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I had to buy a dress for my uncle’s wedding at the end of the month. (And by “had to” I mean “wanted to,” of course, but our inability to distinguish wants from needs is a whole other post.) I made the choice of where to shop based on two considerations:

  1. Nice but not outrageously expensive clothing;
  2. Locally made.

That first consideration is always the case, but the second isn’t usually.

At the risk of having my girl card revoked, I hate shopping. I especially hate shopping for clothes and shoes. I would like magic elves to make a fabulous wardrobe appear in my closet and replenish it regularly. I guess a personal shopper would do.

So when I want new clothes I wait until I’m in a patient mood (and wait, and wait) and dash in to one of the stores I know carries clothing I generally like at a decent price and get out of there as fast as I can with whatever fits. Tim Gunn would not want to be my friend. That’s ok with me.

But my new office is in this great neighbourhood with local boutiques I pass by every day, including one I realized has not-too-expensive clothes I love that are casual enough for everyday but nice enough for work (or an afternoon later-in-life wedding), created by their resident designer. I need some new work clothes, and I liked the idea of shopping locally and paying a little more than I normally would for a few pieces that would make me feel happier about my appearance than some of my current “it seemed like a good idea at the time” clothing. And, bonus, no sweatshop labour.

I think.

[pullquote]If I blog or Tweet or Facebook or even expend more than a few words in real life about a cause, I want it to be a cause I believe in enough to take action. Otherwise it’s just more noise.[/pullquote]I try to live an ethical life, but you need a PhD in consumerism to figure out the complexities of most buying choices. Take this Made in Canada skirt I’m wearing today, from that locally owned store (yes, I went in for a dress for the wedding and came out with two dresses and two skirts. Come on, I’m still a woman). Does that mean the fabrics were made in Canada, or just the garment? What about the dyes? Or the threads, zipper and buttons?

I’m pretty sure it means it was just assembled in Canada, but I don’t know. I don’t even know how I could know. And if I tried to find out before I bought, I would never buy anything ever, because my life isn’t organized like that and my decision-making abilities are paralyzed when I have more than two options on a menu.

So I go through life making an approximation of an ethical choice — at least it was somewhat made in Canada! — and, above all, I choose to care about a finite number of causes in the world and focus real energy on them.

I chose a career primarily in non-profit and health care. I’ve given to Doctors Without Borders monthly for going on 15 years now. I’ve provided microloans through Kiva and support other charities. I’m becoming a Big Sister. I organized an auction to benefit Kids Help Phone. I don’t say that to say I’m a great person — any posts I could write about how not-great I am would overcompensate for my altruistic side — but if I blog or Tweet or Facebook or even expend more than a few words in real life about a cause, I want it to be a cause I believe in enough to take action. Otherwise it’s just more noise.

Saying we’re “promoting awareness” when we ourselves can’t be bothered to act on that awareness is the definition of slacktivism. We don’t deserve a pat on the back for doing nothing meaningful. As sarcasm kings would put it: “When you care enough to hit send.”

Buying locally and advocating cruelty-free labour? I can’t promote those causes without being a hypocrite. My closet has some Made in Bangladesh labels. I own a smartphone and an iPad, a flat screen TV and a computer. I have no idea where most of my furniture came from. I eat meat and can’t stop eating high-carbon-footprint raspberries and cherries out of season. I own a fuel-efficient car, but it’s still a car. I have no idea what materials were used to build my condo, or what was done to the land it was built on. And on and on.

I’ve unfollowed people on Twitter who hector their followers to pursue a vegan lifestyle, not because I don’t think there’s value to veganism but because it’s not the right choice for everyone, and it’s one choice of the plethora we’re confronted with all the time. Tell me about your experiences and decision making, sure, but don’t imply I’m unethical for  not making the same choice.

Most of us muddle through life trying to do as little harm as possible, knowing that the mere act of existence, especially existence in an urban, industrialized, consumerist environment, makes us all guilty of something. All that’s left is for us to choose what our individual somethings won’t be.

I’ll continue to shop at this local boutique when I can afford it, but to be honest? The choice comes down to how much I love this skirt I’m wearing more than where it was made.