Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Conscientious Consumption: Shifting the Focus

I'm over nine months into my new year's vow to not purchase sweatshop-made apparel and I guess I'm doing a pretty good job. Other than a couple of regrettable Target trips in the spring, I've stuck to my goal. I attribute my success to minimal consumption and maintaining an old and increasingly threadbare wardrobe. Honestly, this doesn't represent much of a change from last year, but it feels different because I'm being cheap and lazy for a cause.

However, a recent bump in our household income, coupled with Dan's bulky once-a-month paychecks, has led me to another solution - online shopping!! I used to think, "Oh, I don't want to buy clothes online. I would hate to have it sent here just to discover that it doesn't fit. I would much rather try on clothes at a store." But it turns out that's just nonsense. I was so poor until a couple months ago that I never seemed to have enough money at one time to make online shopping doable (American-made clothing is more expensive - that's part of the challenge). Now that I'm not poor and I have access to lots of cash at the beginning of the month, I find I'm an enormous fan of e-commerce . As for that "I must try it on" business, I actually hate the physical act of shopping. I would rather wait an extra two weeks for a pair of pants that actually fit than spend two hours trying on pants at the mall.

But my favorite thing about online shopping is that I can find sweatshop-free, even union-made apparel, which I can never find at the mall. Recent purchases include a sports bra, a regular bra, a tank top, a black dress and a pair of sweatpants. I haven't received the sweats yet, but I've found my other purchases to be sturdy and attractive (well, the sports bra is probably more functionally than aesthetically pleasing, but I like it). All of this cost me about $150. I don't know how that sounds to you, but that's an astronomical amount of money for me to spend on clothing.

But then I consider the amount of money I spend on food - not just my fancy, yuppie groceries but also going out to eat. Without getting into the nitty gritty of my personal finances, let's just say that I can blow through $150 worth of food-related purchases pretty swiftly, not even including Dan's half. And once I buy that food, I consume it much faster than I wear out my clothing. In light of that, $150 for items that will last me months if not years... it really isn't so extravagant. So why does that dollar amount seem like such a big deal?

This notion has been on my mind for months, but I've been thinking about it more since I read this excellent blog post by a University of Michigan graduate student. In it, she talks about the supposed "virtues" of foodie fetishism, the sense of moral superiority that comes from buying local, organic and natural foods. She suggests that

eating “better” isn’t driven by evidence-based beliefs about what’s really healthier, more sustainable, more humane, or even better-tasting—which are often conflicting ideals anyhow. The main appeal of natural, organic, local, yadda yadda food is a deep, often inchoate, feeling that it’s superior, which precedes and trumps reason or any objective weighing of the evidence. I think what reinforces that feeling of superiority most is the experience of sacrifice, which channels good old-fashioned Protestant Work Ethic values like the satisfactions of hard work and delaying immediate gratification.

I have to admit that this describes me pretty well. I take some pride in the sacrifices I've made to eat "better" (spending more on locally grown and organic foods, cooking for myself instead of using processed foods, practically eliminating high fructose corn syrup from my diet, etc.), yet I don't know enough about agriculture or industrial processes to say for certain that my food choices are actually more sustainable or healthful. I've taken for granted that my thoroughly considered and pricey purchases are not only "better" but also "important" for me, for my community, for the rest of the world. Given that, I found this part of her essay truly dispiriting -

I first started thinking about this at a roundtable on “Food Politics, Sustainability and Citizenship” at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Studies Association. The panelists acknowledged that local, organic, and/or “natural” foods were not always objectively superior in the ways people want to think they are—they often require more energy to produce and transport even if they have a much shorter distance to travel, there’s no consensus on whether or not they’re healthier than the conventional, processed alternatives, and they are often labor-intensive and rely on child labor, unpaid interns, and the willingness of farmers to self-exploit. In short, they admitted that “bad” industrial food is often more sustainable, just as healthy, and possibly sometimes more ethical. But they all insisted that regardless of its real impact, what was more important was that consumers of local and organic foods were “trying.”

