Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Conscious Consumption

B and I watched the documentary The Corporation last night, and it was long and scary. Basically, corporations have taken over the American economy and are ruining the world. Because they have they masterfully gotten the legal system to consider them "persons," they can get away with bad deeds such as producing too much of an unneeded product, employing advertisements backed by psychological research to get you to buy their products, use child labor, exploit workers by paying stupid low wages, trick the government into OK-ing a product that has been proven harmful, selling the unsafe product, polluting our air and water, taking ownership of natural resources, etc etc. I know I'm not the most eloquent writer, but we've all heard about the irreparable damage done by corporations so large that they have no accountability. Even their "green initiatives" are just a tactic to quell public suspicion, while they carry on with the bottom line: profit. The only two hopes are that capitalists will keep "selling the rope that will hang them" and that the public will act differently against unjust corporations.

Again, as the credits rolled, I found myself wallowing in a pit of guilt. But then B reminded me that feeling guilty does nothing.. it just makes you feel better later after you are done feeling guilty because you felt something. It's true. We then started really examining our lifestyles and started a serious conversation. I was previously really turned off by the green movement, 1- because I didn't feel like it could do any lasting good, and it seemed like the majority of people did not care. And 2- it is so annoyingly trendy- those damn rich middle class yuppies. But if everyone sympathized with point 1 then nothing would ever change. And remove all the trendy baggage and the point is still ever so relevant. What have we, as a couple, done with this burgeoning knowledge?

Food: Thanks to Erin and Andrew, we've made our first married grocery trip to Wheatsville Co-op. I had a membership in college, but the high prices really turned me off, and after that membership expired, I could not bring myself to pay the extra 50 cents to $1 for each item. They've since changed that system, and as a member, you get discounts on certain items. (We are not members.) This trip was spurred by watching Food, Inc., and sleeping in on Saturday two weeks in a row and missing the downtown Farmers Market. We went armed with a purpose- to buy only local produce and meat. I understand that at those health stores, it's the stupendously expensive snacks and drinks that suck your wallet dry. Not a huge problem when you realize that those things aren't really food (meal food), and you should not buy them regularly. To have the comparison of HEB-priced snacks is helpful because it's still fresh enough to cause you enough mental pain to resist paying $5 for a tiny box of crackers.

Analysis: The produce is labeled with state or country of origin. I was disappointed to find that they sold non-organic items, and they also had a pretty small local section. I guess by pretty small I mean that the entire section is not local, woefully. I think a farmers market or planting your garden is the way to go on this one. I found out about a community garden in our neighborhood off 45th and Eilers run by Austin's own Sustainable Food Center. (They're the guys who put on the weekly Farmers Market downtown and at the Triangle.) We're still considering getting a plot- it is $40 a year plus volunteer maintenance. Anyways, back to Wheatsville. The meat section was more impressive. They have a freezer full of a variety of meats from nearby farms, and they are labeled by how far the meat had to travel to get there. We purchased some ground beef, chicken and sausage. The ground beef was something like $8 for half a pound. It sounds insane, but think about it: in what other way are you paying dearly for really cheap meat? Your health. And for those of you who care, the well-being of the animal. It's just not worth it. B was a bit put off bv how little meat we purchased, but after we made burgers, he was more enthusiastic about it. The meat also tasted different to us, as it should. I could not put my finger on it, but it was not bad at all. The burger was pretty great, actually. And I felt good not eating the meat of 1000 corn-fed, antiobiotic-pumped, manure-contaminated cows. In regards to money, we did not spend our entire weekly grocery budget!! Yes, the meat was much, much more expensive. But all we bought was meat, veggies, fruit, yogurt and bread. We're used to "treating" ourselves weekly with real-sugar sodas, chips, bulk section items, anything fun looking that catches the eye. It's good to only buy what we need. I'm happy we have fully weaned ourselves from HEB, and the next grocery I want to check out is even closer, Natural Grocers. I'm proud of B for joining me on this journey, especially since guys can sometimes be "whatever" about food, as long as it tastes good.

Clothing: Still thinking about this one. I'm quite sure the majority of the clothing I own is not sold by socially responsible companies. My new Cheap Monday jeans are made in China. Not good for stimulating the local economy. I get the occasional bargain-priced item from Forever 21. I'm guessing they have egregiously bad labor practices.. why else are the clothes dirt cheap? But girls don't care. And sadly, Urban Outfitters is basically the only place you can get fashion-forward clothing without breaking the bank. But not only are most if not all of their womens' clothes all made in poor Asian countries, they are also not made to last, and they unabashedly steal their looks from high-designers. I've always been very put-off by their shoddy construction, but I begrudgingly keep shopping there for fear of becoming irrelevant, style-wise. I know it's dumb, but it's hard. B and I agree that for now (and this is something he has always done), just wear what we have until we wear it out. This somewhat bleeds into Christmas gift territory, as I like giving my brother clothes as gifts. Instead of the cheap American Apparel cardigan I had been eyeballing from a bulk eBay seller, B and I decided to go with Alternative Apparel (see their Social Responsibility section) instead. Samuel, I hope you are not reading this. I generally like American Apparel because it is plain and made in the US, but I have heard cases of employee mistreatment and yes, sexual harassment.

While it is encouraging to me that one of the current fashion trends is items (hand) made in America, it disheartens me that this is just an impermanent trendy ideal. And that people who wear the same outfits for years and years get their unwanted 15 minutes of crazy bright spotlight, and are never mentioned again.

