Educating for Consumer Ethics: An Interview with Liz Ricketts
Liz Ricketts is a current Master’s student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) interested in the ethics of consumption, particularly related to the fashion industry. Her accomplishments include the creation of The OR Foundation and the “These Things Take Time” curriculum, which cultivate an understanding of the importance of time, work, and values for young people in their everyday actions and consumer decisions. She has also developed a Consumer Value Sort (similar to the Good Project’s GoodWork Value Sort) to help people evaluate the factors they consider when making purchase decisions.
We recently sat down with Liz to talk about her work and what she thinks we all have to learn about our consumer behavior.
Q: How did you find out about the Good Project and the Value Sort activity?
A: I previously worked with the Value Sort cards from the Good Project’s GoodWork Toolkit as a part of my mini-project for T-600—a course on Project Zero that I took here at HGSE in Fall 2015. I knew I wanted to look at the connection between values and behavior, specifically related to consumption, with questions like, “Do your values align with the way you shop?” For my project, I had a small group of peers complete a survey about the factors that go into their shopping experience. I then had them watch the recent documentary “The True Cost,” a film about the effect of the fashion industry’s use of cheap labor on people’s lives around the world, and asked them to complete the survey again to compare how their thoughts about shopping had changed.
The data I collected from the survey results formed the basis of what I have termed a Consumer Value Sort. This is an activity I designed, similar to the original GoodWork Value Sort in function, but the values themselves are ones that go into decisions about fashion purchases, such as “price,” “brand label,” “fit,” “transparent business practices,” “organic certified,” and “innovative” (62 overall).
Q: I heard that you used these two activities (the GoodWork Value Sort and your Consumer Value Sort) with students in Atlanta in past months. Could you describe your experience?
A: In the winter of 2015, a colleague and I were invited to visit The Westminster Schools by three teachers of a course called “Ethics and Aesthetics: Exploring the Darker Side of Fashion.” These teachers, one of whom is a Harvard College alumna, Liza Cowan, had heard about my work on the ethics of consumption. The value sort activities were perfect for the topic of the class. There were 24 high school students in this elective, ranging from grades 9-12 (due to the topic, they were all female).
I began by asking students to engage with the GoodWork Value Sort, based on the values they felt were important in their everyday lives and experiences. The students each took photographs of their completed activity and wrote a reflection piece in their journals about it. Following this, I asked students to do the Consumer Value Sort, reflecting on their back to school shopping experience several months prior as a shared touchstone. Students were encouraged to really be honest about their shopping choices and to then compare the two value sorts and to write a reflection piece on the question, “Are you shopping your values?” The neat thing about these activities is that they allow you to do something in an hour that would normally take a whole day of brainstorming and discussion.
We then broke students up into four groups with the task of creating a pitch to the school athletic department for new apparel with ethical sourcing through accountable supply chains. The groups used both of the value sorts to select guiding principles that would become the face of their created “brand.” I find that talking about values is easier when using school apparel or athletic uniforms that are tangible and manageable for students in a way that the overall fashion industry is not, and it is easy to see how poorly-source clothing is clearly mismatched from a school’s espoused values of fairness and opportunity.
Q: What did you observe about how students interacted with the exercise? What was their feedback?
A: Some students had a harder time than others sorting their values, which is interesting. A portion of the class was quite quick and deliberate about sorting values, while others agonized over the exercise until time was up. In the end, students were also surprised at what they valued; the Consumer Value Sort gave them pause, seeing on paper how shallow most of their consumption decisions were, with values like “price” and “brand label” coming out on top more often than values like “supports something I care about.” Most admitted they had never thought about values factoring into consumption, and when studying branding/marketing, values never really come up.
In feedback, students reported feeling compelled to act in the future, armed with information to look for value-based products, both in store and online shopping experiences. In letters I received from the students afterward, over half mentioned the value sorts as a pivotal exercise. For example, one stated, “[S]orting our values helped me see that a lot of the clothes I buy do not support my values. I am hoping in the future to think more about that before purchasing clothes.”
Q: How does this connect with the wider work you have done on the ethics of consumption, including The OR Foundation that you have created?
A: I studied fashion design as an undergraduate and subsequently worked in the industry, and I was never taught about ethics in fashion or the general lack thereof. It wasn’t brought up. My hope is that alternative business models incorporating ethics will be successful, and in order for that to happen, we need to change the system and empower people. “Fair trade” is meaningless if the consumer doesn’t know what that means or how to evaluate it.
The idea for The OR Foundation arose when I was working for a fair trade clothing company after college, and, together with my co-founder and partner, I thought it would be cool to connect producers and consumers in an authentic way. We ran a few trials with students in which they would create an object for someone else and tell their story through that object to the other person, thereby facilitating an experience for participants to learn the value of their own time and then how that relates to the system of fashion in industrialized economies.
Right now, we have a collaborative peer-learning program called “Collectofus“ in which students from different areas of the world make textile-based wearable art-objects for one another using local materials and naturals dyes from food wastes and then send it to a peer at another school with a recorded video message. The exchange of an art-object allows students to define the value of their time, makes the experience of another person real, and becomes the foundation of a collaborative peer-learning relationship. Students then compare the experience of making and exchanging art-objects with the manufacturing of a t-shirt from home through an interdisciplinary curriculum called “These Things Take Time.”
We work most often with middle school students (ages 10-14) but have worked with students from preschool to college. Middle school is an ideal environment because that is when students are first becoming aware of clothing and self-expression but don’t yet have rigid social norms as is common in high school. Older students have more of a sense of guilt and may be less inclined to be completely forthright in discussions. It is about finding a sweet spot where students are comfortable with the conversation but ready to take action at the same time. We currently have 10 schools (both private and public) and community organizations participating in the U.S., Ghana, and South Africa, and we are seeking to expand into new areas. Parents, teachers, and administrators have been overwhelmingly supportive, even though talking about consumer behavior with young people can be controversial.
Q: What is the message you want to convey to students and wider society? How would you advise people to become more ethical consumers?
A: Pace and the importance of slowing down are key. By having students take an entire year to study one object like a t-shirt, we promote slow thinking that applies to a lot of other areas as well (especially considering the rapid pace at which young people consume information and use social media today).
But more importantly, I want people to realize that any purchasing decision is also a moral and ethical decision, especially in an interconnected and globalized world. There are real consequences to everything that we buy. Too often, we simply practice indifference in any commercial choice, and we have particularly dismissed clothing as an arena in which we need to take a stand. I hope to set the groundwork for people to evaluate whether they themselves are “shopping their values” and also whether companies or institutions are aligning what they claim are their values with their actual actions and products. I encourage people to define their own values and to step outside of a culture that defines our values for us.