Thoughtful Consumerism

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."

5 comments:

TSOldtimer said...

Living at the Farm definitely has been sheltering me from those kinds of decisions. I'm happiest when I can walk into the community kitchen and snatch up some Farm produce. But I often find it so difficult to actually find where things are coming from. When I have to order produce and dairy from other companies, I don't know where the things come from! And they usually don't tell us unless I ask specifically. And harder still is that there aren't many alternatives... Responsible consumerism is a noble, but difficult road. We should make it easier on ourselves! (Note: I read this post immediately following a viewing of "Who Killed the Electric Car." Hmm.)

Keebler said...

Tis a noble and challenging mission. The hardest part is getting the population at large to recognize exactly what you came to! It is easy when you live in a larger metro area with more choice or in the countryside where you can get to know your local growers, etc. However, it's the middle cities across the western world that have the hardest plow. I am a product of our consumer age as well, but here are some things I do that I hope go towards changing the way we buy in some small way:
1. I'm lucky because there is an actual retail store near me, but Oxfam has some wonderful products (food and gifts) that empower small villages to find a place on the global market. Check out http://www.oxfamshop.org.au/shop/ for Christmas this year.
2. Find out about the local Farmers Markets in your area (as you mentioned) or if you're lucky enough to have one around you, join an Organic Co-op for foodstuffs.
3. Buy food that is in season. It is a safer bet that it came from at least your country if it is the right time of the year to be eating say, cherries, etc.
4. Buy products with the Fair Trade label. For more information look at http://www.fairtrade.net/ These products have high standards and do not undervalue the original seller just to make it more competitive. If your stores do not stock these things, ask them why. You can also buy everything from wonderful coffee to hand-painted toys through different Fair Trade seller websites.

Kt said...

tso - Difficult, yes, which is why I'm trying to focus on one small change at a time. Living at the Farm really makes you appreciate knowing your food source. Was it a good movie?

Keebs - As far as getting the population on board, I think my wallet speaks loudest. And just like I've been nudged down this road by others who were further on it, I hope to encourage others by example. People work so hard for their money that they should have the right to spend it as their conscience dictates, but I'm hoping that our generation will initiate a change in attitude about what it means to be a consumer. I hate to say it, but in a retirement town such as mine, folks buy the same thing they have always bought, change be damned, and so that's what the stores are stocking. (That would be the answer to the "Fair Trade" question.)

In such a case as this, positive change will most likely happen if A) the town's attitude changes, or more likely B) the big name companies change themselves to meet an attitude change in a bigger market (cities), which then forces new products into small town stores.

I think a lot of it comes down to a willingness (or lack thereof) to educate one's self.

Keebler said...

I would still ask the stores "why". Fair Trade products are not necessarily gourmet prices. I find most things priced at a competitive level. Sure, many people will continue to buy similar products, but even big companies come out with new things all the time. People do try. If the quality and price is right, they keep buying. Ten years ago, no one had heard of a tomatillo in your town. Due to a minority, they were brought in to the major supermarket there. As far as I know, they are now a permanent fixture in the vegetable section. The same goes for boutique beers, etc. In each case someone either had to market it to the store or repeatedly ask for and show a possible need for it. I guess I'm just a rambling Pollyanna!

Monster Library Student said...

That was one of the hardest things for me after leaving GF...going back to store bought everything, instead of an at least more simplified food experience. Keep on keeping on, as TSOtimer said, you are fighting a noble fight.