Monday, March 9, 2009

Ethical consumption

What follows is not a bitchy diatribe about how stupid the US consumer is. I have some of that elsewhere on the blog. This is the conversation I have with myself on a daily basis as I go about provisioning my family. Having this honest conversation allows me to function in an immensely satisfying state of integrity: acting and reacting to the world in a manner consistent with my values. Price is a false idol. Being a responsible Mom/ Wife/ Citizen requires looking far beyond price. I suspect, in fact, reject a low price. I evaluate the impacts of each potential purchase and if those impacts contradict my values; regardless of how much money I have in my pocket; I don’t buy it. Beyond voluntary simplicity or frugality this is ethical consumption.

Can this product be fixed or will you throw it away when it breaks? This takes lots of things out of the running. The pile of plastic crap you buy today will be the same pile of plastic crap 10,000 years from now and they aren’t making any new real estate. Except in Dubai and who wants to live there with all those rich idiots on an island that looks like a pineapple.

What are the environmental regulations in the country this product was produced in? If I buy a product whose production wantonly excretes dangerous effluent I am the proxy wanton polluter. If I wouldn’t go and dump mercury in the village well I shouldn’t demand the product whose production does that very thing. Made in USA is good insurance. So is EU complaint.

What is the labor situation in the country this product was made in? The world’s largest cocoa producing country, Ivory Coast, get 60% of its cocoa labor from slavery. Free trade and organic is good insurance against this. South American and Chinese textiles often utilize underage workers, anti-union intimidation, prison labor, provide unhealthy working conditions, pay insanely low wages and demand long hours. If a product from china is half the price of a comparable garment made in Europe, you can bet it’s due to these factors. US manufacturing, once the cornerstone of our middle class along with the auto industry, is dead because it moved to areas of easily exploited labor, seeking the low price that we all demand. If a shirt was twice as much but provided a good job for someone, would it be worth it? Or are we engaged in a simple game of he who dies with the most shirts wins? And let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we are lifting these places up. As a rule, as soon as The Man gets a whiff of labor getting uppity and making demands, these factories move, usually leaving behind a big mess. They are purely exploitative ventures. If we really wanted to help people we could find about 1,000 better ways without straining ourselves.

How ethical is the purveyor of the product and how does this purveyor’s market behavior influence our world? Wal-Mart destroys local business with its overwhelming scale and predatory pricing, supports the exploitation of foreign labor, has been convicted of numerous illegal labor practices domestically and extracts the profits of its endeavor from the communities it “serves”. Big Box stores are the leaders in the race to the bottom. There is no ethical way to shop at Wal-Mart.

How is this product marketed? Do they use deceptive advertising? Do they play upon your feelings of inadequacy? Do they suggest you’ll be happier if you buy their product? If you generally invite self-interested and manipulative people into your life then this purchase makes sense. These marketing ploys are a means of selling you what you don’t need. No rational actor would decide they “needed” a new wardrobe every 12 months. Fashion is the epitome of planned obsolescence.

Do you really need this product? All the cooking we do can reasonably be done with about 4 pans, a colander and spatula. Gadgets are not really there to help you; they are there to sell you the idea that they will help you so that will buy them. THAT’S ALL.

How much of what you buy is used to indicate your success to the rest of the world? This is the engine that runs the ship. Better to spend that money on a therapist or do something truly productive or helpful for free that you will feel good about and make you successful in reality.

Is shopping an “activity” for you? How much burden are you putting on your children by using shopping as an activity? Not just in terms of resource depletion but in setting example and expectation, teaching them to seek easy, external, material means of validation.

What is the impact of your food choices? Am I enriching a farmer or a distributor? Am I making the earth healthier or sicker? How much oil did someone use to raise this cow, feed it, kill it and ship it here? Could I kill a cow? Could I torture a cow for 6 months and then kill it? Can I derive any well being from consuming a chicken that has never stood up? It takes more energy to make the box that cereal comes in than is in the cereal itself. Do you eat food or the value-added products of food science? Read labels, understand seasonality and overcome your feelings of entitlement when it comes to food. Question everything and trust your own research.

How responsible are you with credit? Are you using credit ethically? Are you using credit to bridge the gaps or are you using it to lie to yourself? Are you charging food that you desperately need or are you charging an expensive dinner? Deep down we know when we are using credit unethically and this guilt feeds the cycle of consumption we use to fill the void in us rather than to simply acquire useful or necessary items.