I admit to being completely naive of such arguments, a testament to how well I've been brainwashed. Thinking about this in the context of my new year's resolution reminds me of my favorite Gloria Steinham quote - "The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off." The notion that I may have been wasting too much time making conscientious decisions about food consumption isn't what's pissing me off. What really pisses me off is that I've spent so much time making decisions about one form of conscientious consumption at the expense of other obvious concerns, which leads me to this question: how can so many of my acquaintance care so deeply about where and how their food is grown yet have little or no concern regarding where and how their clothes or their cell phones or their kids' toys were made?

I know countless individuals who wouldn't be caught dead with a can of Spaghetti-o's in their hand, yet who are totally happy to boil their organic, gluten-free pasta in a pot that says "Made in China" on the bottom. I know because I've been one of those people for years. What are we thinking? How can we be so preoccupied with our culinary carbon footprint without considering the fact that most of our non-edible material goods are being shipped from the other side of the world. Michael Pollan and his ilk say that the cost of food has cheapened with the quality, that we should pay more to eat better because, after all, we used to pay more when dear old grandma was cooking dinner. But isn't the same thing true of all stuff? Why should this only matter when it comes to food?

I have a theory. I think that part of the appeal of the Food Revolution is the lure of "returning" to an agricultural utopia. I guess the idea of verdant trees and bountiful crops is a lot sexier than factories and industrial labor. I get that. But factories are what built my hometown, and I don't think urban farming is going to bring that town back to what it used to be.

I'm not trying to pit one cause against another. Nor am I ready to abandon certain food snob standards, like avoiding processed foods and h.f. corn syrup. I just think that those of us who care about sustainability regarding the things we put inside our bodies should also consider the ethics related to what we drape upon our bodies. Really, this rule should apply to everything, from notebooks to dog toys to ice cube bins (this is not a completely random sample - I have found "Made in the USA" versions of all these items). I know it isn't reasonable to expect everyone to buy everything sweatshop-free, but I'm pretty sure that a widespread effort at "trying" could lead to some positive changes both here in the US and abroad.


  1. Great points. I always wonder why people who insist that it's an ethical imperative to cook don't have similar attitudes towards making your own clothes or furniture. Just like cooking, sewing and woodworking take time and skill and some basic equipment, but you could make very similar arguments about the ecological impact and quality of homemade things, and the dismal labor conditions involved in their mass-production.

    I tend to believe the anti-sweatshop activists who argue that consumer boycotts (organized or individual) aren't the best strategy for making positive changes in that industry either--that what really works is changing laws and regulatory practices, which generally requires activism, lobbying, and building political alliances. Ultimately, it's less productive to worry about the moral superiority of individual purchases and handing out demerits for shopping at Target or eating at McDonalds than focusing our efforts on the kinds of structural changes that might make even goods for sale at Target or McDonalds more sustainable and ethical.

  2. Thanks for reading, and I hope you don't mind me referencing your great blog post :)

    I definitely see your point about the efficacy of activism and legislation versus individual consumer choices. And yeah, I doubt that my personal resolve is making much difference. At the same time, I have to believe that if a large number of individuals are making "ethics-based" (for lack of a better term) consumer choices, they can make an impact. I'd like to think that individual choices have contributed to the corn lobby's rather desperate push to rename HFCS "corn sugar". Perhaps those consumer decisions are just the result of effective activism and lobbying. I guess I look at it as one big package of positive change.

    Oh, and for the record, I most definitely still shop at Target. I just avoid the stuff that's obviously made in sweatshops.

  3. can't macro- and micro-level solutions both be important? to a certain extent, our economy is an aggregate of individual choices. certainly when those choices are made from a limited set of options (like when Wal Mart is the only game in town), we can't do much. but it's cynical to compare self-exploitation to sweatshops and to dismiss local and organic as no better than conventional produce (not to mention that what qualifies as scientific proof is gamed in favor of agri- and other big-business).

    i feel like reform vs. revolution is also on the table here. i don't really see a way to make meaningful changes within the current corporate structure. lobbying is not going to get us out of this mess. organizing workers, boycotts and communities probably has a better shot.