Can One Woman's Spending Decisions Really Change The World?

Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
When’s the last time you bought something? Yesterday? Five minutes ago? Last week? Before you handed over your credit card, did you stop to think whether your purchase would affect the outcome of the upcoming election or help a woman take maternity leave? If that wasn’t front of mind, you’re not alone.

One of the most enduring tropes is that of the retail therapist: a harried woman laden with shopping bags, or a group of friends bonding over their search for the perfect pair of shoes. You don’t have to be Carrie Bradshaw or Becky Bloomwood from the Shopaholic series to know the feeling. In our culture, shopping is touted as a mood-booster, a cure for heartbreak, an antidote to stress, even a form of cardio. But our purchases pack more punch than we realize.

Women are powerful consumers. At this moment, we drive 70 to 80% of all consumer spending, through both direct purchases (stuff we buy) and influence (stuff we don’t actually buy, but recommend to our partners, friends, or family members). Collectively, our purchases carry a lot of weight. When we buy something, it doesn’t just affect our closets, homes, or dopamine levels. The effects trickle up and down the economy, supporting company agendas, informing marketing decisions, and even impacting social change.

Why, then, do we not think more about the power of purchase?

I, for one, make eye-rollingly conscientious decisions when it comes to my diet (mostly vegetarian), my beauty products (green), and anything that comes in contact with my beloved dog (organic). But when it comes to shopping, I, too, often behave like Ms. Pac-Man with a credit card, hungrily consuming all in my wake with little thought as to its effect beyond my bank account.
Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
And yet, if women stopped supporting companies that don’t support us — companies with unfair hiring practices, poor benefits, known histories of discrimination, sexist marketing campaigns — what kinds of changes could we bring about? With this question in mind, I committed to make August a month during which I’d exclusively shop, consume, or otherwise support companies with a proven track record of woman-friendliness.

Immediately, my friends started complaining. “Isn’t that going to be annoying?” they whined. “How are you ever going to figure out what’s good or bad?” As it turns out, it’s alarmingly easy. Can you casually “research” your new crush from Bumble, look up a restaurant rating, or see if a former classmate has gotten married? Then you can just as easily vet a company on your smartphone. It takes about a minute.

Just one day into the experiment, my first realization was how prevalent discrimination really is. A quick Google search of almost any company uncovered a plethora of lawsuits, complaints, and other grievances. Sometimes, like in the case of Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, or Dunkin' Donuts, I unearthed issues that erupted on a local level. If a local franchise had been flagged for unfair practices, but the company as a whole checked out well, I would simply avoid the problematic location. Other times, I’d uncover unfair practices on a higher level.

A quick Google search of almost any company uncovered a plethora of lawsuits, complaints, and other grievances.

Case in point: I’ve long been a fan of a certain upscale department store’s discount chain. It boasts just the right mix of designer brands and lowbrow, disorganized thrill-of-the-hunt elements to create the ideal shopping experience. So I was dismayed to uncover the seemingly endless array of complaints against the company. Employee-discrimination suits and sexual-harassment claims were so numerous, it was impossible to sort through them all. And so, I grudgingly broke up with my once beloved standby.

A company’s third-party relationships were another consideration. A big company may have a pretty good track record of treating its employees well, on both the corporate and local levels. But where are its in-house brands manufactured? Who does the factory employ, and what are the conditions like for workers? These answers can be trickier to come by, though in most cases, unsafe working conditions were unfortunately the norm. For safety’s sake, I avoided all big-box stores for the entirety of the month.

Last but not least, there arose questions of a company’s overall mission. My gym is located near an Urban Outfitters, and my friends invariably want to browse there after our Saturday kickboxing class. While Urban Outfitters, Inc. (which includes Anthropologie, Free People, Urban Outfitters, Terrain, and BHLDN) aims to cater to bohemian, hipster consumers at various stages of life, it is owned by conservative donor Richard Hayne. I do not wish to contribute to conservative causes (directly or indirectly), so for me, that choice was simple. If you don’t support my lady parts or my lady agenda, you cannot have my lady dollars.

Political leanings aside, Urban Outfitters, Inc. has been riddled with controversy, from discrimination suits and questionable marketing to anger over its board of directors, which includes no women or minorities. Though Hayne appointed his wife to the board in an effort to diversify, the upper ranks of the company remain incredibly unrepresentative of the women to whom it markets its products. This discovery inspired me to create something I call “board game,” which is when I quickly google a list of a company’s active board members before entering a store. The executives are, almost invariably, male. Still, it is good to be aware of this.

So what’s a socially conscious consumer to do? Shop around. Via the grace of the internet, I’ve found that you can almost always locate an item (or a facsimile) from a store with a mission and practices that align with your own. When all else fails, shop small. With small companies, it’s easier to see where your dollars are going. Plus, many startups and small businesses make a point to publish their mission statements in a highly visible place, so customers can get a sense of exactly who and what they’re supporting.

Overall, the experiment had the unintended, but very welcome, effect of toning down my overall spending. I grew aware of how shopping for non-necessities is a tremendous privilege. Because I could no longer engage in a pattern of mindless, Ms. Pac-Man-like consumption, I thought longer and harder about whether a purchase was worth it, no matter what agenda it supported.
Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
Despite the growing list of stores I no longer frequented, my month was filled with delightful shopping experiences. After careful consideration, I happily plunked down the cash for a gold “Feminist” nameplate necklace, made by woman-founded Bing Bang NYC and sold at woman-owned shop Otherwild. I splurged on skin-care products from woman-founded line Shiva Rose, at woman-owned boutique Shen Beauty. I uncovered more gems than I would have if I had been impulsive. In such cases, I felt good knowing my dollars had been spent if not wisely, then at least thoughtfully.

After a couple of weeks, my attitude toward purchasing shifted. I began to see shopping as a series of tiny investments — not just in myself, my home, or my image, but in the world I want to inhabit.

Though the month is over, I will continue to consider the power of purchase. Just as I have set boundaries in other areas of my life (don’t date assholes, don’t overextend myself for the benefit of others), I will not shop anywhere that makes me feel bad. This is as much about self-care as it is about social justice.

This is as much about self-care as it is about social justice.

In the end, being mindful of your spending feels a bit like making a dietary choice. Just as there are cases to be argued for being vegan versus vegetarian versus locavore versus organic, there are many flavors of socially conscious consumption. Pledging total allegiance sometimes feels impossible, when the issues are myriad and the journey an item may take before it lands in your shopping bag is often a complicated one. Still, it feels undeniably worthwhile to consider that path before handing over your money. Right now, before you set foot in a store and behold an item that you simply must have, take a moment to decide: What is most important to you? Is it fair hiring practices? Good maternity leave? Political associations? Executive roles held by women? Armed with that knowledge, it feels easier to shop accordingly.

This year, as we are well aware, is an election year, and there’s been a lot of talk about women and earning power. Let’s not forget our spending power, too. What if we did our damnedest to ensure that whatever we earn — all 79 cents for every male dollar — gets recirculated in a way we feel good about? As we start hankering for new winter wardrobes and gearing up for holiday shopping, let us remember: You don’t just vote with your ballot, you vote with your dollars. Let’s make them count.

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