Walking Billboards

Written by #SFCSummit15 Speaker, Chelsea McCullough

Everything has a story. People, things, places–all are a collection of experiences. You could even go so far as to say that we are defined by our stories–they weave the tale of what we’ve done, where we’ve been, how we treat each other.

I think about that often as I’m moving around day to day, spending the majority of my time in Austin, Texas. With every decision, it’s helpful to me to ask, “What is the story behind this?” It’s the main reason why I’ve chosen to only purchase clothing (and accessories) that are made in the USA and/or fair trade. Yes, it’s difficult to implement and there is a lot of perceived sacrifice. But I know the story behind each and every article I own. And as I believe we are all walking billboards, those items become part of my story.

This choice was inspired–you guessed it–by a story told by my friend Andy Lower, Founder at ADAP Capital, who had made the decision to remove every single item from his wardrobe that wasn’t made using fair trade principles. Now that is a commitment. His story moved me to examine my relationship with what I chose to wear. And it is a choice. I’m mindful of that.

So I went home and was really shocked at how many “things” I had where I could only guess the story–and most of those were not happy stories. Lots of items made in factories where people were paid minimal wages working maximum hours in conditions that I certainly wouldn’t want to endure. And why? So I could have a cheap shirt and companies could maximize profits. I was participating in the enslavement of workers in the garment industry. That’s not a story I want to be a part of. So I decided to change the narrative.

At a panel on Sustainable Fashion at SXSW-Interactive, I learned that many big retailers are feeding consumer’s “buy-more-cheaper sales frenzy” by working backward with their suppliers. They inflate the retail sales price, assuming the vast majority will be sold on “mark down” to yield the profit margins they want. This 2013 article in The Wall Street Journal states, “In a 2012 presentation, Mr. Johnson, then still Penney's CEO, said the company was selling fewer than one out of every 500 items at full price.”

Just think about what that means and how we are all contributing to that story. We don’t assign value to the pounds and pounds of things that we buy. They were made by someone–a person with his or her own stories. And we don’t value that. I think about that every time I walk into a traditional retail store and see rack after rack after rack of clothing. All of those stories. It’s overwhelming.

So today, I have a much different wardrobe. It’s smaller, for sure. The cost of each item is slightly higher. But I am so happy to pay more for less volume and greater joy. The pair of shoes that I’m wearing is Nisolo–a company of committed social entrepreneurs who say, “We wanted the same level of transparency that we get about the food we put in our bodies for the clothes we put on our bodies.” The shirt I’m wearing is Good & Fair–my favorite T-Shirt on the planet from a company that has infused fair trade principles from raw material to final product– very, very difficult to do.

This journey in itself is a story, and I am so honored to share it with you. I would love to talk more with you at the Slave-Free City Summit, and I am grateful to the team for providing this opportunity. Please join me and register. I would like to hear your story.