Forever 21 filed for bank­ruptcy two weeks ago. | Wiki­media Commons

I want to buy Ritz crackers. Is it wrong to save 20 cents and not grab the Susan G. Komen-labelled ones?

Why do we have con­sumer “sins”? Are we respon­sible for how the company that designed my phone pays its workers? Or how the sheep which grew the wool for my sweater was handled? 

I would never con­sciously cause someone harm or act unjustly towards another human, but in the age of infor­mation we seem to be con­stantly notified of our rampant con­sumerism, and the trail of destruction it leaves. In a world of con­sumer evils, is there some­thing beau­tiful, some­thing I can honor by my pur­chase?

A prime example of changing con­sumer needs was visible last week in the col­lapse of clothing company “Forever 21,” which The Wash­ington Post claims fell due to their inability to adapt to changing market demands. Amer­icans are no longer looking for low prices to the detriment of ethics.  

Despite the low prices, The Post writes that “the envi­ron­mental effects of fast fashion are well-doc­u­mented: The apparel industry is a major source of water pol­lution and green­house gas emis­sions worldwide…There is also a human toll: Such retailers tend to rely on low-wage workers in coun­tries such as China and Bangladesh, where they have few pro­tec­tions.” 

Con­demned with charges of “‘Fast Fashion” by the court of con­sumers, Forever 21 has been sen­tenced to bank­ruptcy. 

The ethical integrity of a business has become a deter­mining factor for where people spend their money. Con­sumers are willing to pay more for a product which sup­ports a cause they stand for. This is evident in every­thing from pink ribbons on milk jugs, to REI closing for Black Friday to promote anti-con­sumerism. 

A prime example of this push for a more ethical form of con­sumerism is Patagonia. In an article for Time Mag­azine, Alana Semuels recently wrote that “today’s cus­tomers want their dollars to go to com­panies that will use their money to make the world a better place.” 

Patagonia embodies this phi­losophy of prin­ciple-driven con­sumerism. In an interview on NPR’s “How I built This,” Founder of Patagonia Yvon Chouinard said he believes he should use the resources of his company to present a dif­ferent way of doing business.

“We’re trying to teach people that you don’t throw things away, you repair, and we’ve com­mitted our­selves to owning the product forever,” Chouinard said.

In this new flavor of con­sumerism, prin­ciples come before profit. There is an almost evan­gelical bent to the very mission of Patagonia. They are not just making great coats but changing hearts and minds. Once our minds our changed, we want to be a part of the brand lifestyle: We buy the merch, we flaunt the stickers, and we honor the prin­ciples the brand stands for. Modern con­sumers ven­erate a brand because of those prin­ciples, rather than just its product.

The Second Council of Nicea which rejected Icon­o­clasm explains the con­nection between a reli­gious icon and the object of the image. 

“The honor paid to an image tra­verses it, reaching the model, and he who ven­erates the image, ven­erates the person rep­re­sented in the image,” the council wrote. 

This con­nection to a higher prin­ciple is the basis of modern con­sumerism. Through our ven­er­ation of a brand we seek to connect with the lofty prin­ciples of envi­ron­men­talism, breast cancer awareness, or LGBTQ+ rights — or in the case of Forever 21, denounce fast fashion. 

In ven­er­ating a brand, I’m now wor­shipping the prin­ciple it stands for rather than what it sells. I may have no need for a Yeti water bottle, but I like what it stands for, so I buy it.

My wallet is now 20 bucks lighter, but so is my con­science. In a dark world of cap­i­talist greed, perhaps I have found a beacon of hope by shopping at a company that honors my prin­ciples. 

Postwar con­sumerism was moti­vated by patri­otism: People spent their pay­checks so they could receive the next one. Because patri­otism no longer hinges on con­sumerism we’re more lux­u­rious — social issues drive our spending pat­terns. 

But what social issues are moti­vating these habits, and will they remain pure while also being used to gen­erate a profit? If I grab the Susan G. Komen crackers, who comes out on top: Ritz, breast cancer research, or me? In the battle for my dollar, is a pink ribbon just a weapon?