Scattered Thoughts on Ethical Consumerism: Doing Something

A friend of mine recently remarked that living in America is an exercise in trying not to oppress people. By virtue of living here, we are all complicit in the oppression of others (and the changing, if not degradation, of environments) by participating in supply chains. Things are easy and cheap here. There are complex structures of industries that provide us with the things and food we consume on a daily basis. As an American, it’s easy to be unaware of the harm participating in these supply chains does to other people. But once you find out, you wonder what you can do. My friend and I discussed this, and ultimately concluded that (for now) it’s unfortunately a matter of picking and choosing those “causes” that are most important to you, because trying to live completely ethically in America is impossible. Integrity costs a lot of money and time.

I thought of this conversation, and conversations I’ve had with other friends and fellow students and professors over the years about the flow of commodities and the people and companies involved in their production and consumption. And what can be done to improve the system, the lived realities, of the people who are oppressed by these enormous systems. It’s overwhelming. By not buying mass-produced textiles, for example, you are at once not supporting an unethical (in this paradigm) industry and taking livelihood from the oppressed workers producing those textiles. There is talk of NGOs combatting poor working conditions and methods of production, but their power is limited. Much as our power as consumers is limited. Although at that micro-level, you can at least do little things.

There is talk of living “off the grid.” Of growing one’s own food. Of producing one’s own clothing. Of “closed-cycle” establishments. People who walk or bike everywhere. I’m beginning to get involved in a local food co-op, and am becoming exposed to many related communities such as the farmer’s markets, folks who barter services with one another, urban farmers and produce swaps, free-trade enthusiasts, and [insert vaguely hippy-dippy notion here]. It’s beautiful, but at the same time, again overwhelming. So many people trying to do good. Trying to be good. Not buying things in plastic packagings, using bicycle blenders, doing what most of us Americans would consider extreme things in order to live their ethics in practice. After attending some talks and meetings, one gets the sense that you can never do enough. That you will never be as good as these bourgeois hippies.

When thinking about all of this, my tendency is toward defeatism. It’s impossible to change it all; it’s too big, and changing my own practices is hard in and of itself, so why bother? But this time, I’m choosing the productive route. I’m choosing to start small. Do something. To not feel as if those people already involved in lessening their oppressive impact on the world through their eating and buying or DIY decisions are judging my practices. Even if they are. Someone will always be doing it “better” than you, especially if you are critical enough to recognize these problematic consumer structures in the first place. You will turn your critical gaze inward and chastise yourself for not doing more. You will think others think the same of you. But they are worried about their own practices and how that contributes to or lessens their integrity. So it’s better to do something and forget about what others may think of what you’re doing. Because we all have to start somewhere in these grand projects of world benefit. Because we’re all concerned with the larger picture, and we’re all trying to change it for the better–and that goal is a common one amongst those of us who realize we as Americans participate in systems of oppressive production and consumption.

The personal is political. We have to start somewhere.

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