Treat yourself (in a sustainable, ethical way)

We don't always consider the cost of retail
bamboo combs and brushes laid out on a table
Courtesy of Green Life Trading Co.

We all love retail therapy, but we don’t always consider the true price. Not just the dollars on our credit cards, but the human and environmental cost behind every purchase.

“Purchasing always affects someone else, and it always affects the environment,” says Sasha Stone, founder of Green Life Trading Co. As a college student studying environmental science, Stone sewed her own muslin dry goods bags in her dorm room and constantly sought out sustainable products — things she knew most people didn’t have the time or patience to do. In October 2018, she launched Green Life Trading Co., a low-waste online retailer that now offers around 70 household and personal care items for sale by vetted businesses that prioritize ethical, sustainable, regionally sourced products and practices. Stone fills orders using only nonplastic, post-consumer packaging sealed with plant-based compostable tape, and customers can opt out of shipping by picking up at sites around Madison. As her customer list grows, Stone has started to feel unexpected benefits in the simplest daily tasks.

“I was doing my dishes last night using the Dishwashing Puck made in Chicago by the coolest husband-and-wife team ever, who are so passionate about climate change and they pay fair wages, and just doing my dishes with that I realized makes me feel so much better,” says Stone. “I had never really thought of this as self-care before, but it is.”

Krystle Marks had a similar “heart shift” when, after years in the traditional fashion industry as a stylist, she could no longer look away from its dark underbelly. When she learned that of the 40 million garment workers in the world, 85% are women making less than $3 a day (and that many of them live in poverty and are vulnerable to human trafficking) she turned her focus inward.

“I used to buy clothes like they were disposable napkins, and so I started shopping differently,” Marks says. But she soon learned that her personal style choices were limited because there were so few ethical brands. That’s when she partnered with Abby Felix Winzenried to create Lev Apparel. The clothing design and manufacturing brand aims to empower women by allowing shoppers to choose stylish, high-quality garments for five different body types, and employs at-risk women in New Delhi, India, at fair living wages to manufacture the clothes.

Fair Indigo is another local clothing brand dedicated to ethical, sustainable sourcing — one of the first of its kind in the world. From its official start in 2006, Madison-based Fair Indigo has worked closely with a farming family in Peru to manufacture organic pima cotton clothing. When Tanya Thorson came on as president, she knew about the company’s “dirt to shirt” commitment to producing “quality products with a purpose” — but she never expected the change in her own life.

“I’d go into my closet and I probably had 75 tops but wore 10 of them on a regular basis,” says Thorson. “It’s been a big change for me personally, now that I’m part of this brand. I just find there’s so much more meaning to what we do. Instead of walking into my closet and feeling sort of numb, I think about what goes into it from beginning to end, because I’ve now been made aware of the things that happen behind the scenes.”

Thorson says cleaning out your closet also cleans out your mind — and it doesn’t mean you have to stop shopping. Be thoughtful about donating what no longer serves you, then go ahead and splurge on that sweater you love — especially if it does double duty by providing a living wage and protecting the Earth’s resources.

Green Life Trading Co.’s Stone takes the same approach — don’t throw away what you’ve got; use it up and choose differently next time. “I tell people not to buy my products all the time,” she says with a laugh.

Lev Apparel’s Marks agrees. “One of the most sustainable things we can do is actually reuse something that’s already been produced,” says Marks, adding that everyone should follow their own conscience and resolve to make changes at their own pace. “It’s not so much that you need to do a complete 180 and change everything. Doing very little does a lot. If everybody did a little, we’d have a huge impact.”