Imports at What Cost? Sustainability

Sometimes the cost of cheap imports is sustainability both local and global

Cheap imports are cheap precisely because they cut costs by cutting corners—pay less for labour, think less about quality, design less for safety, and don’t worry about the environment. Good business? Only in the moment. In the long term, these short-term savings leave us with big bills to pay.

Over the past month, we have been looking at the true costs of cheap imports. In the cases of unpaid labor, unsafe products, low quality, and pollution, we have focused on what isn’t sustainable. Today, we want to shift toward the positive to show what sustainability looks like when it works.

Give It to Me Quick
Truly sustainable products don’t pass on real costs to others but accept and embrace the real costs, redesigning the product and the supply chain not to externalize the costs but to internalize the benefits.


We reach sustainability when we can meet our own needs while not interrupting the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, issues with imports overlap because they all lead to larger issues of sustainability. As long as we buy cheap products that externalize real costs, we have not yet reached true sustainability because we will pay those costs one way or another. There is no one answer to sustainability, but we can aim in that direction through constant improvement of our choices.

Sustainability isn’t just good for us as consumers. Sustainability is good for business. Happy, healthy workers who are paid a fair wage without being pushed beyond reasonable limits of endurance are more likely to do quality work over the long-term. Designs that start with safety in mind are more likely to become beloved products that provide profits over the long-term. Materials that don’t exploit the environment or cause health issues for those near the point of extraction or for the children who will use the final product are more likely to be stable resources over the long-term.

Yes, the theme is the long-term. Sustainability acknowledges that tomorrow matters.

Does it mean we don’t want people overseas to have jobs? Of course, not! If they build their own sustainable local economies, they will benefit in the same ways we will from our own. If they build sustainable products, there will be less hesitation from others to buy those products.

Does that mean we shouldn’t buy anything made outside our own country or even outside our own communities? Of course, not! For most of us, not everything we want or think we need is made in our local communities, anyway.

Sustainability builds on the positive at the same time that it works to eliminate or lessen the impact of the negative. Sustainability shouldn’t be about creating a collection of insular communities that seldom interact. Sustainability puts the priority on the simplest solutions and looks for those solutions locally first.

What Sustainability Looks Like

One of our favorite brands that we carry at is Montreal-based Bummis. They make great cloth diapering products, but that is only part of the story. They are good people who believe in sustainability at every level in their business. They are meticulous in their design and testing; they are careful in their sourcing; they are generous in their business dealings; and, by all reports, they are a great company to work for. When we look for ethical products, we look for companies like this.

Bummis Made Here

Bummis tells consumers about their sustainable products in a Made Here campaign, in which they tell

“How value for us means so much more than just money – how it has to do with integrity and standards and sustainability. And how when you buy something from us, you are buying into our dream – a dream in which business is on the cutting edge of social change and where the bottom line includes the well-being and prosperity of all.”

In addition to making cloth diapering products Made Here and Worn Everywhere, Bummis has a store in Montreal, Boutique Bummis, where they sell baby and parenting products. Before a new employee can work in their store, they learn about the store Manifesto, which starts: “Everyone that walks into the store should feel welcomed and cared about and secure. Grumpy customers should be loved more because they need it!” Every guideline in the Manifesto, indeed every product in the store, builds connection.

“Our mission is to facilitate the attachment of parents to their children by offering products, information, resources and support that will promote that attachment. And the vision behind that is the belief that profound attachment of parents and children can create a paradigm shift that can engender powerful personal and social transformations.”

Bummis co-owner Betsy Thomas sees the store “as a statement of who we are and what we believe in – a place where every day we actively manifest our company values.”

I learned about the store Manifesto when Betsy Thomas and I sat together on a customer service panel at a business conference. I was particularly impressed that these instructions to employees include statements from past employees. This shows me that the concern isn’t just with who people are in their space in the moment but with who they are long-term and who they become through their experiences. One former employee in particular wrote about how her time at Bummis taught her to naturally present “information and options in a non-biased way,” a skill she carried into her training as a midwife—a skill her midwifery preceptors said made her the most advanced student at any level because people often struggle with the skill of compassionate teaching.

I love using Bummis as an example of ethical products and sustainable business because they practice sustainability on so many levels. They are conscious of having a positive impact on all who come in contact with the company.

Organizations Building Local Economies

Many cities and towns have Buy Local campaigns. If yours does, you can get involved. You can expand and shape the way you and your neighbors think about about and act within local economies.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is a national nonprofit organization supporting “environmentally sound and equitable community development.” The focus is local self-reliance, and that includes buying local. Yes, buying at a local business helps the business, but that isn’t the most important reason to support locally owned businesses. Consider local jobs, local innovations, and product diversity. Read their “Top 10 Reasons to Support Locally Owned Businesses” for more reasons.

