My personal odyssey of becoming a thoughtful consumer has been carried along by timely boosts and nudges. It started the very first time I need to stock my own pantry, when my only guiding principle was the price and the goal of matching those familiar brand-name labels in my parents' house. But the more I have learned about the story behind each item in my shopping cart, the less automatic the choices have become.
My first great change was deciding that cheaper generic labels were often just as good as familiar brand-names, a convenient discovery for a college kid. My second was in choosing foods and products that were the healthiest for me, which was spurred by a five-month semester in the rainforest, where my diet was simple (rice and beans) and every lotion and detergent had to be biodegradable for the sake of the local river. But my latest change is much bigger and far more encompassing than anything I've tried to do before - to pick products based on what it costs to bring them to my shopping bag.
It's not the financial cost that I am trying to focus on. It is the cost in principles, in waste and suffering and greed. It is the sort of cost weighed in when, for example, after my recent trip to Ecuador I discovered that the cheap roses you see for sale in the florist section of the local Safeway or Wal-mart or King Sooper's almost all came from plantations in South America. In order to inexpensively mass produce them, these fields of roses have to be drenched in a variety of toxic chemicals, many banned in the US, which leach into the surrounding soil and water. The producers keep costs even lower by failing to supply their mostly female work-force with the necessary protective clothing, and so many suffer the effects of being poisoned. You can read more on this here. These chemical-laden roses have also been blamed for poisoning their US consumers. And yet who, when strolling down the aisle of a Piggly Wiggly's, looks at an affordable bouquet of flowers and thinks of where they were grown, or at what cost? Where is the tag that says, "Front counter price- $5.99. Real price - $dying fish, $miscarriages, $cancer?"
That is the element I am now trying to incorporate into my shopping, trying to find the real cost of each product, deciding from there whether or not it's a cost I want to pay. I've been nudged in this direction increasingly by the consumer alerts about Chinese goods, and now long gone are the days when I cheerfully snatch something of the shelf simply because it looks yummy or pretty or cheap. I remember still the first shopping trips when I started comparing unit prices (feeling quite savvy) and when I began to read the nutritional labels seriously (discovering that, wait a minute... everything has corn syrup in it!) Now my goal is to find the "Made in" label, which is written in teeny tiny writing upside-down on the inside lip of the back packaging, or some other hidden place. (Unless it's made in the USA, in which case it is emblazoned on the front.)
Far more aggravating are food products, which usually say "Distributed by." Those two words are a magical door to a realm where anything is possible, where your Smiling Sun Happy Nut Muffins may have been churned out by a radioactive slave-powered factory in the bowels of an Indonesian brothel and you just don't know, they don't have to tell you, and you have no way of finding out. I am constantly stymied by those two devious words, and so I have come up with two counteractive words of my own, "Farmer's Market."
Future posts will talk about some of the bigger changes I've made and why, but this introduction on the thinking behind thoughtful consumerism is longer than I intended, and it reads as dry as dirt (so if you've made it here, I commend you.) I'm just sitting here going blah blah blah, unedited, the curse of a blogged essay. Anyway, I am attempting to document the changes in my own personal consumerism without whacking people over the head with them, but if I was allowed an "I'd like to teach the world to sing" moment, it would be this - "I'd like to teach the world to pause for a second in the super market and look at that thing they're holding in their hand."