This started out to be a reflection on my first year as voting integrity editor for OpEdNews. I do have a lot to say on that just not right now. Instead, what's pushing itself forward in my mind is a piece on shopping. For anyone who knows me even superficially, this is very out of character. I hate shopping, even if the president has declared that it would be good for us and bad for the terrorists. I hate shopping so much that I look for any excuse not to do it. So what brings me to want to talk about it now?
Actually, what I really want to talk about are actions and consequences a concept I've been stressing to my kids for the last two and a half decades. I'm a wholehearted subscriber to the theory, although that doesn't mean that following through is easy.
I'm a big believer in the adage, "You are what you eat," and an equally true variation of this is "You are what you buy." I've tried over the years to be a mindful shopper, which can be quite complicated and daunting. This is not helped by the fact that I basically hate shopping anyway and would rather do almost anything but. In fact, this holiday season, I avoided it almost entirely in a way that proved quite satisfactory, but I'll tell you about that later.
I have lots of thoughts about how we use our money to express (inadvertently or purposefully) our values. For instance, if I have a choice, I prefer to buy Blue, that is, to patronize those businesses that support Democratic candidates and causes. There's a perfectly wonderful website dedicated to that very purpose, www.buyblue.org. I will not go to Wal-Mart or Sam's Club on general principle. I despise Wal-Mart's attitude towards its workers and I find it obscene that my tax dollars are going for its employees' health benefits because the largest employer in the world can't afford to (or chooses not to) cover its workers. I also avoid Wal-Mart because of the way they target small local enterprises and drive them out of business. I know that this is common practice for many large corporations, but this factor, combined with their irresponsibility towards their workers, turns me off.
It's not a big sacrifice, really. Thank goodness, nothing is so vital that I must shop at Wal-Mart or go without. And we're lucky to have Costco here in Chicago. I advise everyone I know to support Costco instead. With a very similar set-up, Costco is, in fact, the antithesis of Wal-Mart. It has embraced good business practices and treats its employees with respect. In July, 2005, The New York Times Business Section featured "How Costco became the Anti-Wal-Mart" click here Jim Sinegal, chief executive of Costco Wholesale,
Rejects Wall Street's assumption that to succeed in discount retailing, companies must pay poorly and skimp on benefits, or must ratchet up prices to meet Wall Street's profit demands...Good wages and benefits are why Costco has extremely low rates of turnover and theft by employees, he said. And Costco's customers, who are more affluent than other warehouse store shoppers, stay loyal because they like that low prices do not come at the workers' expense. "This is not altruistic," he said. "This is good business."
What can I say? I'm a pushover for ethical businessmen. What is Wall Street implying? That in order to succeed, you have to be a greedy miser who shorts your employees and, despite mammoth profits, cheats them out of health benefits, forcing the American taxpayer to pick up the tab? No wonder we're in such a pickle, economically speaking.
I also prefer not to buy things made in China. My aunt was in the forefront of this "Just say 'No' to China" movement many years ago. It was also a lot easier then. I fully understand that China is not the only country which routinely exploits its workers. But for me, it symbolizes everything that's gone wrong in America. Factories? Relocated overseas. Jobs? Downsized and outsourced. Job security? Pensions? Going, going, gone. Needless to say, we have a huge trade imbalance with China. That rubs me the wrong way. The proud American worker has truly become an endangered species. And while there are those who argue that union demands jeopardized our workers, the truth is that large, profitable businesses looking to optimize those profits have been looking abroad for cheap labor for a while now, at the expense of their homegrown workers. And that steady outbound stream has turned into a deluge.
So, I try to buy American, or at least products that are not made in China. This is becoming more and more difficult. I understand that the economic impact of an admitted non-shopper will not be substantial. And yet, I feel that this decision reflects who I am and what I believe, and has value for that reason. Two anecdotes. This summer, I discovered Crocs. I don't watch TV and don't read the fashion rags, so this was one more fad that almost passed me by. I applauded the concept of inexpensive, colorful and fun footwear. I'm a nut for economy and comfort. If we're striving for full disclosure, I admit to having recovered from a shoe fetish. It seems to have somehow transmitted itself to my teenage son, who currently has twenty-four pairs of size 13 shoes strewn about his room. They occasionally escape and can be found lying around the house, like beached whales in matched sets. Walking around without paying close attention can be quite perilous.
I went in search of a pair of Crocs and imagine my surprise when the shoes in the color I wanted were all made in China. At this point, I was willing to sacrifice "Made in the USA" for made in Canada or Italy. I trudged to five different stores, roughly the equivalent of the Chinese water torture for me. Finally, I found a pair of Crocs that were made in Canada. Hurray! I quickly bought them and proceeded to wear them every day until I wore the bottoms out. Uh oh! When I went to replace them, finding Crocs in any acceptable color in my size NOT made in China proved to be an even bigger challenge. I even contacted the manufacturer, who did not get back to me. After numerous attempts, I finally found a pair of basic black ones. (I know, what's the fun in black Crocs? I was going for a more subdued winter look.) It was Election Day and the saleswoman told me that Crocs had been bought out by a guy who actively campaigned for Bush. Naturally, this led to a lively political discussion. While I left feeling disillusioned, I managed to give her a business card and a copy of Invisible Ballots.