Do you throw up your hands at all this and say “ack! It’s too much, everything is bad for you, you can’t buy anything, I don’t matter, and it’s too hard, so fuck it”? Seriously? It’s too hard. That’s what you’re going with? Being a 17 year old girl in Ethiopia who has incontinence because she was in labor for a week and her bladder died and now she has to live in a hut by herself until she dies because her husband and family have disowned her in shame because she pees herself all day and night is hard. You share 25% of your DNA with a banana, get over yourself! Throwing up your hands and saying “ack, it’s hard” is the same as saying you want to go blindly through life pretending that some authority outside of yourself is going to make it all better, that all you have to do is follow every consumer whim that is created for you and the free market mechanism will create heaven on earth. Do you believe in the tooth fairy, too?

There are times when you choose to compromise one or two of your values to get an item that you need, on a certain timeline and at a price you can swing. I’m not in the perfection business. I come from a place of being very frustrated with the political choices offered to me and to the apparently clueless culture around me. To paraphrase a previous post, in assuming the yolk of my complicity in creating the world I do not want I also assume the mantle of my power to create the world I do. In our world, money is power. Not JUST of little old you and little old me but ESPECIALLY of little old us because there are more of us than there are of them. Why do you think Hopper and his gang sold us ants the idea that we’re powerless?


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  2. WOW! I couldn't agree with you more! I think one of the worst things is the ignorance of American consumers. If only more people, like you, could get the word out and open up these people's minds. Maybe they should make a prime time reality t.v. show about THAT! I get so frustrated trying to find things I need that are made in USA and/or done responsibly. Someone should compile a website with a list of places to get every household need/things from responsible sources! I'm from a small town with nothing but big box (corp.) shops around, no small businesses survive more than a month. Anyway, awesome! I commend you on saying what more NEED to hear, Thanks! -Chandra from Illinois

  3. Chandra,
    I am truly blessed to live in a place that is somewhat obsessive about organic, local and responsible consumption. I know the midwest can be a bummer in this way : (
    My goal is to get the word out and show folks they aren't the only ones questioning reality! Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and I hope you enjoy the rest of the blog!

  4. You articulate these issues so well. For 20 years, I've been thinking about them whenever I shop. And it occurred to me--here I am, agonizing over every decision, while most people don't give it a second thought. I started to resent their ignorance and/or indifference. But then I realized that I was putting out a lot of negative energy by doing that. I don't think I can begrudge people their choices. It's hard, though, when I believe that they are Wrong. My friend just gave birth to her fourth child. I have a hard time with that. I grit my teeth every time I drive by these McMansions in South Burlington and Williston. But who am I to judge them? I'm not pure.

  5. hey there picklepuss : )
    You are good not to judge, a futile exercise that has no teeth. In my post, Ordinary Hero, I talk about a paradigm shift that can only occur on the individual level. One can only "see the light" in the quiet of their own mind and only once they've opened themselves (relinquished cognitive dissonance) to their culpability and power. I'm not sure where this is leading because I don't have much faith in "the masses" but I think a series of tipping points are imminent and this may make the reconciliation of our exponential expectations and finite reality rather hard to avoid. Thank you so much for your comment.

  6. Articulate and clear... and yes, it is a hard road to walk relative to other choices I have. As you point out, relative to the poor Ethiopian girl, it is not that hard. Thanks for the post!

  7. Hi Juliet, My daughter Chandra brought me to your blog and I must say we are on the same page here! You have articulated what too few of us are thinking, and I am in complete 100% agreement with you.
    If I can affect and change nothing else in this world, I can affect and change my actions, reactions and choices for the better. I can alter my way of thinking, my lifestyle.
    The whole 'green' movement seems like another flavor of the month, or a clever strategy to induce consumers to part with their money and pat themselves on the back at the same time. Very little of the 'green' is in truth 'green' if you take a closer look. However, if the movement helps to steer humanity into greater awareness and better choices, then I am all for it.
    Anyway, it's not easy bucking the system and exercising the self-responsibility of independant thought, but we don't begin to know what 'hard' really is. Kudos to you and all of you.

  8. Hi Chandra's Mom!
    You are spot on with your comment "a clever strategy to induce consumers to part with their money and pat themselves on the back at the same time".
    I saw this amazing Walmart ad the other day, talking about how "green" this bissel carpet cleaning machine was because it was made from 50% recycled material and how we should all run to walmart (cough!) and buy this "green" machine so we could make less trash??? Replete with lovely young mother sitting on a breezy green hill amongst the daisies while her child flew a kite. Pretty much the most asinine thing I'd seen in a while but that's probably only because I have Tivo and almost never watch commercials. Anyhoot, many many thanks for taking the time to read and comment. This blog is for folks just like you!!!

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