Sr. Colleen O'Toole

A Vocation of Service

Ethical Trade Stories: Sister Colleen

Living an ethical, sustainable lifestyle has become more important to me since I made my vow of poverty. I am a Sister of Mercy, and I have promised “by [my] practice of poverty…to commit [myself] to follow Jesus, who became poor for our sake…we surrender the independent use and disposal of material goods.” (The Constitutions of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas)


When I first became part of the community, I thought that meant to spend as little money, and to have the fewest possessions, as possible. After all, the people we see as ‘poor’ don’t have much and must make do with whatever they get. As I have learned more about the meaning of the vow, my ideas have grown along with my knowledge. We as sisters living in the United States will never truly be economically poor. To pretend to be so would be dishonest. I will always have my needs taken care of, and a little left over. I can, however, use what money I have to live simply. To me a large part of that means being aware of what I am buying and how it impacts other people and the environment. 

We as sisters living in the United States will never truly be economically poor. To pretend to be so would be dishonest.

According to Human Rights Watch, 97% of garments are made overseas, by some 40 million workers, of which 85% are women. The garment industry is rife with forced labor, underpaid workers who are unable to organize, poor working conditions, and child labor. One example illustrating the situation is the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, which killed over 1,000 workers and injured about 2500 more.

Catholic Social Teaching

I do my best to follow Catholic Social Teaching; which states that all people have innate dignity, a right to work safely and be fairly compensated, and the right to organize. It also calls humanity to care for the environment and for each other, and for the economy to serve people, not the other way around. Additionally, the Sisters of Mercy have a have a special concern for women and children, who are always the most directly impacted by poverty or disasters.




I used to joke about how if I ever got a lot of money, I would only shop fair trade. Everything is so beautiful, and I know it’s good for workers and the earth. I realized that I didn’t have to wait, or that just because I have a limited budget, fair trade is out of my reach. This year, I have decided to make an effort to shop more consciously, especially for clothing.

I often have to wait, and save up, to buy my next piece of clothing, but knowing that what I am wearing is helping improve the life of a woman or child somewhere gives me great joy. A dress I buy not only helps keep traditional methods of fabric printing alive, it may allow a woman to attend literacy, parenting, or financial classes. A pair of socks helps keep children in school and out of a factory.  

We don’t have to wait to be rich, to buy ethical goods.

While I cannot change the supply chain or the production line of large companies alone. I can write letters, and make calls, and raise awareness, but the fact remains that we live in a society where the dollar talks. I have decided to, as often as I can, make mine speak up for the least of those.

Colleen O’Toole is a Sister of Mercy. You can follow her on Instagram.