The Business Alliance for Living Local Economies wants to create “real prosperity by connecting leaders, spreading solutions that work, and driving investment toward local economies.” In their decade of research, they’ve come up with Core Four strategies: local first, DIY entrepreneurs, local capital, and better together. Their members are business owners and other leaders. Read their “Localism 101″ to see what they find matters in building living local economies.

Keep in mind the Local Multiplier Effect. The organizations above and many others recognize that feeding your money and energy back into you local economy multiplies the effect. Buying local is good for you in more than the way it makes you feel. Research shows that when you buy local, $.45 of every dollar is reinvested locally; when you spend a dollar at a corporate chain, only $.15 of that is reinvested locally. Your money works harder in ways you will notice when you spend it locally. This Local Multiplied Effect feeds back into your own community and creates greater wealth than exporting your money to corporate headquarters.

What You Can Do

  • Avoid exploitation. You need to know more about the products you buy in order to know whether workers or environment were exploited to produce them.
  • Be a localist. Look for local solutions first without avoiding solutions from afar when they really will work for you.
  • Only buy what you need.
  • Buy what you need from people you trust. Especially with parenting products for new parents, you need support. You need to know how to use a baby carrier or a cloth diaper. The questions you want to ask are sometimes quite personal. Building a trusting relationship with a knowledgeable store owner can help you focus on what you really need and avoid those baby products you might leave on the shelf and never use.
  • Meet more people so you can develop more of those trusting relationships. When people trust one another, they are accountable to one another.
  • When you do buy, look for products that meet high standards. At we help you with that by adding the icons for our Safe Family Promise to every product in our store.
  • Think about what makes you happy and put your focus there.
  • Shift your focus from stuff to relationships between people. The Canadian Index of Well Being includes tools to help you build resilient local communities.
  • Be part of the change in your local community, building a local economy that is more focused on happiness than stuff.
  • Don’t get caught up in the negative. Reading about child and forced labor can be devastating. Work to right the wrongs, but also work to enhance the rights in your life. Feed the positive relationships in your community.

True Sustainability

True sustainability acknowledges true costs. Businesses that measure their success by a triple bottom line of People Planet Profit already understand that paying up front for people and planet pays dividends to them and their customers in the long run. We don’t need to embrace business that puts profit ahead of people and planet. If we want to give our children the same chances that we have, we can’t put profit ahead of them and their future.

When Betsy Thomas talks about Bummis, one of the things that really sticks with me is her observation that new parents turn naturally toward sustainability when their children are born because children give a face to the future. You and I as parents have a passionate stake in long-term sustainability through our children.

More in this series

Green for Me or Green for Us

Small plant in a woman's hand

What is green for me isn’t necessarily green for us. What is green for now isn’t necessarily green forever. Global sustainability as a standard isn’t necessarily the only way each of us makes choices for our families.

One of our customers asked, “What is the difference between products that are green for the environment and green for health?” That is a seemingly simple question that breaks out into a lot of complexities depending on how we make our choices. To look at it very simply, products that are green for health have no (or fewer) immediate negative effects on us; products that are green for the environment have no (or fewer) global negative effects. The problem is, the global negative effects as immediate to someone, and they do come back to all of us as they change and poison our basic resources. We end up with poisoned water from pesticide runoff with convention cotton growing, flooding after mountain-top removal to mine coal used to produce moderated scrubbed “clean coal” energy, high asthma rates near power plants using natural gas for more so-called clean energy, and so on.

Just because a particular choice is good for the planet, a choice like organic clothing, doesn’t mean it has an immediate impact on health. Choosing organic fibers has a big impact on global health, though, and it has a big impact on the immediate health of workers in the fields. Poisoning the fields today will continue to have immediate effects close to the field and downstream effects for us all. By the time those effects are felt, will we still connect them to the choice to buy organic clothing or not? I hope so, but we don’t always draw straight lines that way. Is organic clothing good for my children’s immediate health? Probably not. Is organic clothing good for the environment? Absolutely. As I wrote earlier this week, though, the choices with children’s clothing aren’t black and white, and other issues (like short-term cash flow) can trump our best intentions.

Most of us as parents are trying to improve choices. Some of the problems we are trying to solve are acute; some are chronic. Some of the problems we are trying to solve involve immediate effects on our children; some are global.

Ultimately, green for the environment means green for health in the long term. What is good for the environment, what is sustainable is good for you. You can pay the price now or later, but we all share positive and negative effects on our global environment.

