For the conscientious shopper, buying almost anything these days has become a nightmare situation. Ethical concerns about chocolate and coffee production abound, and every few years reports of slave-like factory conditions in developing nations shock and devastate Western shoppers. Other considerations factor into the anxiety of the ethical shopper, too. A company that treats its employees like gold might still be environmentally sustainable. Worse, some brands participate in greenwashing, a marketing trick meant to make consumers believe that they’re greener than they actually are. Meanwhile, the time necessary to research informed choices is more than the average working person can handle.
Enter Trestle, a shopping research service whose goal is to empower ethical consumers. This innovative company intends to take the guesswork out of shopping by bringing their customers the information they need to buy consciously. In the process, it’ll show people how to support the prosperity of products and sellers that make the world a better place.
Trestle is the brainchild of Jennifer Johnson and Carl Hickerson, who graciously sat down with us for an interview. Like many great ideas, the one that eventually became Trestle was born on a long hike. Experienced in project and business management, Jennifer and Carl were up-and-coming young professionals with a shared hope of changing the world. As they traveled the Pacific Northwest Trail together, they discussed the potential of for-profit business to make a difference in the world, a potential that, they agreed, amounted to a responsibility. By mitigating their impact on the planet or by refusing to exploit people in economically vulnerable parts of the world, companies could stand in for hundreds or even thousands of consumers whose individual efforts wouldn’t be enough to make a significant change in the world. They could represent an aggregate desire for justice on the part of everyone who chose to support them by purchasing their products.
Ultimately, the two came to the conclusion that every purchase is a statement that matters. Each tells its company, ethical and otherwise, that its customers support the company’s actions. Looking at their own shopping practices in this light, Jennifer and Carl were embarrassed. Like most Americans, they often chose their purchases by convenience rather than by their own ethical standards. As bad as this made them feel, they weren’t entirely at fault. Conscious shopping, they learned, was precipitously difficult for an individual. Doing the research, seeking out brands, and finding locations to purchase products consciously required an investment of time that most people simply don’t have. Mindful consumerism needed to combine ethical standards with the convenience of conventional shopping. This became the founding principle of Trestle.
What Trestle does
Trestle is a new kind of shopping service: one that doesn’t shop for you, but which provides research which could be time limiting for the average person. It also operates on an affordable subscription model not much more expensive than a reasonably-priced gym membership. Trestle customers can sign up for $10/month memberships, for which they get unlimited reports, or “Trestle Tracks,” on any product or company they’d like to know more about. These reports contain expert-level research on any consumer item that the customer wants to know about. In an economic landscape crowded with products, this really takes the guesswork out of purchasing, especially when it comes to items of significance like furniture. Trestle Tracks cover the top three or four company or product performers for each report, presenting the customer with both options and information. It’s not hard to imagine this as the shopping trend of the future. Millennials in particular are famous for wanting to shop according to their values. Jennifer points out that “81% of millennials believe that companies should take active approaches to improving the environment and 3/4 consumers would actually pay more for sustainable and ethically-made goods.” The success of organic food and buy-local movements attests to the growing demand for products with socially and environmentally positive impacts.
Trestle’s research practice considers each company or product in light of the shopper’s particular ethical concerns. For example, a shopper who cares about the environment and wants to buy eco-friendly toothbrushes will get a different report from one who cares about fair labor practices and wants to buy a dress. The result is information that’s tailored to the individual’s values. Transparency, sustainability, fair labor, and animal cruelty are all factors by which Trestle’s customers can ask to rate and rank companies. The company’s business highlights page, which includes Patagonia, Mammut, and MUTU Coffee, is an example of the quality and character of companies that fit many shopper’s expectations for ethically acceptable practices.
As of the writing of this profile, Trestle is less than three years old. It only began actively taking subscriptions in January of 2019. Even though it’s still young, Jennifer and Carl have big plans for the future. The company will soon expand its offerings so that buyers can take Trestle with them to the store, where it could make an even more significant difference to its clientele. After all, when faced with fifty similar-looking cereals at the supermarket, having Trestle on your side could mean the difference between consciousness and convenience.
What Makes A Company Ethical?
Although it uses research to rank and rate companies, Trestle doesn’t deliver verdicts on whether companies are objectively “good.” There’s no Trestle stamp of approval or Trestle-approved business directory - at least, not yet. Instead, Trestle looks at the company’s value claims. If a customer wants to buy sustainably, for example, Trestle might consider a company’s marketing or message that their products are 100% biodegradable. They’d look into the validity of that claim, as well as others that the company makes about its sustainability practices, and rate the company based on how well it measures up to its own standards. Then, if the company is a good match for the customer’s requirements, Trestle will recommend it. Jennifer describes this as the Match.com of e-commerce. The service Trestle provides is more about compatibility with the consumer’s interests than an absolute standard of quality. Ultimately, it’s up to the customer to decide what they care about.
Customer response has been very enthusiastic. Shoppers are tired of feeling like dupes when their preferred brand turns out to have a terrible human rights record or a history of dumping toxic waste. In a nation where the average millennial works 45 hours per week, doing personal research on every brand might add hours of planning to every shopping trip. Every new product on the market would be a question mark, and starting a new hobby would be prohibitive. Companies that behave badly profit off of the average person’s inability to keep up with their behavior. Trestle’s model explodes that factor. For their customers, there will be no more uncertainty.
Since opening their digital doors in January of 2019, Trestle’s customer response has been tremendous. The young company has fielded inquiries about beauty products, clothing, art supplies, furniture, and more. Jennifer attributes the company’s momentum to the fact that people want to patronize companies that think like they do. There’s no joy in buying from an organization that will make the world a worse place, but supporting a company that makes both a good product and a positive difference is a double value.
Philosophically, shopping consciously means shopping with intention. Jennifer tells In Kind that online shopping has reinforced a preference for convenience in our culture. There’s a level of casualness to shopping that simply didn’t exist before everything was available for the minimum price at the touch of a button. The fact that anyone with a credit card can buy anything, no matter how obscure, over the Internet may have generated a new kind of consumer complacency. This may be good for certain companies’ quarterly reports, but it’s not ideal for humankind.
Mindful shopping isn’t just a way to live according to ethical values. It’s a way to reclaim a consumer process that seems to depend on the customer being at least partially checked out of the buying process. If knowledge is power, then knowing about our purchasing options returns a certain amount of power to us as consumers. It forces us to think as we buy rather than simply looking for the lowest price. Minimalists already appreciate that an easy-come, easy-go culture leads to a certain amount of devaluation, not just of the intangible ethical tenets that matter to us, but of the objects themselves. When it doesn’t matter where a purchase came from, then does the purchase itself mean as much? Apparently, a mindlessly bought item can be cheap in more ways than one.
Jennifer sees Trestle as a way to build an alternative consumer system. In many ways, it counters the assumption of the corporate mainstream that customers don’t have or need meaning in their financial transactions. Instead, Trestle assumes that their clients are intelligent and concerned, interested in the world around them and eager to be informed. It’s a respectful point of view that’s much lacking in an economic landscape where consumers are often treated as forces of nature, statistics, or sources of revenue. Perhaps it’s time that the buyers of America stopped tolerating companies that ignore both the greater good and their customers’ desire to make the world a better place. Maybe it’s time that companies who insist on upholding their ethical standards are found and brought into their deserving spotlight. If that time is here, and a new generation of companies is set to thrive on customer desire to do good, then Trestle will certainly be in the vanguard. Jennifer and Carl may yet prove that business can change the world.