She walked slowly up the aisle, picking up every single blender on the shelf in Sears. Holiday music played joyfully in the background. "It's all made in China," she said, gently returning the box to the shelf. Disappointment flashed across her face as she slowly moved on to the next box.
"Seriously, Mom? You are the worst to go shopping with. Of course it's all made in China. The entire world is made in China now."
The annoyance in my voice caused her to pause and look at me for a second. She smiled and shrugged, continuing on.
My label-shopping mother. She didn't like to purchase anything unless it proudly bore the words "Made in the USA" on the label, which it rarely did. She tried her best, though, carefully choosing each purchase and looking for better options before committing to anything. Shopping with her turned from a simple task of finding a blender for my sister's Christmas gift to an excruciating, hours-long excursion with an inspection of each piece to see where it was made. She was never satisfied, because this was the early 2000s and we had outsourced an entire generation of jobs to Asia as the race to the bottom gained speed and everyone joined in. Companies lost their pride in local manufacturing as profit became god.
I didn't realize at the time how important her label shopping was.
Years later, I walked slowly up the aisle, reaching inside every single shirt. I saw now how ironic the joyful music was.
"It's all made in China. Sometimes Bangladesh. Oh, look! Uzbekistan! Did you know that slavery is still legal there in the cotton trade?"
My husband smirked at me, used to these diatribes by now. Sometimes they may annoy him a bit, just like my mother's used to with me. I realize now the important lesson she was teaching me. Her consciousness came a bit more from a place of patriotism, but the importance is still the same. My husband has started paying attention too, perhaps subconsciously reaching for labels, or asking me for information on brands.
Where was it made?
I'm grateful now, for those painful trips to Sears and for the consciousness I have now. I've turned into my mother, and I couldn't be more OK with that.
A conservative estimate has 30 million people trapped in a kind of modern-day slavery today. That word makes people so uncomfortable. We prefer "human trafficking" — as if using a nicer term makes the reality less harsh. But the stories behind production of goods around the world are tragic, involve slavery and should make all of us become label-shoppers.
Because we can each make a difference.
How you spend your money determines the kind of world that you want to live in. Each and every day, that blender, that shirt, that pair of shoes that you slip into each morning, the tomatoes you buy, the nuts you put in your smoothie, the lettuce you have with dinner — it all matters.
You know how much it cost you, but do you know how much it cost the person who made it? Just think of the difference we could make if we bonded together as label shoppers. If we started asking, "who made this?" If we began to imagine a face behind everything we touch, maybe we'd think twice. Because there is one. Are they chained to their sewing table or are they paid a living wage and treated with respect? Is it a child with a family at home depending on her to help put food on the table, or is it a grown woman who is respected in her community for the ability to earn an income?
I'm proud to be turning into my mother. I am empowered to create a better world each time I pull out my wallet, just like she has been since my youth when my annoyance for her consciousness was misguided. I look at each item before I make the decision if it's really necessary. I picture the faces that could be behind that product, and I wonder about the conditions in which they work. I am intentional, and I am empowered.
I am a label-shopper.
Bethany Tran is the founder of Towson-based The Root Collective, a handmade shoe brand that partners with small businesses in marginalized communities in Guatamala to promote change through dignified jobs. Her email is email@example.com.