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 communitybuilding 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

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