Image © Sergii Kolesnyk |

What Makes a Difference in Choosing Children’s Clothing?

Thrift store clothing

Those of us trying to green our families and homes often, understandably, start in the kitchen. As our awareness of issues spreads, we start to see more changes we can make to create and model sustainability for our families. Questions that we’ve heard from a few customers are:

  • What makes a difference in choosing children’s clothing?
  • What makes one choice more environmentally or socially sustainable than another?

I have gathered a few of the issues that I consider when I clothe my children.

Some choices are good for us personally, while other choices are good for us collectively. Sometimes, you need to choose between them.

Organic Children’s Clothing: Good for the Planet (mostly)

If all other things were equal, and I had a choice between organic and non-organic for my children, of course I would choose organic. Organic isn’t necessarily healthier for the child, since pesticide residue isn’t an issue like it is with food. Most natural fibers have been so processed by the time they are made into clothing that there is no trace of field-use residue left. To the extent that toxic chemicals used in processing may still be present, though, organic clothing would be better for your child.

Organic is (mostly) better for the field, but conventional fibers aren’t necessarily going to have a direct effect on your child’s health. Indirectly and in the big picture for us all, real organic is better.

Why do I say mostly? Because I’ve seen the erosion of organic standards with corporate organic. I think we are back to a situation before national organic standards when we need to look at each source separately, when the certification isn’t the only story to tell. Not everything allowed under organic certification fits the hardcore view of what organic should mean. I prefer to avoid synthetic materials, sludge, and GMOs. Sometimes there are small producers who don’t have certification even though they use no synthetic additives in growing or processing their fibers. Personally, I would (and do) go with the small producers over the corporate organic producers. I’m torn. I care about organic, but I think my skepticism helps me make better overall choices rather than relying too heavily on someone else’s twisted view of sustainability.

That’s just one example of how one’s own values need to shape choices about what constitutes true sustainability. Yours will vary from mine, of course.

Natural Fiber Clothing: Good for Your Child’s Health

Natural fibers breathe and absorb. Technical fibers created to replicate those functions have serious negative effects through the production process. Technical fibers are certainly better for the bottom line of the companies that develop them, but are they better for your child? Looking at the big picture of the industrial infrastructure needed to create them versus that needed to produce the simple functionality of natural (especially real organic) fibers, no. They aren’t better. Yes, there is debate, but I will win this one!

Cotton absorbs and breathes in diapers, in underwear, in T-shirts, in pajamas, and in other clothing. Sweaty children cool off better in cotton than in petrochemical fibers that trap moisture against the skin. Wool absorbs, breathes, and insulates. Natural fibers work! There is no need to waste our global resources attempting to duplicate natural fibers with petrochemicals.

Pajamas: An Important Choice for Your Child’s Health and Safety

Speaking of pajamas, this is one item of children’s clothing that I was particularly careful about when my kids were babies. There is a line in one of my favorite books, Snow Crash, that says children’s pajamas can be fireproof or non-carcinogenic, but not both. I found wool sleep suits for my children, but I couldn’t get cotton sleep suits in the U.S. that weren’t chemically treated. In the end, I bought all of my children’s 100% untreated cotton pajamas in the UK, where they didn’t have such an obsession about flammable pajamas.

Babies spend at least half of their time in pajamas. They pee on them. They sweat on them. They suck on them. Pajamas do heavy duty. If you choose pajamas that wick moisture away from a sleeping body, you are helping to improve sleep. If you choose pajamas that hold moisture in like a sealed plastic bag, you will deal with more broken sleep. Whether you choose treated fabrics or not seems like one of those personal choices, but do consider what kind of fibers you want to put next to your child for such a long period of time.

Toxic Dyes: Important for Your Child’s Health

Not all dyes react with the fibers to change molecular structure. Some dyes sit on the surface of the fibers. Chemical dyes and fixatives can remain trapped in fibers. If toxic chemicals are released in moist situations, when our pores are most open, we can absorb those toxins, and they can bioaccumulate.

I love bright, bold colors. I also think hard about what kind of dyes are used before I choose clothing. As always, it’s about balancing your priorities.

Fair Labor: An Essential Ingredient in Real Sustainability

Clothing costs so much that it is easy to default to the cheapest store and the cheapest item on the rack. Have you ever wondered who makes that super cheap clothing? How old they are? Even for domestically produced clothing, there are often shortcuts taken that make lives miserable for workers in apparel manufacturing. Fair wages for workers is an issue of global sustainability as much as organic agriculture. Don’t overlook who made the clothing you buy for your children and how well that work allows them to take care of their own children—if they aren’t children themselves.

