Teaching Teens to Be Conscious Consumers

By Amy Lauren Smith
April 13, 2017


Editor’s note: In this month’s debate, Is It OK to Buy Cheap Clothes?, we tackle fast fashion and its impact on our world. Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith--a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher’s Guide each month--did a little digging to make sure she thoroughly understood the subject before teaching it to her students.


I haven’t always been the most conscious consumer. I’ll admit that up until about ten years ago, I didn’t even know what corporate social responsibility (CSR) was. (For those of you who still don’t know, it’s a company’s sense of responsibility toward the community and environment in which it operates.) It wasn’t until I moved to China that I began to understand how important it is to become familiar with the supply chain of my favorite brands.


One of the first friends I made here is now a rock star in the field.  After studying Mandarin in college, she came to Shanghai absolutely determined to save the world. Over the years, she has taught me countless lessons about the environmental and social responsibility of corporations and the individuals who buy from them. Now back in the States, she’s working as the "Green Chief" for JetBlue, where she spearheaded a program to recycle 18.5 tons of old uniforms when the company updated to new ones in 2014.


When it came time to write an activity to go along with this month’s debate, Is It OK to Buy Cheap Clothes?, I knew I had to consult her first.

Right away, she told me to check out the CSR sections on the websites of a few of the more popular brands. I started with Forever 21. There was very little in the way of information, no images, and just black text on white background. Pretty strange for such a massive and popular brand.


Then she told me to check out H&M, as the Swedish company is known for their environmental and social efforts. I discovered a CSR site that was updated, full of links, and that clearly outlined their company values and goals. There were also separate sections detailing their efforts to minimize their environmental impact and to ensure better working conditions for all.

She told me to dig around a little more, and I discovered that--like with many other products and services--all brands were not created equal. Some expensive brands don’t do a great job of looking out for the workers manufacturing their products, while some other less expensive clothing brands are making an effort. This came a relief to me, as I believe (and suspect that many of our students will too) that cheap clothes can "level the playing field" and increase the self-confidence of teens who can’t afford higher-priced trends and fashion.


Eventually, my friend sent me the link to a study out of Australia, which gave global fashion brands a letter grade for their approach to worker welfare.  Sure enough, H&M had received a B+, and Forever 21, a D-. She also pointed out that some of the more expensive designer brands also ranked pretty low.


She could have told me all of this right away, but like a good teacher, my friend knew that I needed to find the information out for myself. And just like that, she helped me create the perfect activity to go along with our debate.


Conscious consumerism isn’t something that can be directly pushed on someone. Just like with the other skills we teach, it’s something our students need to practice and develop on their own.


After reading the debate and picking a side, have your students use the activity sheet below to have to conduct their own research and share their findings with the class.