Being a Better Consumer (A Pre-Journey Perspective)

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20140703-125900.jpgThis past weekend I tackled the daunting task of getting rid of many of my things in preparation for my move to New Zealand. It actually worked out that I am able to keep a lot of my furniture at my current house with my roommates, but I desperately needed to pare down the piles of clothes, shoes, and junk I have acquired. I’ve never considered myself to be very materialistic, but when I looked around at all the purchases I have hoarded over the past five years I saw a strong case against me. There’s nothing like pleading with strangers to cart away your belongings to really put your consumerism in perspective. I even offered free beer and wine – with purchase! The ploy was far less successful than I had hoped. Apparently there aren’t so many people wanting to throw back some beers at 10am on a Sunday morning.

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Over the past year or so I have been taking a closer look at where the things in my daily life come from. It started with my food. How are the animals which produced my meat, eggs, and milk treated? How is my produce being grown and harvested? Then after the factory collapse in Bangladesh in April 2013 I began to think more about where and how my garments are being made.

While I have been more conscientious lately, embarking on a mission to trace the origins of  all of your purchases and the ethical practices of the companies which produce them is completely overwhelming. Where do you even start? As a friend pointed out, even if you find out where the garment company manufactures the clothing and ensure that the factory has good ethical practices it would be impossible to find out where the material for the garment came from and how those workers were treated. It is really mind blowing to think how many people actually come in contact with an item before it hits the store shelf for you to buy it. Take a cotton shirt, for example. First there are the people who pick the cotton. Then it must be transported to a textile manufacturer and made into cloth. Next, someone must cut and sew the cloth into a shirt. It might also be dyed and decorated then sent to the store. Since most garment factories are overseas you can assume it will be transported by boat then semi truck. That’s a lot of people who are coming into contact with your shirt! How can you be sure they are being treated fairly and that they are not enslaved? How can you know their working conditions are healthy and not deplorable or dangerous? It is unfortunate that the burden is on the consumer to research how their purchases are being produced instead of companies being forced to be transparent about their practices.

While I am travelling by bike I will only have with me what I can carry. Having to physically push all your stuff around will certainly make you really take a hard look at what is a necessity in your life. I’m already beginning to stress a bit about my packing. I’ve read blog after blog warning bicycle tourists about over-packing. It seems we all have trouble imagining our lives without certain comforts. I am looking forward to the lessons I will inevitably learn about materialism and consumerism. This weekend I already came to the conclusion that while I may not have the time or resources to learn the complete background of everything I buy, I can help alleviate the need for the mass production of things (which is the biggest culprit of unethical manufacturing practices) by being less of a consumer. Just because something is on sale, or really cute, or because you have space for it doesn’t mean you have to buy it. While I do wish that corporations would be held more accountable, there comes a point where we as consumers can just say, “I have enough things in my life” and move on. At the very least, it will save you from spending a very exhausting and hot weekend in your driveway haggling with people vulturing the carcass of your closet….free beer in hand.

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3 thoughts on “Being a Better Consumer (A Pre-Journey Perspective)

  1. I find your take interesting… You’re basically laying the blame on the company, whose sole responsibility is to make a profit for its shareholders while eschewing the responsibility of the purchaser and the government of the country in which those goods are sold. For instance, the reason those sweat shops are in business in the first place is that people demand high quality products at rock-bottom prices. After all, if a person can pay $20 for a pair of jeans at Old Navy, why would they pay $50 for a pair of Levi’s? It must be those evil corporations hoarding money and making huge profits, right? Not so! Levi’s, unless they’ve moved manufacturing overseas (which would be news to me) are made in the USA, so labor is ten to twenty times higher. At the same time, you have governments trying to increase the ridiculous minimum wage – and you’ve got Big Unions pushing outrageous wage, benefit and pension packages which push prices of “responsible” manufacturing even more “impossible” and leave corporations with a choice: price their products out of the greedy consumer’s desire to pay or find a way to get them make them cheaper.

    That is the vacuum. People have to make a conscious decision to quit buying cheap shit and governments force companies to pay through the nose. I do the best I can to purchase responsibly company wide. It’s not easy though.

    • Your last two lines of your comment are actually the point of my blog. While I wish corporations were held more accountable and had to be more transparent about how they operate, I do think that as consumers we can decide enough is enough. Just because we can buy something because it is cheap doesn’t mean we NEED to buy it. If you have five pairs of jeans at home why pick up that $20 pair just because you can afford it? I also think that most people faced with a choice between a $50 pair of jeans that on the label said “Made in the USA” and “Workers paid fair minimum wage” versus a $20 pair of jeans labeled “Product of a sweatshop” would choose to pay more for the jeans. It is often a lack of information and understanding which guides our poor choices (this is especially obvious when it comes to nutritional choices.) So really, I’m not trying to place blame on any one party.

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