Cost of Children’s Clothing

Most of us don’t have a lot of cash to throw around these days. Cost makes a big difference for our families. It is important to be willing to pay for quality, for organic, and for fair labor. When the costs of sustainability are internalized in the clothing, it seems very expensive. We still pay those costs when we buy cheap clothing, but we don’t see those payments nearly so directly.

But, willingness to pay the real costs of sustainability is only an issue if there is money at all. Sometimes brand new, quality children’s clothing is out of reach. Fortunately, there are other options.

Lifespan of Children’s Clothing Matters

Our first steps toward sustainability should be to reduce and reuse. Every child does not need a wardrobe full of new, expensive clothing, and clothing doesn’t have to last just the 6 months or a year that a child fits it. When we choose clothing that lasts, we share the costs of quality.

If you have a close group of friends, you can expand your child’s wardrobe far beyond what they ever even have time to wear. So many of my children’s clothes are in circulation among a group of my friends, that I often see at random times on different babies the clothes I made or bought long ago. I love that community clothing. Friends just keep boxing up the out-grown clothes and passing them along. That works if you have a close group of friends whose children are staggered in age.

Even if you don’t have a tribe to share community clothing, a consignment store or thrift store can help you put together an inexpensive wardrobe. If you keep feeding outgrown clothes back into a consignment store, that helps fund the next size.

Whether your greatest concern is cost, health, environmental sustainability, social sustainability, or other issues
, taking a clear view of your own priorities will help you decide what difference you can make when choosing clothing for your children.

Image © Peter Kim |

Communicate to Inspire Change

Last week I wrote about teaching children about eco-friendly living and about how to share your life changes with those around you. I want to share with you one of the people who has been trying to help those concerned with sustainability to inspire change: John Marshall Roberts, a behavioral psychologist who applies science to communications that create change.

For the most part, he’s talking to the nonprofit leaders and marketers, but I think his ideas will help you see how to inspire people around you to make their own changes. In the video above, he explains a very basic distinction that will help you to be a persuasive communicator.

If you find this idea helpful, check out some of his more polished videos on inspiring sustainability in skeptics (6:18) and the history of human thinking (6:04, a beautiful video). Both videos practice the kind of communications that inspire change.

How to Teach Your Children about Eco-friendly Living

Child talking to father outside

If you are thinking about how to teach your children about eco-friendly living, you may be wondering how to make those choices stick.

First of all, let go! Their choices will be their choices. Once you let go, you can be more easy going about the process of teaching your children.

Creating sustainable habits is an important start. By modeling eco-friendly choices and behaviors, your children will see WHAT to do.

To give your children tools they can use into the future, though, you need to help them understand HOW and WHY your family does what you do. Share with them your underlying reasons for your actions.

Start the conversation

Talk with your children. Share the decision making. Make sure they have power to make choices that will have real impact, so they feel responsibility for what they choose. They will remember the choices as well as the decision making process better if they are genuinely involved.

Encourage questions and curiosity

If you children ask questions, answer them with only as much information as they can take on using vocabulary they understand. Teach them how you get your information. Especially if they are older, invite them to do their own research and be part of the effort to reduce your household impact. They can deal with more information as they get older and have more points of reference.

Create points of reference

Read stories about sustainability, and bring those stories back to a family reference. For a place to start, check out 30 great books that teach children to be green. Your local library may even have a lot of these books grouped together on the shelf. When your child knows a lot of stories about efforts to lower environmental impact, it gets easier to see the relationship of those choices to self.

Hold family meetings on green topics

Family meetings give an opportunity for short, focused discussion on a topic. At one family meeting, my family gathered around our utility bills and asked how we could use less energy and water. Once we shifted from talking about it to giving the children a puzzle to solve, they were more curious and more engaged. They took ownership of their suggestions, and they remember better what commitments they made to meet our targets. Because they suggested not turning on the lights during the day, they are now more likely to sit by the window or go outside to read instead of turning on the light.

Don’t scare them

Children are sensitive. I made the mistake of giving too much information too early. Saying, “If the sea rises another meter, the lane in front of Granny’s house will be covered in water,” was a frightening concept to an 8-year old. Oops. What is just an interesting fact to you might be more than your child can comfortably process. Watch carefully as your child is talking and listening, and adjust as your discussion progresses to keep from making the conversation too scary. Sure, it’s important to be realistic, but you want your children to be motivated to take action.

The key is engagement. Give your children a little information at a time, and let them arrive on their own at the place where it clicks.

Image © Antikainen |