Soapbox • Marketplace offers parents pressure but also choices
by: KATIE HARTLEY, Many trendy stores are offering goods for the littlest consumers. Here, Bridget Marsh tries out some wooden animals at Little Urbanites in Northwest Portland. The co-owner of another baby boutique, Milagros, says parents’ purchases don’t have to come with a big price tag in terms of either dollars or ethics.

My wife and I have operated a baby boutique in Portland for nearly four years. We also have two children. So my perspective on products for babies and kids is as a consumer and as a merchant.

I read Audrey Van Buskirk's column (Baby got brand, parents get the bill, Dec. 18) on the issue of product branding and marketing for babies, young children and their parents with great interest.

She makes a good point: A lot of marketing energy from major manufacturers and retailers is targeting very young children and expectant parents in order to establish early brand loyalty.

The article compares the experience of mass-marketed brands against expensive boutique brands. Van Buskirk is right to imply that there is nothing inherently superior in boutique brands versus mass-marketed brands. A brand is a brand is a brand.

To that I want to add the following: Making the 'right product choice' is not the same as making the 'right brand choice,' and the opportunity to make these choices is not a luxury.

Depending on the values you want to support, buying decisions are never as easy as choosing a boutique brand over a mass-marketed brand.

At our store we have always believed in fair trade and have always required that all the products we carry adhere to international standards of fair wages, work benefits, positive environment and absolutely no child labor.

A few months after opening, we also made the decision not to add any new product lines to our shelves that were made in China.

I can tell you that there are plenty of 'boutique brands' where a high price does not translate into sound working conditions and environmental practices, or even a willingness to consider such issues.

On more than one occasion, I've had vendors explain to me how they have had to make this compromise or that compromise in order to compete. This has always proved to be a specious argument.

To date we have had no problem filling our shelves with fairly made, environmentally sound products, including many locally made items. Our prices for what we feel is the 'right product choice' have always been close to - or even less than - boutique brands that have failed to meet our standards.

That said, buying from a store like ours is not the only option for making the right product choices. For instance, if you don't want children's clothing that advertises a cartoon or brand, it's not hard to find affordable basic clothing free of characters and logos. Target, Fred Meyer and many small local retailers offer these options.

If you prefer to have a boutique brand but can't afford to buy it off the rack, Portland is blessed with a plethora of private and nonprofit-operated secondhand stores where you can find gently used high-end brands for less. And then you are promoting something more important than brand-loyalty: recycling.

If you want to avoid toys from China or only choose toys that provide open-ended play, there are toys made in other countries - and even here in Portland - from wood and other natural elements that are affordable and fit the bill.

But let's not forget about our own childhood experiences. Any towel became a cape, cardboard boxes became cars and houses and more, and sticks, rocks and trees had endless possibilities.

There is always plenty of imagination to go around, and it never requires batteries, just encouragement.

On a final note, let me offer this simple idea to use as you are shopping at any time of year: It's not the brand that counts, it's the thought.

Tony Fuentes owns Milagros Boutique in Northeast Portland.