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The Activist Whisperer: Be an eco-warrior not eco-worrier

Award-winning activist Sarah Corbett is the founder of the global Craftivist Collective and a pioneer of the art of ‘Gentle Protest’. In her weekly Agony Aunt column for Lush Life she tackles those issues that may be stifling someone from being part of the change they wish to see in our world

Dear Activist Whisperer,

My issue is a sensitive one. I belong to a great group of friends, all with young children and we meet regularly. We share ideas on child rearing, amongst other things, but my concern is that lately some of the mums have been bragging about the latest very cheap clothing they have purchased for their children. I know that most of this clothing is from highly unethical sources. When they brag about their purchases, I feel very uncomfortable and have even declined their offer to purchase such bargains for my child. How can I broach the topic of not purchasing such deals without seeming to lecture? The women are all educated and intelligent and I value their friendship and do not wish to lose it. I am feeling like a coward but there is a great deal at stake for me. Any advice on how to advance on this worry would be wonderful.

Nervous Kath,

Camberwell, Australia


Dear Kath,

Yes, I sometimes find myself in situations like yours and when I do, I feel more like an eco-worrier than an eco-warrior! But I know deep down that it’s better for my friendships, for my own mental health, for the environment and for garment workers, if I address the issue, rather than stay silent and let it eat away at me.

You're right not to lecture your friends. It’s rare for lecturing to change minds. It is more likely to make people feel judged, attacked and shut down to your words however lovingly you say them. Be curious instead. With genuine interest in hearing the group’s answers ask: “How do they make the clothes so cheaply?” If your friends are not sure then maybe you can find out together. You may well have people who really don't want to find out and that’s understandable. Share humbly, showing your nervousness and your concerns about the cheap clothes.

Some members of the group might have already noticed your discomfort about the issue. Some might have misunderstood your declining their offer to purchase such bargains as dislike for them. Be honest with the group: Acknowledge that you understand it’s great that the clothes are cheap, especially for low-income families, and so you can see that it’s really convenient to buy them but admit, gently, to the group that you are worried about how much the garment workers are being paid, how they are being treated and the impact of the production and throw-away nature of these cheap clothes on the environment.

I would encourage you Kath to be vulnerable with the group. Don’t put a confident or angry mask on. Explain that you haven’t mentioned your concern before to them because you didn’t want to put a downer on the conversation or cause conflict because you value their friendship so much. However, you don't want to hide anything from the group either. People’s feelings are much harder to dismiss than facts, and I’m hopeful your friends will want to reassure you of their continuing friendship. Why not end with another open question to deflect the intensity of having the focus solely on you and ask if anyone else is concerned too? You might be surprised at who else speaks up.  

Only then would I offer the groups some facts or stories related to unethical clothing, and even then, only if you think people are open to hearing them. Don’t go for harrowing stories (e.g. over 1000 garment workers died in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh) as the shock might close people’s minds. Gently introduce the topic with less shocking examples, such as the fact that Oxfam GB were losing money from receiving cheap fast-fashion High Street clothing because they couldn’t sell them in their charity shops. It’s also powerful to share stories of people they respect (friends or celebrities) who have changed from being fast-fashion shoppers to ethical consumers. Seeing changes in others is a powerful way to encourage change in ourselves.

Be careful not to end the conversation on problems. Offer solutions, such as sharing cool ethical kids companies you could all support. Share stories of how kids can love their new ethical clothes and the inspiring stories behind them. For people who can only afford to buy in cheap stores or risk their children being bullied by peers for wearing charity shop or unknown brands, remind them that they can influence companies as customers by asking the Shop Manager to let them know the shop’s ethical policy and by joining and posting on that organisation’s social media #WhoMadeMyClothes directly to the brand.You could do these actions as a group to empower each other.

And finally; continue to live out your principles and buy ethically where you can and be a customer campaigner where you can’t. Continue to speak up for fairness and equality. Professor Troy Campbell, Professor of Marketing at the University of Oregon, specialises in the psychology of change:

           “If you want someone to care about your cause, you must first show

that you care about them as a person. No one will buy into a story where

they are the villain, so you have to give them an opportunity to join the solution.”

There is no silver bullet to change someone’s mind or actions. It’s often a culmination of many micro actions. I regularly receive emails from friends and strangers asking for advice on where to buy ethically because they are ready (sometimes after days, months or years) to change their habits and they know I will praise them for their change not shame them. You too can be that person for your friends.

The next time you find yourself in that situation don’t dread it Kath. See it as a gift to have the opportunity to discuss how we can all be part of the positive change we and our children all want to see in our world. And use it as an opportunity to invite your friends to join you on an exploration to become a more ethical citizen - and great role model for your kids. They might take up the offer that day or it might take years. But don’t give up on the possibility of them changing.

in solidarity,   

The Activist Whisperer


Award-winning activist Sarah Corbett is the founder of the global Craftivist Collective and a pioneer of the art of ‘Gentle Protest’. In her new weekly Agony Aunt column for Lush Times she tackles those issues that may be stifling someone from being part of the change they wish to see in our world.

If you have a question for Sarah, email her at: [email protected]


Seeing changes in others is a powerful way to encourage change in ourselves

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