Technically, my love language is Acts of Service, but if it were an option, I think it would probably be gift giving. Nothing makes me happier than scouring the Earth/Internet for things my loved ones would love but never purchase themselves. I take notes on things they mention and ask for, and I buy gifts literally half a year in advance when I find the right thing. Recently, I’ve put a lot of thought into what it means to be an ethical consumer, and have been trying to adapt my purchasing practices to reflect this.
With Black Friday and the temptation to have everything delivered from big box stores looming, I talked with Rachel Kois, founder and CEO of Simple Switch, an online marketplace for ethical and practical shopping with more than 3000 products. I admire her entrepreneurial drive and desire for change, and I think it is pretty freakin’ awesome to see young women founders succeed. We chatted about the creation of Simple Switch, how to be an ethical shopper and how companies like hers make the choice to be sustainable easy.
Early interest in ethical business
Being raised in an eco-minded, “big into recycling”, very Colorado family, Rachel watched her parents run their own business and got involved with smaller entrepreneurial projects as she grew up, selling to friends and family. In college at University of Colorado Boulder, she chose to double major in theatre and business, initially opting for the business major as a “safety net” in the event her theatre major didn’t pan out. But through her business major, she began to take classes on business ethics, and was horrified by the ways companies had exploited people and the planet. These courses drove her to the realization that she wanted to be in a job that could help people, one that would create a way to change our consumption patterns in the hopes of producing more ethical shoppers.
That summer, she participated in a program in South Africa, working with local university students to consult with entrepreneurs living in townships, financially under resourced communities with remnant effects of apartheid . From the nearly 200-page report that she produced with other students, the conclusion that was reached was that the entrepreneurs in South Africa had all the skills they needed to be successful, but they didn’t have access to the same markets that a college student in the US had.
A case for easy sustainability
Rachel shares many of the same views I share on sustainability: namely, that sustainability isn’t only the environmental buzzword we’ve made it out to be, but that it refers to social sustainability. In talking about a community in India she worked with, she mentioned how local business owners were worried about the frequent scholarships provided to individuals in the community, as many of them became dependent on the scholarships from American charities and as a result, learned fewer life, business, and career skills. They expressed that the “charity” they were receiving was stifling the growth of their community’s market.
This mirrors experiences I had as an undergraduate in GlobeMed, working with a Cambodian NGO who provided microfinance loans to those living with HIV and AIDS. In Cambodia, antiretrovirals are provided by the government and financed by charities, but those living with HIV/AIDS still live in poverty because of the social stigma associated with the disease. Through microfinance directed by those in the community, they are able to educate others about how the disease is transmitted and people with HIV/AIDS are able to create their own businesses.
From the perspective of an external sponsor, it’s almost impossible to know what a community needs to solve the cycles of poverty and disease. Much of what is considered development work is paternalistic, and rather than empowering communities to develop business skills and giving them access to the markets that would allow them to thrive, band-aid solutions are delivered and are often detrimental to progress.
But stopping this cycle is easier said than done, right? It’s impossible to know how the decisions we make impact people along the supply chain, and it could be a long, drawn out process to figure out how each of our economic decisions impact the greater good.
Rachel touched on the idea that many of us think that making a significant social or environmental impact requires that you become almost a martyr. In some cases, this may be relevant, but for the majority of us, this impact could come from something as simple as integrating access to better consumer choices into our lifestyle. She started thinking about how we could simplify this process right around the same time that Amazon implemented (and discontinued) their Dash button– a button you could press to order whatever you need immediately when you ran out. These types of decisions, to order something immediately when you needed it, were so easy, but also terrible for the planet.
The birth of Simple Switch
Simple Switch was created to make sustainable decisions easier. The business model is…simple—Rachel personally vets each company that sells on Simple Switch, opting to stock companies whose long term goals work for both social and environmental sustainability. While Simple Switch works with many companies who hire those who are chronically unemployed, homeless, or otherwise marginalized, these companies all have an exit plan, so each person who is employed by these companies has the resources to continue their career and development after they choose to move on to other work.
Rachel’s hard work translates into easy decisions for us as ethical consumers—anything we buy from Simple Switch, we can be sure that the work has been done (and is continuously done) to make sure the companies live up to the standards of Simple Switch. They have four principles that guide the companies they work with: employee treatment, environmental stewardship, ethical and impactful model, and commitment to improve. This means that products on Simple Switch are made without child or prison labor, by employees who have protections against harassment, while adhering to strict environmental standards and making an attempt to improve upon these standards whenever possible.
I feel particularly good about buying from Simple Switch— it takes the guesswork out of “is this ethical?” and ensures that I am supporting not only Rachel and her business, but also those whose products are on Simple Switch.
As part of this- I’ve put together this ethical shopping gift guide for some of my favorite ethical shopping items from Simple Switch and beyond. If you want to browse for yourself on the Simple Switch website, use the code ‘ImWithAlkaymal” for 15% off your order.
Happy gift giving!