Since then, every time I go to a store that carries Crocs, I idly check the bottoms for the country of origin. I'm no longer surprised by the plethora of "Made in China" tags. Today, I was in People's Market and I was complaining to the salesman about all the made in China products, especially Crocs. He posited that it was the consumers' demand for cheaper goods that caused this phenomenon. I pointed out, cleverly I thought, that the Crocs made in China were not being sold for a penny less than the Crocs made in Canada, the US or Europe. The profit differential was simply going straight into the manufacturer's pocket. While he was graciously conceding to the strange woman (me) starting to froth at the mouth. I found myself staring at a pair of royal blue Crocs miraculously made in Canada. How could I resist? So now, I have enough Crocs to get me through the winter and probably the spring before I'm confronted with this dilemma again.
Shopping anecdote number two: In November, I had bought a top at a store in our local mall. I sort of recollected having something similar at home, but have learned never to trust my memory these days. I figured if I left it at the store, I'd get home to find there was no such item hanging in my closet. On the other hand, if I took it home and found its twin, I could always bring it back. My memory vindicated, I was faced with the problem of trying to return something while the world was doing its holiday shopping. Ugh. So, it rode around in my car for six weeks until I judged it was safely after Christmas and, presumably, the shopping rush.
Yesterday, amidst my other errands (including looking for rechargeable batteries not made in China), I ventured back to the store to make my return. I'm working with a behavior modification program that is supposed to transform me into a younger, thinner, fitter version of myself. I really didn't want any clothes, since it seems wasteful to spend money on clothes that may fit me only fleetingly. The store also carries non-clothing items jewelry and housewares. I wandered around a little, seeing if there was anything to which I could apply my credit. I found a pair of throws that were lovely chenille, great colors, would probably match my de'cor, good price, and even on sale. The clincher: made in the old US of A. Bingo!
I spent a lot of time in line; everyone apparently chose yesterday to do returns instead of the day before. So, I became instant best friends with the ladies standing in front of and behind me. I explained about my find but it was clear that this was not a burning topic for them. The saleslady, on the other hand, "got" it. She had spent the last two years in Germany and she said that although Chinese goods had flooded the market there, it was still possible to find things made in Germany. She marveled that I was able to find anything at all made in the USA at her store. She kept shaking her head and checking the label. She said "I didn't know we carried anything made in the USA at all." Now, I find that unbelievably sad.
I think next year before the holidays, I will make a point of posting various sites that cater to ethical shopping and nontraditional shopping alternatives. We should all definitely consider this before plunking down our cold hard cash for anything. I also want to share what I did for gifts this year, which I alluded to earlier in this piece. I decided to aggregate the money that I would have spent on gifts and toward making a substantial donation to a wonderful fund that seeks out individuals whose "endeavors cover the entire span of human existence. What they share is a dedication to the wellbeing of others to an extent that often staggers both the mind and the imagination."
In case this is of interest to you, you can peruse their annual newsletter, which makes for fascinating reading. I chose projects from the 44-page booklet that reflected the values and interests of those on my gift list. Instead of receiving a present, my friends and family were sent write-ups describing the projects, along with a cover letter in which I explained that a donation had been made in their honor. This alternative to shopping did not ultimately save me either time or money, and clipped copies of the projects littered my desktop for several weeks. But, the feeling of supporting wonderful, caring people doing inspiring things to make their corner of the world a little better, safer and warmer was just too powerful to resist. Anyone wanting to know more about this marvelous fund, which has given away almost 10 million dollars in the last 25 years, can visit their website, www.ziv.org. Contributions can be earmarked for a particular project, and all donations are tax-deductible. I felt that I had done my share to allow my nearest and dearest to partake in this wonderful endeavor by using their gift money for that purpose. I have gotten many enthusiastic responses, and I feel much better than I would have had I spent endless hours aimlessly searching for inexpensive but extremely meaningful mementos. That's clearly win-win, in my humble opinion.
This article really wrote itself. Apparently, the topic of mindful shopping would not be denied. It's so off-beat, I was worried that people might wonder what this has to do with them. I read the piece to my mother who, of course, thought it was fabulous. (If I read her my grocery list, I'm sure she would have the same reaction, bless her heart.) My friend just returned from London where the BBC did a segment about China and the great trade imbalance. When she got back, they were talking about it on CNN as well. She deemed the article extremely timely. So, not only did you have the opportunity to hear a lot about my (non)shopping habits but you got a timely marketplace piece with ethical considerations thrown in as well. If it makes you check labels or think twice before you buy, I'll consider it a success.