Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Ethics of Selling

I'm broke.  I mean, not flat-broke-can't-pay-my-electric-bill kind of broke.  I've been there and thank goodness I'm not there anymore.  But pretty much every penny I make goes right back into the business.  It's almost like a magic trick.  As soon as an order comes in, I need to buy more supplies and the money just disappears.  POOF!  Now you see it, now you don't.  Because I know what it's like to be a small business owner and sole employee, I don't judge the decisions that other small business owners and sole employees make.  But it's tempting.

There's an incredible project in Colorado called the Women's Bean Project.  Here's their description of their program: "Since 1989, Women's Bean Project has been dedicated to helping women break the cycle of poverty and unemployment.

Women’s Bean Project strives to break the cycle of chronic unemployment and poverty by helping women discover their talents and develop skills by offering job readiness training opportunities.

With this stepping stone toward success, the women will be able to support themselves and their families, and create stronger role models for future generations."  

Essentially they employ women in poverty to make food products like "Bean Soup Mixes, Dips, Bread Mixes, Organic Fair Trade Coffees, Cookie and Brownie Mixes, Instant Iced Tea, Salsa Mixes and Fajita Marinades, Spice Rubs, Sweets, Gifts Bundles, and Gift Baskets". 

I DEEPLY admire the work that they do.  I'm working on building the social enterprise wing of a local business to train young women to grow local edible plants that will help repair the landscape, and I look up to the work that the Women's Bean Project has done.  It's not easy.  It's not the typical profit focused venture.  But last week they announced a deal selling their products through Walmart, and all hell has broken loose.

I also received an offer this week to work with a large retailer who is know for ripping off independent artists and who's CEO contributes heavily to anti-gay movements - something I do not agree with.  So what do we as makers, sellers, and small businesses do?  We're all just scraping by.  For the Women's Bean Project, the incredible exposure that Walmart offers could give them the funds to employ hundreds more women in poverty.  But Walmart's strategy of paying people substandard part-time wages with no benefits is one of the reasons people end up in poverty.  You can work full time at Walmart and still qualify for welfare.  WTF?  Does one good deed outweigh the bad deeds?  I honestly don't know.  In my case, would selling my work through a company that has cheated so many others, but would probably bring in enough profits for the rest of the year, make any ethical sense?  Could I live with myself?  Could I, who has a business based on reducing consumer waste and creating a connection between people and the things they own and use, sell my work through a company that sells so many products designed in the US by artists, ripped off, and then reproduced in third world countries?  I don't know.  But I doubt it.

I don't begrudge any artist or charity the opportunity to to raise funds to further their work.  It's a completely personal choice and one that none of us can make for them.  Will I kick myself if I turn this offer down and then can't keep my business going, all because of my conscience?  Maybe.  Since I'm the only one affected by the decision, I'll probably turn it down so that I can sleep soundly at night.  But, then again, I don't have employees depending on me for their livelihood.  That would be a different story all together.

I hate that this is an issue.  I hate that we as a society support the kind of companies that rip people off, create artificial poverty, and exploit third world labor.  Its a catch 22.  The people that Walmart employs can only afford to shop at Walmart, which keeps them in business.  Prices stay artificially low.  The culture stays focused on the disposable.  The lowest price wins, even if it came at the cost of 1/3 of our society and countless people in slave labor conditions around the world.  I know this blog post isn't going to fix any of it.  All I'm asking is that everyone who reads this just thinks for minute before you buy your weekly groceries, or that new lamp, or that $10 shirt.  Just, please, think about it.  Nothing changes if we don't change it.


  1. hey is that urban outfitters? My friend Lindsey of House 54 (
    just had a similar request by urban outfitters and pretty much sent them lots of product only to have them say they didnt get it and bully her. She decided not to go through with working with them because of how they acted. You may want to read her blog about it or email her. Id hate to see someone else loose their hard work to the big guys!

  2. It is UO. I've only heard bad things from artists who've worked with them, so that, combined with my distaste for their politics has pretty much killed the deal for me. Such a shame. I wish more people who shopped in their stores knew how shady they can be!