I was at the park last week, chatting with a friend about how hard it is to figure out what toxic stuff is in our food. An acquaintance of ours within earshot leaned in and said, a little pointedly, “you know, even if you got rid of all the chemicals, you still won’t live forever.”
The jibe stuck with me, because it points back to what the New York Times profile of my alleged hazmat parenting also got completely wrong. While it may be the case that a protective impulse — like getting that cancer-causing couch out of my living room – is a strong motivator, it’s certainly not the only one.
After all, I don’t really want to live forever, and there’s so much potentially harmful stuff in our environment that I harbor no illusion that even my best efforts can address it.
It’s not actually about my health, or even my daughter’s, most of the time. Instead — and I’m certainly not alone in feeling this way — it’s a matter of using my purchasing decisions as another way to express my values: as a way of voting with my dollars for the world I want, and of working hard, and sometimes too hard, to find the companies that are allies in this vision.
It’s also about justice. I remain outraged that companies can keep secrets about the hazards of products in our homes and what they know about their health impacts. I’ve worked with grieving parents who had lost a child or loved one due to a defective product, and you don’t forget their sadness, or the sense that a more caring approach is sorely needed.
In fact, I’ve done advocacy work for progressive causes for years. What sense would it possibly make to use that income to pay companies that do things that are counter to the world I’ve been working for? Of course, I hasten to add, anyone can feel this way about they way they spend their money, regardless of how they made it in the first place.
And there are lots of signs that people do subscribe to conscientious consumption — from the popularity of Annie Leonard’s original Story of Stuff video, to the growth of certification regimes for products from chocolate to lumber, to the burgeoning homesteading movement, to the fact that organic produce, even with its higher price-tag, is now ubiquitous.
As our recession drags on, there is also a sense that all of us with our diminished spending power would like to stop and think a little more before we buy. Obviously, this is not a new idea. As my dad wrote once, Aldo Leopold, the great environmental philosopher, coined the phrase “intelligent consumption” (pdf). I’ll note that this was, sadly, long before much was ever intelligent about it.
As we all know in our hearts, as consumers in this moment of mass-produced commercialization, we participate in so many systems — many global in nature, and many of which are hidden behind a virtual information blockade. We never meet the agricultural workers — including children — here in the U.S. or abroad that pick our food, the factory workers at places like Foxconn in China that make our gadgets or household goods, or the trafficked and enslaved adolescents that provide 40 percent of the world’s cacao beans for chocolate.
Most well-bedecked Western homes likely include hundreds of items. Yet we have no idea how they were made, where they came from, who has handled them, and whether suffering — workers’ or ours — is involved.
But once we acknowledge that we are, in some broad way, responsible for this chain of production, of course, it can be a crushing feeling. The questions multiply, and you must push through the discomfort, relinquish the squishy space you lived in before you asked any probing questions, and look at whatever you find.
Here’s my real point: staying receptive and open, when you can, to asking those hard questions is the only real step needed to engage with the growing movement about the ethics of consumption. We all feel so guilty, whenever we pause to think, that it’s critical to understand that integrating your values into whatever you buy is a process, not an end result.
Given how complicated it is, you’re unlikely to get to a place where you can ever look around your house and feel completely at peace. But that’s no reason not to start digging in. It’s perfectly fine to tackle one thing, and then another, and not everything at once, doing it as you can afford to, and as you can mentally afford to consider the change.
Actually, it’s the orientation to thinking about something that matters: the willingness to have your ears perked up and your nose open to something smelly, and to listen to your gut when a decision feels like less than what you really could do.
And here’s what else I’d really love you to know: if you let one small belief-driven change into your life, and take it seriously, other issues and concerns will also find a way in. The changes you make will grow into a habit over time, and after a little while, your choices will be transformed. The only real trick is to believe that what you do matters in the first place.
And yes, it’s true that we can’t shop our way to a better world. We still need lawmakers to make better rules. To get these rules, all of us must make full use of the still-functioning parts of our democracy. So we should pick up the phone to Congress, write letters and do the organizing it takes to enact chemical reform, improve conditions for workers, end modern slavery, and manage our resources and wildlife sensibly.
That said, most days, all of us also consume. When we do, we can look for ways to buy better stuff, or buy local, certified, organic, hand-made, fair trade, or used goods, or even to make things ourselves. We should tackle what we can, when we can. Shrug it off when we fail, and try again tomorrow.
And if this list sounds like a left-wing snob’s fantasy la-la land, well, so be it. We should be quietly confident about making an effort, rather than self-conscious or awkward. It’s not, actually, about being “holier-than-thou” so much as “this is what I want the world to be.”
It’s about taking some power back from the corporations: replacing “buyer beware” with “buyer believe.” And it’s certainly not about living forever so much as living my hopes for the world, for however long I am around and whenever I can make it work.
What’s your process of thinking about what matters to you when you buy stuff? What changes have you made that you feel good about? And what’s next on your list?