So we’re back in that period of the year when we begin to hear angst around the pressure to consume. So here are my somewhat contrarian guidelines first written a couple of years ago. This is an argument for consumption mixed with a measure of thought and intelligence.
Don’t fall into the trap of anti-consumerism. Ask yourself how many people you would like to disemploy this season by failing to engage in the trade and commerce that makes the world go around. Job creation only works if there are willing customers.
Live broader than the confines of the 100 mile diet. Enjoy a cup of coffee or a bowl of raspberries or a banana or an orange and other food which has travelled some distance knowing that producers, processors and transporters have as much right to work and to earn an income as we do. Remember that we live in a global community in which we trade and barter and work in our areas of comparative advantage. It is good to support local producers but do not fall into the trap of neo-protectionism which excludes distant producers from our markets.
Fair trade is a good thing but it too only works if people consume. “Middle men” do play a useful purpose in the value chain which connects producers to markets. Fair trade works to ensure that those portions of the value chain which have the least economic power are also treated fairly. So buying fair trade coffee or cocoa or clothing is useful. Do insist on comparable quality however…. and do insist that large sourcers from developing countries employ fair labour practises wherever they are.
Buy something local but also buy something from China or India or some other developing economy. Recently I read an article by a family that has been “China-free” for a year. This is repugnant. As already noted, we need to start acting as though we live in a global community, and we need to celebrate the increasing prosperity being experienced in Mexico, China & India thanks to the globalization.
Buy something extravagant like an original work of art or a handmade carpet. Often the producers of these are hardworking and receive a relatively low net hourly wage, nevertheless, they are people of unusual skill, creativity and insight. Our world needs these influences and contributions if we want to be more than mere material consumers of daily needs.
Happily pay higher prices for organic food. Organic foods are healthier for you but are more expensive to grow, and those who produce them require a fair return on their efforts to stay in business. Increasing demand will incentify the drive to find greater efficiencies in organic food production. At the same time, recognize that organic foods are a luxury that mostly only the rich world can afford – much of the world lives on what they can get.
Pay above the market for something. A few weeks ago I had my shoes shined by a shoe shine wallah in India. The going rate is 5 rupees (about 12 cents); he asked for 10 rupees. I gave him 50 rupees and walked away. It cost me a dollar to surprise him, to usefully interfere in the local market and to shorten the number of hours he had to work to feed himself and his family. There are other ways to “over pay”. An unusually large tip (say 20%) for good service would be a nice surprise. Deciding to purchase from a small trying-to-survive independent retailer as opposed to a lower priced big box store might be a good thing.
Buy some new piece of technology. Digital film cameras are less expensive to operate and are easier on the environment than conventional film cameras. Cell phones have democratized information for millions of poor people in developing economies, eg. India or China. Ipods use a fraction of the energy of previous music machines. Buying technology rewards the innovators and inventers of this world. We need them.
Pay more for quality. Cheapest is not always the best value. Higher quality items frequently last longer and often have a lower cost per use. They take longer to hit the landfill sites. Buying quality encourages good engineering and careful craftsmanship.
When buying, look for items which contain a maximum of recyclable materials. Pay more for containers or packaging which can be reused or recycled. In general, leave plastic bags and other unnecessary packaging material at the store. Bring your own reusable bags to the store.
Boycott boycotts. The economic boycott of Cuba hasn’t worked. Proposed boycotts of Myanmar (Burma) and Iran are not only politically ineffective, they mostly only punish the poor. In a boycotted economy, the rich and powerful are inconvenienced perhaps but they will continue to eat. It is people at the bottom end of the ladder that will pay the price. If you have to boycott something, let it be the trade in small arms.
Finally, a note of caution. Consume only what you can afford. Avoid the credit card trap.