New Year’s Values
I’m not one much for the celebration of artificial holidays. Generally, if the way in which a holiday is celebrated suggests that one should shop, I’m not interested. I make exceptions for food (especially if it’s fresh, organic and local! I think that holidays should be about great food shared with loved ones and the appropriate celebration of season.) It’s no mistake that breaking bread with others—the root of the word communion, is also the root of community. It’s probably fair to say that I’m a Grinch about Christmas.
Not that I don’t shop. (Good Lord, I’m building—sometimes it feels that all I do is shop!) But shopping, in the retail sense, has become a recreation activity in our culture. North Americans have more stuff than we can house—I know this because my day job is about self-storage, an industry that has burgeoned over the past few decades. We have too much stuff.
What we don’t do, is shop wisely. Americans shop for values in the dollar sense, not for values in the real sense. Everybody likes a bargain—but at what cost? I note that Costco (a company I like because they have decent labor policies and are responsive to members’ environmental concerns) is having a sale on Georgia Pacific paper (a company that I despise for its political culture and rampant environmental abuses.) Will other Costco consumers stop and think about the impact of each individual selection? I doubt it. I have to pause, and recognize that the very economies of scale that make Costco successful, work against local economies—and encourage the very unbridled consumerism that decouples our relationship with the planet. It’s a matter of degree. It’s about taking the time to look below the surface—on any individual purchase—as well as with any particular company. Even though limited individually, our dollars collectively, are the second most powerful political and policy tool we have at our disposal. The first is our vote.
I also know that the very economic policies supported by our corporate economy have squeezed consumers in ways that make globally-unwise shopping the average consumer’s primary option. Think about Walmart and its devastation on small town economies— the fact is that their pay is so low as to force employees onto food stamps and public programs. There is an implicit trap in the Walmart cycle—they prey on the poor. By the time a community realizes that Walmart is not a good deal—it’s too late. All of the local businesses have closed. There are no other shopping options. Behind the scenes, the profits go to the Walton family, the production jobs go offshore, and consumers are left with shoddy products that will not endure. Go ahead, buy it, and then buy it again when it breaks. Adding insult to injury, our tax dollars help to support their full-time workers who cannot live on what Walmart pays. Where’s the value in that?
Is it too much to ask North Americans to look deeper into where their dollars go? I hope not. Buy local. Buy from your farmer’s market or co-op. Support local tradespeople and service companies—before you head to the chain store with your coupons. Fix it, instead of buying a new one, and tossing the old into the trash. Research your larger purchases on the internet—and make sure that your dollars support your real values. Buy used goods, or surplus goods—you’ll save money, reduce waste and decrease our reliance on the retail culture. Make, or build, things yourself, when you can. This is the strength of the American dream. Since when did self-sufficiency become passé? Let your dollars support your ideals.
Oh yeah, and Happy New Year.