Wednesday, March 1, 2006
In an ever-expanding society, it is easy to feel powerless toward the social ills looming across the globe. Despite wide-spread voter apathy and legions of lock-step bureaucrats pandering to lobbyists, voting is still heralded as the key to influencing societal affairs. While voting out some of these seedy individuals is a high priority, not much is made of the force exerted with the exchange of every dollar. In a culture defined by the free-market ideal, consumers exercise more power than citizens. After all, corporations can't lobby without the money we provide them.
In a free market, the consumer directs the marketplace. Government subsidies aside, large corporate chains can afford to open store after store because people continue to shop with them. Genetically modified foods continue to proliferate because people continue to buy them. Coffee growers in South America will continue to be oppressed as long as consumers do not look for fair-trade labels on their coffee cans.
When the direction of our market (community, world) rests on our buying choices, it is imperative to base our decisions on an educated understanding of what our money implicitly supports. A shirt can be bought anywhere, but which one was made with labor that was paid a fair wage? Which infant formula contains genetically modified soy? Which business owner contributes positively to the community?
Becoming aware of what is important to you is a vital step in becoming an empowered consumer. Individuals have their own criteria for what justifies a purchase. For some, it is important to know what state the owner resides in, where and how the products were produced; for others, only a low price matters. The fact is, thanks to local markets and the Internet, you can purchase from diverse businesses in diverse markets operating under various business philosophies. You can support "always a low price," or you can support owners who pay a fair wage. You can support businesses that promote community, or you can even restrict your purchases to companies who support your political candidates. The path a product travels to reach your hands is reinforced by your purchase. You must shop consciously, or you become an unconscious ally of corporate injustice.
Through purposeful purchasing, one can support communities ripe with local character and cultural exchange. Spending money on products manufactured or grown in your area ensures that local producers are able to continue to develop the unique craft and style that is particular to your individual community. Spending money with locally owned businesses ensures smaller, more focused niche shops that encourage appreciation for local character rather than large generic retailers that service nameless suburbs. Find a local shopkeep hawking the wares of your neighbors, and you've ensured that the money you're spending is circulating in your community. Investing in your neighbors is as good as investing in yourself.
Ethical, political and spiritual considerations may enter into the purchase of a product. Does this country have a positive human rights record, does this corporation continue to be entangled in pollution litigation, does the function of this product reflect my desire to uplift the human spirit?
Corporations and businesses are not as private as one might think. Often, you can seek answers from store managers or representatives over the phone. From whom they advertise with to what organizations they support to the type of oil they use in their fryer, most establishments have no reason to withhold information on their practices. There are countless resources that document organizations' records on race, gender and the environment. The Internet is overflowing with watchdog groups monitoring every aspect of everything you might care about. Purchasing responsibly empowers the community to demand more information from producers, which makes transparency a market asset. Businesses rewarded by consumers for supplying such information encourage other businesses to get in on the trend.
It can be a trying experience to restructure your buying habits. For families living paycheck to paycheck, it can be difficult to afford products that reflect the actual cost of ethical production. Still, we must accept that living within our means includes not purchasing products subsidized by the mistreatment of our environment or our fellow human beings.
Business has been ahead of the game for so long that even finding an ethical product can be difficult. Many areas are dominated by particular distributors that limit selection, but taking the time to run to three different shops rather than one big Mega-Mart is time well spent.
Becoming a responsible consumer is a journey. Our buying habits are difficult to break, but must be broke for a vibrant, creative future to flourish. The bottom line is that the manufacture and exchange of goods is the foundation of human society.
When consumers purchase products whose manufacture uplifted community and environment at every step of the way, we are creating a better reality. With each educated purchase, change is effected. How many hundreds of thousands of dollars are exchanged every day in Jackson only to be deposited in accounts far from our homes? What would happen if this money began to circulate in Jackson?
Now take it one step further and walk to the store.
I wish to GOD I could buy only fair-market products, but when you're on a fixed income, sometimes you're practically forced into the Mega-Marts to survive. Even then, the healthy food still costs more than the junk food. I don't receive commodities, but the poor souls who do get handed a block of cheese, a can of beef swimming in fat, and stuff made from white flour, white sugar, etc. I've been to Rainbow several times, and I love it there, and I have sacrificed some gas money to buy a few things because I support the cause. Perhaps one day I'll be able to afford buying from local businesses a lot more, but I'll do what I can in the meantime.
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