-but then you pay twice as much. It seems absurd that you have to pay a higher price to buy hormone-free food, and even more absurd that doing so gets you a reputation as a yuppie. Yuppie or not, I doubt you want cancer-causing agents in your dinner. For most of us, grocery shopping usually means making choices like "I deserve the free-range eggs, but I'll make do with the 79¢ semi-mutant broccoli." The good news is that the organic-food aisles are growing and brands like President's Choice are looking to cash in on this market, thus levelling the playing field a little by introducing some competition.

The pricey T-shirts, the guilt-free eggs: do they merely represent the price of being good? Or are we being snookered into paying more simply for the idea of being good? Sadly, very few of us can afford to be ethical at all times (save those who have enough time to grow their own food and sew their own clothes). With any luck, consumers will demand stricter standards for the production of the things they buy. Over the next few years, I hope that certain benchmarks will be set, so we won't have to choose between being good and being broke. For now, though, organic food and sweatshop-free clothes are still considered luxuries. And if you want them, you'll have to pay a pretty penny.

Emma Appleby (Poppy Wilkinson) is a fabulous force on the Montreal scene. Read more recent columns by Emma Appleby.