How to Be an Advocate Without Being a Jerk

I know. I promised to follow the last post with a post exploring different types of socially-conscious business models (i.e., cooperatives and direct-trade supply chains). However, owing to life being extra busy right now and to my realization that writing something (semi-intelligent) on alternative business models first requires some pretty dense research, that post is still in the works. 

But in the meantime, I’ve lately been turning over some other thoughts about the other side ethical consumerism–that is, the consumer side rather than the business side. And I figured these musings were worth sharing. 


It started as a normal conversation about, you know, sweatshops and overseas manufacturing and organic cotton…and had gone downhill from there. After one of my drawn-out (and rather snotty) speeches about how boycotting big, bad clothing corporations is a matter of Basic Human Responsibility, my exasperated (and probably accused-feeling) friend had had enough.

“What about the stuff you bought at H&M last weekend, Ellie?”

I blinked. And stammered out some excuse about needing something to wear for an interview on a time-crunch. She was not amused. And I don’t know if this was just a last-ditch effort to save face or some latent attitude of consumer self-righteousness that came welling up, but whatever the case, something to the effect of…

…flew out of my mouth.

It was not one of my finer moments.

I wish I could say that this was one anecdote, but if we’re being honest, I’ve got a collection of a dozen or so similar stories of how being a consumer ethics “advocate” did nothing except land me on a huge moral high-horse and alienate everyone around me.

Who knew that trying to save the world through purchasing choices could make you such an arrogant jerk?

The fact is it’s a really easy pattern to slip into. One minute, you’re reading the label on a t-shirt and trying to trace its country of origin out of real concern for the people who manufactured it. The next, you’re judging that guy who just indiscriminately threw 10 of those shirts into his cart without looking twice. And then the next minute, you’re the one buying those 10 t-shirts because you just got put in charge of the tye-dye booth for some campus event or craft fair…and you really don’t have the time or money to track down 10 Fair Trade, Certified Organic, “ethical” shirts.

It’s a vicious cycle. And honestly, beyond just being plain annoying, this sort of attitude can be pretty counter-productive in persuading people that putting effort into making ethical consumer decisions is worth their time. No matter how noble the cause, no one wants to listen to what you have to say if they feel that you are looking down upon their personal choices, or worse, that you don’t always practice what you preach. 

So is there a better way? Is it possible to pursue ethical consumerism and encourage others to do the same in a way that doesn’t make them feel preached at?

I’ve learned that yes, there absolutely is. Here are a few helpful tips for doing so:

1. Get off the soapbox.


In my experience, people usually do not enjoy 15-minute-long schpiels full of the Facts and Figures of supply-chain abuses and labor trafficking. Especially when these speeches are used to cast judgement on their personal choices, and especially when they haven’t expressed interest in hearing about those things. Don’t get me wrong, seeking to inform people around you is important, but a soapbox speech is generally not the most effective way to go about that. Instead…

2. Allow your knowledge to come up naturally in conversation. 


People don’t like to be preached at, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care and aren’t curious. So if a friend asks you, say, why you only buy Fair Trade chocolate, tell them honestly that you’re concerned about the child labor issues in that industry. For the moment, keep it brief and to the point. If they express interest in knowing more, feel free to go deeper. If they don’t, then just let it go. You’ve still put the issue on their radar without pressuring them to hear more than they want to.

3. Don’t expect people–yourself included–to make perfect purchasing choices. 

So, you’ve informed your friends about the importance of making ethical purchasing choices and they really seemed to agree with you. It’s natural to expect them to start buying only local produce along with you, right? Nope.  Making ethical purchasing choices is hard, especially when it comes to items that meet basic needs like groceries and clothing. It’s a habit that requires information, financial resources, and practice in addition to good intentions. And it takes time for anyone to figure out. With this in mind, give yourself and others room for imperfection in their purchasing behavior. You’ll avoid making your friends feel judged and will also find it easier to practice what you preach.

4. View ethical consumerism as an ongoing process. 


Because learning to make informed purchasing choices is hard, it’s helpful to view the whole thing as a gradual process. I’ve found that most people really do care about supporting ethical companies, but demanding that they make a complete overhaul in their habits overnight is a bit of a turn-off. Instead, try encouraging people to start with small steps, like choosing to “go Fair Trade” with just one or two products they regularly  buy. Even simple steps like this are effective ways for people to make progress towards more-mindful purchasing.

5. Remember: there is no one way to be an Everyday Advocate. 


Some people may veer towards products with a Fair Trade label, some may become loyal to a local worker-owned brand they really love. Others may still buy mainstream brands and instead reduce how much they use and write letters to the company. All are valid ways in which people use their consumer position to advocate for justice. Adopting this attitude makes it much easier to be open to new ethical consumer solutions that you may not have thought of and also to avoid judging people around you.

So, there’s my advice for being a non-jerk advocate for ethical consumerism. But really, at the core of all of these tips is simply a switch in perspective from “I” to “we.” You are not a consumer in a vacuum. Rather, you are a part of a greater economic system involving millions of actors–other consumers, producers, laborers, businesses, etc. Real change happens when the majority of these actors (and not just you) start to take responsibility for making their system fairer. In this sense, Everyday Advocacy is a group project, not an individual performance. And as anyone who’s been through school would know, group projects work better with open conversation, non-judgementalism, and encouraging people to contribute whatever they are able and willing.


Open conversation. Non-judgmentalism.  Inclusion. Let’s seek to have those qualities dictate the way we seek justice. We just might find that lots of people want to get on board.



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