Regarding the Christmas gift-giving tradition, our extended family has always gotten together and given every kid a gift. I'm still considered a kid. The problems with that are: The economy has gone down and gifts have become cheaper and shoddier to cope. -> Everyone gets the same non-personal gift. I have no issue with my family wanting to spend less on unnecessary gifts. This year, I want to try to encourage our family to toss that tradition and instead, draw names out of a hat and just buy one gift for one person in your extended family. That way, you can put more thought into a gift and that person can get one way cool gift versus ten made-in-China useless ones.

Pets: B brought a good point that if we ourselves are paying attention to what we consume and what companies we support, we should also rethink what we buy for our cats. The Purina stuff we get them is just regular cat food from HEB, and I don't know where the ingredients come from. Clay litter is useful in eliminating odors and clumping, but it is also definitely awful for the environment and for you. Manufacturers employ the method of strip mining to extract clay, thereby destroying acres and acres of land. And the nasty dust in the litter contains a carcinogenic ingredient. We'll probably check out Wheatsville's pet section for alternatives soon.

House: Besides the oft-recommended turning off lights when you're not using them, taking shorter showers, washing clothes in cold water, turning off power strips, and fixing window and door leaks, there is still a lot to be done. Like toilets. 1 flush uses up 1 gallon of clean water. Not only that, we mix our waste with drinking water, which we then have to spend a lot of energy purifying. It's a really inefficient system, especially since our waste could be naturally useful when put in the ground. It's great that some places have installed toilets capable of half-flushes (for when you pee). But I think that toilets in general are not sustainable. It's a quick way to get rid of something gross and never see it again. Think about the hidden consequences. Check out this Boston Ideas article for more on this topic. Still thinking about this one. Can we be sustainable in a house turned green, or do we have to revamp the whole idea of a house? Fortunately for us, people are thinking about this here and there are quite a few "green" houses in town, especially on the Eastside. I'd like to learn more about them.

It's a process for sure. And for the most part, we can only try to do better, not best. And stop buying so much stuff from here on out. We just got a wonderful new couch last weekend from IKEA. The loveseat was not cutting it for us, since we could not both lay down together on it without poking each other in the face or back. It's been great having a larger couch, but IKEA is a large corporation.. This Inhabit post seems to think IKEA has commendable environmentally-friendly practices and rules. It sounds good, but still, the whole idea of a corporation is not sustainable.. Again, solid products that are also awesomely cheap should spur you into doing more research. I know I will be. This is why I'm pleased that we built two of our tables. It was super fun, challenging, and ultimately rewarding. Handmade custom furniture can be very pricey, but it doesn't have to be.

Still working through the whole money thing, as in "how much money should I spend on products that are better for the world?." Why are most products manufactured under socially responsible means so expensive? Are you paying more for the good "green label" feeling? Because right now, I don't see how those alternatives are a true option for most people. Then there's the argument that we should own less in general- there is no need for a closetful of clothes. True. Fashion may be an enormous ruse created by companies to drive purchases, but it's so compelling. For many people, it's an integral part of their identity. I can definitely identify. Anyways, sorry for the gargantuan post. I'll be thinking about this more from now on. Not because I really want to (it's really, really inconvenient!), but because I am compelled to. Some coworkers I talk to about the industrial food issue can sympathize, but throw their hands up and refuse to think about it further because they feel helpless. But I don't think that we are helpless, especially as we are so privileged. Terrible norms have always existed in history, and when people worked to change them, sometimes they succeeded. B and I half-joked about how we weren't going to have kids because people are awful for the world. Still working on a good answer to that one.


ehaze said...

i forgot to mention on the gift card that you could've used the money to purchase a memebership. oops!

regarding having kids: you could always adopt. my personal opinion on this one is that i do not want to have more kids than are needed to "replace" me and my partner (ie, not give birth to more than 2) but i'm a big believer in adoption. people aren't bad for the world if we teach our offspring to be responsible consumers. happy thanksgiving!

ehaze said...

p.s. andrew, kristi and i have a policy on the toilet flushing, which i will tell in person or via email you if you want to know! also, are those black boots still available? surely that is consumer concious of me if i wear hand-me-downs! xo

Fern said...

Thanks for thoughtful comments, Erin. Yes, those boots are still available! I meant to and forgot to call you earlier this week about them. It's great weather to be wearing them for sure!
Yes, it was an overgeneralization to say that people are awful for the world. I guess what I meant was that Americans are bad for the world, still, even though some of us are trying to get better.
Haha, I have a toilet policy too, but I didn't want to gross any readers out. Not that it is really gross. Perhaps your policy is flushing less? But then it get sorta stinky..

ehaze said...

yes. our policy doesn't allow for stinky. if both of us have to go pee at the same time, we don't flush until both have gone. but we don't let it sit and fester, and we don't save our poops for one another either. this works well because often times when one of us has to go the other one does too. if your household flushes one less time per day, you save 200 gallons per year!

thanks for saving the boots for me.

Rachel B said...

tehe, i like your toilet policies. i have one too, but i won't say it in case it grosses anyone else out.

Rachel B said...

Oh, and about why things that are good for the world are so expensive...I completely hear you. The thing is, I think all those price tags reflect how much things actually cost. Like, meat is actually expensive if you grow the animals right. People didn't used to eat meat every day. They ate beans and when they had meat, they used all parts of the animal and then boiled the bones to make broth. And they used to eat lots of cabbage and turnips and potatoes because that was what they could grow plentifully for not much money. They good news is that we're not quite as poor as people used to be, so we don't have to be hungry and we have the opportunity for better nutrition (check it out at the grocery-- cabbage and turnips and potatoes are still dirt cheap).

Similarly, making clothes is actually expensive. A girl in my yoga class makes clothes for a living, and she told me about how it was impossible to compete with "factory" clothes in price.

Anyway, I need to go to bed.